Netflix’s coming-of-age documentary “Audible,” which world premiered this week at Hot Docs Film Festival, follows Maryland School for the Deaf high school athlete Amaree McKenstry and his close friends during their senior year. Director Matt Ogens speaks to Variety about the film, whose exec producers include actor Peter Berg, the Emmy nominated creator of “Friday Night Lights,” and deaf actor and model Nyle DiMarco, winner of “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing With the Stars,” and a deaf community activist.
Ogens, whose credits include Emmy winner “From Harlem With Love” and Emmy nominated “Why We Fight,” grew up about 30 miles from Maryland School for the Deaf, and his best friend since the age of eight is deaf, so he knew of the deaf community through his friend and knew of the school.
In addition to documentaries, Ogens directs branded content and commercials, and about 10 years ago directed a campaign about high school football teams around the country, and the Maryland School for the Deaf was one of them. He stayed in touch with the school because he “felt like there was a bigger story to tell,” and shot the doc last year, which was “the perfect year, because of the characters we landed with and the dynamic in the film,” he says.
Ogens decided to focus on the school’s football team and McKenstry, one of its star players, in particular. “I was trying to capture the teenagers’ point of view, rather than doing something observational from my point of view. I wanted to create an immersive audio-visual experience of what it sounds and looks like to be a teenager, and all those high school touchstones – your senior year, the homecoming dance, and sports. And so that semester of high school and that football season gives it a nice narrative arc to ground yourself in, but also, at least in this case, and I think in many cases in sports documentaries, sports can be a great metaphor for life, and more so with these kids – resilience and proving yourself, and the ups and downs of life off the field mirrored the season in a way as well.”
As one would do for a narrative film, Ogens was looking to “cast” his lead “character,” and McKenstry stood out. “It’s tough because every kid at that school has a great story. It’s about Amaree and his relationships, but also, in some ways, I hope he’s an avatar for the other kids there and represents them in some way. He had some conflicts. I thought it was interesting that he was not born deaf. He had meningitis around two to three years old. At the same age, his father left the family.”
In the film, we see his father attempting to rebuild their relationship. Other elements in Amaree’s story include the death of a close friend, Teddy, and his relationships with cheerleaders Jalen Whitehurst and Lera Walkup.
“You’re seeing the team, but through the eyes of Amaree, and even the other characters like Coach Ryan or Lera, his on again, off again, girlfriend and cheerleader, or Jalen, his friend and cheerleader. This made it singularly focused, which is nice and tight,” Ogens says. “I also think this could be a springboard for something larger.”
Berg boarded the project when it was in development, when Ogens was working with Berg’s documentary company, Film 45, on other projects. “This obviously had a perfect fit, Pete having directed ‘Friday Night Lights’ the film, and created the series. It just made sense for his brand and ethos, and him and his team came on board and they produced the film. It wasn’t just Pete as a name, executive producer, it was run out of Film 45. Great partners. They understood the project and were super supportive.”
Speaking about DiMarco, Ogens says he wanted to have “someone from the deaf community, again, not just a name, but in a meaningful way.” He adds: “Nyle is very well known in the deaf community as an advocate. He won ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ But more than that, he went to Maryland School for the Deaf, and his brother, Neal, is in the film. He’s one of the assistant football coaches. So there’s this organic connection, because Nyle was one of these kids, his brother is in the film. And it just so happens, he’s got this big following in the deaf community, is very well respected. But he really helped in a significant way, making sure that we were making a film not just for the hearing community, but for the deaf community. I always wanted to do that.”
He says Netflix, whose slate includes “Crip Camp” and “Deaf U,” is “amazing sensitive to accessibility,” paying close attention to things like the timing of subtitle. “It comes up differently than maybe other languages. The grammar and sentence structure is different in American Sign Language […] Little things that are respectful and honor the deaf culture and community.”
Another piece of guidance the director received from the deaf community was regarding the use of the word “silent” to describe the school. “We used the word in a treatment, and Mr. Tucker, who is the superintendent of the school, who is really the god there that let us in, that’s stuck with me for 10 years now, and believed in me. He is like, it’s not silent. Well, first of all, in a literal sense. Deafness, hard of hearing, it runs a spectrum, right? It’s not all just 100% deaf. People have cochlear implants, hearing aids. There’s different levels.
“But, secondly, Mr. Tucker said, we’re really noisy. If you listen to the film and feel the film I think you’ll sense that even doing sign language, it’s a much more physical language than many other languages. Your body language, you hear it. Sometimes you’d hear Amaree really want to promote something, and you’ll hear a little grunt. And so there’s a lot of physicality to it, and sounds, cheering, you know, you hear them getting hyped up before a football game, you hear them in the cafeteria. It’s not a silent world, and so that was helpful.
“The other thing – and I’m not speaking for every deaf person, I’m just saying what I was told by multiple people – is that they don’t consider themselves disabled. Being deaf is… it’s a community, it’s a culture, American Sign Language is a language. It’s an official language. A pretty beautiful language. Many of the kids including Amaree, who again was not born deaf, said he would not have it any other way. He wouldn’t want to have his hearing back if he could.”
This is no sense of a patronizing “triumph over adversity” arc to the film. “I didn’t want it to be, just to be blunt: ‘They’re really good at football for a deaf team.’ You know what I mean? Sure it’s about acceptance, and in some ways, proving yourself, but look at how great they are. Maybe it’s because of being deaf, maybe it’s not an adversity […] These kids go on to college and do great things.”
He adds: “Yeah, it’s a little harder, communication is harder, but they don’t complain about their lot in life, like the rest of us do about much smaller things. I learned a lot from them.”
As well as being deaf, Amaree has other issues to deal with. “He’s the only deaf person in his family. They don’t know sign language as well [as he does]. They’re dealing with socio-economic issues. His relationship with his father, his relationship with Teddy… That’s just one thing that they’re dealing with.”
Looking forward, Ogens has his hands full with several irons in the fire. He has just got back from Nigeria, where he was working on a new documentary project, at present under wraps. He is working with Peacock on a scripted series set in West Virginia, his first narrative series, and is in the writing phase of a feature on 9/11, but with “a different angle, that we haven’t heard of before.” As well, he is developing and pitching a lot of docs and doc series, and has a doc about to go into production about the only kids Mixed Martial Arts league – “a little controversial,” he concedes.