The engaging and poignant documentary short, "Audible," directed by Matthew Ogens, and executive produced by Nyle DiMarco, chronicles the experiences of Amaree McKenstry, a senior and star player on the Maryland School for the Deaf's football team. Amaree is facing multiple pressures. He is angry about losing the team's first game in several years and saddened by the suicide of Teddy, a former classmate. He has been reconnecting with his father — who walked out on him as a child — while also bracing himself to meet the challenges of life after graduation.
"Audible" also features interviews with Amaree's family members, his head coach, Ryan Bonyeho, as well as classmates, such as Jalen, a cheerleader. The film shows how Amaree and others experience deafness — as well as discrimination. His story of finding strength is, thankfully, never condescending or patronizing.
Ogens' film features very little spoken dialogue, but the images of youths dancing, or playing football, eating in the cafeteria, or going out for an ice cream, captures the joy and everyday lives of these teens. "Audible" shows how these students have created a strong support system as they face adversity head on. (One student reports that the hearing world teams do not want to play against the Maryland School for the Deaf because they fear being beaten).
In a recent Zoom interview, Ogens and DiMarco (with the help of an interpreter) talked about their documentary, which screened last week at AFI DOCS and is now available on Netflix.
Why did you decide to make a film about Amaree in particular and the Maryland School for the Deaf football program in general?
Matthew Ogens: I'm from Maryland, and Nyle went to the Maryland School for the Deaf. His brother Neal is one of the football coaches in the film. We had this connection, but also, my best friend since I was a kid is deaf and went to the school. I directed a commercial campaign about high school football teams around America, and the Maryland School for the Deaf was one of them. It brought me back to where I grew up and to a subject matter that I was close to through my best friend. I stayed in touch with the school for 10 years trying to get this made. I am glad it took that long because I stumbled on Amaree's story. His relationship with his father, his friend Jalen, and Teddy — who is a cautionary tale when people are not tolerant and empathetic. Showing an underrepresented group and culture was important to me.
There are multiple narrative threads with Amaree's life. Why was this story best suited for a short documentary, rather than a feature?
Ogens: It's a film. I don't really separate feature from short. When we got to talking and collaborating, you could tell [Amaree's story] in a variety of ways — as a feature doc, or a doc series — but when we honed in on Amaree, we thought why not try a focused story through the point of view of one character. So, while we meet Amaree's parents, and his friends, and the team, and the school, it is through Amaree's lens. It opens the door. It's a personal, intimate story. The story doesn't have to end here. We're talking about expanding it further.
Nyle, can you discuss how you got involved in this project?
Nyle DiMarco: It was an incredible honor. I am grateful for Matt bringing me in to be an executive producer and consultant on this project. I joined after filming had wrapped. As a graduate, I was able to bring a strong, personal background, but also the LGBTQ lens. What is most important about this story is showing that while we do have representation in front of the camera, it's so critical to have that representation behind the camera as well. So much of Matt's work was incredible, so bringing me in for some of the final touches and tweaks and cultural sensitivities — insuring that the ASL is clean on screen, and that the captions really fit and represent us in the smartest and most effective way possible, down to interpreting how those play out in English versus American Sign Language — really allowed us to capture the essence. Insuring that what audiences at home were seeing was not a stylized version of what these characters were bringing to the screen, but instead their authentic experiences.
It provided a new level and a new way to take a deep dive into this community. Of course, we want to show there are so many stories out there within our culture and within our community. But as Matt said, focusing on Amaree, and his family and friends and sports mates at school was such an incredible lens into the experience of what it is like to grow up within the deaf community and what he is going to be facing when he enters the hearing world — those anxieties — and what does that look like? People, specifically hearing people, ask me about my own growing up and I think "Audible" answers a lot of those questions.
Ogens: I just want to add, Nyle came to this organically. He was one of these kids specifically at this school. That brought a lot to the tables. You gotta get the subtitles and captions right, and he fixed things and made things smoother. The captions are one way the kids in this film are expressing themselves. It's got to be authentic and express who they are.
You deliberately use sound and silence in the film, feature minimal spoken dialogue, and create vibrations to give viewers the hearing experience that the deaf teens have. What decisions did you make in your sound design?
DiMarco: In watching it, my first question was if there were any voiceovers. I was curious what the sound design was looking like. Throughout history, we have typically seen any signers on screen being paired with a voiceover, in repetition of what they are trying to express. What makes this experience so different and so groundbreaking is by not including that, and allowing people watching this film fall into this world and into this culture and really experience what it is like to see deaf people communicate. I think Matt got it right with the decision. It was the perfect angle to play in the sound design.
Ogens: For me, it made me more present and aware of sounds, like in the cafeteria, hearing forks and plates, or on the football field, during a practice, hearing the insects at night. It made me more present and more focused on the kids I was filming. But the superintendent, who just retired, said, "Hey, we're not silent, we're noisy!" So, showing that range of sounds that they hear or feel or express themselves with is not totally silent. Using that sound design and music as a character. The hearing audience will never know what it's like to be deaf, but maybe feel something. But also getting it right for the deaf audience is more important.
I like that you focused on related topics from the controversial cochlear implant to the discrimination the deaf community faces from the hearing world. Can you discuss your agenda in raising these issues?
Ogens: I tried not to politicize it, and just let the kids talk about it through their lens. If Amaree didn't get political or controversial about it, I didn't get that deep. But I also did not want to go too far off the narrative arc. I think Nyle can speak to this from experience, if you're comfortable.
DiMarco: As you mentioned, cochlear implants can be quite a controversial topic to this day, and it is a source of contention for many in our community. Amaree was very vulnerable in opening up about his cochlear and also in mentioning that it was for one purpose — music. And that for everything else, he didn't need to hear, or need to speak, or use a piece of technology that he can use as a tool for everything in his life, which I think, is emblematic of other people in our community and their choices, based on their own experiences. It just goes to show that there is no one right way to be deaf. One thing that that I love about Amaree, is that he throws out the misconception of deaf people that we're all monochromatic or live a specific existence.
The film also shows the discrimination towards and impact of bullying on the deaf and queer kids.
DiMarco: We see this in mainstream schools, and in public schools, all throughout the U.S. Through Amaree's explanation, and of course, Jalen's input as well, speaking about Teddy's experience, it was an incredibly tragic incident in their lives that they are dealing with and they are still figuring out how to express themselves on the topic, and how to heal in ways that they can. It raises awareness of what deaf kids and deaf students go through in public schools every day. I myself, did a year and I couldn't quit fast enough and go back to a deaf school. I was labelled a deaf boy, I wasn't Nyle with the breadth and depths of experience and personality that I have, I was just the deaf boy. As compared to what we experience in deaf schools, where we are allowed to be whole people, like Amaree and Jalen. They can be themselves, be who they are, and communicate in a language that is comfortable for them and play sports and have fun and do all the things that they could do at any high school.
I appreciate that "Audible' is not a patronizing, inspirational story of uplift. These teens have dignity and are seen making their own decisions. Can you talk about that approach to the subjects?
Ogens: I wanted to capture nuance and make the characters three dimensional. What is specific to their life. Maybe it would be different if I followed a different kid. This was just following Amaree's story and springboarding into the other relationships he has. Subconsciously, when I was casting this, I asked the kids everything and spent time with them, and probably, without realizing it, I wanted to include details. This is who they are. It wasn't hard to give them dignity.
DiMarco: It helps that the cast is incredible vulnerable and open to sharing their story. They had Maryland School of the Deaf's approval, and, of course, they knew it was important for them to tell their story and frame things around them from an authentic point of view. Instead of Amaree having to figure out specific storylines, he just spoke his truth, and in the end, we figured out that was the best way to do it.
Nyle, what advocacy can be done to change minds and improve things for the deaf and/or queer community?
DiMarco: Truly, the advocacy that we are able to really tackle comes down to sign language awareness. Putting more sign language classes out there in all schools and making them accessible for mainstream and in deaf programs. For deaf kids interested in going to public schools, making their campus and their peers more accessible to them, so they are arriving at a place where people know sign language and can communicate with them and have some understanding and experience with deaf culture. It provides a sense of belonging, so deaf kids don't feel like complete foreigners.
In regard to the queer community, I think inclusion and representation of deaf people who are on our spectrum, and have pride, and belong to this incredibly beautifully intersectional community are so important. Disability representation is often left out of pride and left out of that LGBTQ+ rainbow, and it is so key for us to amplify to amplify both deaf, disabled and queer voices. It certainly feels like if you consider the most marginalized person, the most forgotten person in the room, you are working from the ground up. You obviously want to make things accessible to everybody, but if you take away intersectionality, you limit so much in what you are able to provide in accessibility.
What observations do you have about Amaree and his classmates and teammates? They are seen as being very close-knit, and yet, may be unprepared for life after high school. The film raises some real questions about the future for these students, and I want to know what happens to them next.
Ogens: I think the school prepares them well. Coach Ryan helps prepare them for life, through football in his case. They are playing hearing schools and dealing with discrimination on the field, and he deals with discrimination as a coach. It is how you deal with it — how are you going to respond to that? Certainly, there is a major challenge, integrating to the hearing world, but I think that they are prepared for that. I have a best friend who did it, and Nyle did it. Different, harder, sure, but the kids are doing great. They are in college.
DiMarco: I came from the same experience, and while we may all share deafness, many of us have a different journey. So many of these kids have hearing parents, 75% of which chose not to sign with them. I come from a completely deaf family. I had neighbors growing up who are hearing, and I was able to interact with them, and in middle and high school, I had internship opportunities where I was able to work in hearing world. We are very much hoping to see this expanded as much as we would, to see more and find out what these kids are doing after high school and where they are.
"Audible" is now streaming on Netflix.