More than a decade ago, award-winning filmmaker Matt Ogens was directing a commercial campaign about high school football teams across the United States when he discovered a school that stood out from the rest: the Maryland School for the Deaf.
Having grown up a half hour away in Washington D.C. and with a best friend who is also deaf, Ogens — whose other credits include the Emmy-winning “From Harlem With Love” installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30 and the Emmy-nominated docuseries Why We Fight — always knew “there was a bigger story to tell” about the school. But the timing never felt quite right until he found himself working with Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg’s unscripted production company, FILM 45, in 2019. With Berg and deaf model, actor and activist Nyle DiMarco serving as executive producers, Ogens set out to direct a powerful 36-minute documentary short that he calls “the most important thing I’ve ever done to date.”
Audible, which was filmed last year before the COVID-19 pandemic and premiered last month at the Hot Docs Film Festival, follows high school football player Amaree McKenstry and his close friends as they face the pressures of senior year and grapple with the realities of venturing off into the hearing world. In the trailer that Netflix debuts exclusively with Observer, McKenstry and his teammates are forced to overcome a devastating loss that ends a 42-match winning streak, while also coming to terms with the tragic loss of a close friend named Teddy Webster.
“Rather than just doing a general film about being deaf where I interview experts, I wanted to tell what I call an immersive, audiovisual experience, so it felt like it was told through the point of view of a character,” Ogens tells Observer in an exclusive video interview. “This film is about Amaree and his relationships, but I hope, in some ways, he’s an avatar for at least some aspects of the deaf experience for everyone.”
While there are a wealth of stories to be told at the school, Ogens says he gravitated towards McKenstry after discovering that he had lost his hearing at the age of two or three and was the only deaf person in his family. As a result, Ogens has chosen to not only chronicle McKenstry’s success on the football field but also his complicated and evolving relationships with his hearing parents and his cheerleading friends, Jalen Whitehurst and Lera Walkup.
“It was important that we implement a deaf lens, as a way for audiences to see the story from a more genuine point of view.”
“When I look at these kids and I see what they can do, they’re pretty great. The football team kicks ass against deaf and hearing schools,” Ogens says. “The coach, Ryan — who was actually the player in my commercial [over a decade ago], how’s that for full circle? — said to me that he believes that they almost have a sixth sense. By not hearing, it almost accentuates the other ones. They’re super focused on that ball when it snaps, so things like eyesight. I don’t know if this is scientifically proven or not, but they almost feel like they have a superpower.”
Given the number of years that it took him to get this project off the ground, Ogens really wanted to make a documentary not only for the hearing community, but also for the deaf community. During pre-production, he immersed himself in research and took American Sign Language classes with one of his producing partners, with the goal of simply “learning the basics.”
“It’s not like I could get fluent in six weeks, but learning some of the basics at least shows some respect, and then I can pick up on little things,” he says. “It’s a very beautiful and nuanced language because it’s not just the hands — it’s also body language and facial expressions. It’s a very physical language and very tough to learn, but I learned as much as I could.”
After meeting with Netflix executives, Ogens felt that it would add additional value to the film to find a prominent figure in the deaf community who would be able to offer meaningful insights into the way that he frames and presents the different aspects of the deaf experience. He ultimately met with DiMarco, who shares a personal — and current — connection with the school.
“My brother, Neal, is a varsity football coach for Maryland School for the deaf and mentioned that a documentary was being filmed about one of their student-athletes,” DiMarco says. “Naturally, I wanted to be involved in any capacity. I had gone to the school and knew it like the back of my hand. It serves as a safe space for the deaf from the society at large that often misunderstands us, oppresses us, discriminates us and so on. I related to the students because when graduating from Maryland School of the Deaf, I felt all sorts of emotions and one of them was: ‘Is the hearing world ready to embrace the likes of us?’”
“I had a firsthand understanding of acute deaf experiences that were continuously overlooked on television while growing up; I wanted to illuminate [the] harmful lack-of-depth deaf stories that have made it to television,” adds the former winner of America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars. “They were catered to hearing audiences and always missed the mark; there was no authenticity to them. So it was important that we implement a deaf lens, as a way for audiences to see the story from a more genuine point of view.”
Ogens and DiMarco both note that with Netflix — whose slate includes the television series Deaf U — significant attention was paid to granular details like the timing of subtitles, which “can transform a project,” DiMarco says. “We discussed how to capture the true essence of deaf conversations being translated to English in subtitles — this is no easy feat as both languages are very different — and how to flesh out specific paramount moments that were overlooked by hearing producers and interpreters due to cultural differences.”
For Ogens, who has spent his career looking to tell underrepresented stories, the experience of making this documentary has not only changed his outlook, but it has also given him a newfound appreciation for a diverse community who very rarely complains “about their lot in life.”
“To me, this is a coming-of-age story that happens to be at a deaf school,” Ogens says. “There’s Amaree with his father, there’s Teddy, relationships, football — so there are obstacles, like there are in any film — and it certainly makes the story more complex and nuanced and adds a perceived challenge. But the school didn’t want to be like, ‘Feel bad for us. Look at what we overcame.’ It’s kind of just following Amaree’s story in a pivotal moment of his life.”
He continues: “Really early on, Mr. Tucker, who just retired and was the principal and superintendent of the school and held the keys to letting us in, said, ‘You know, I can’t speak for everyone, but in general, we, here at the Maryland School of the Deaf, don’t like the word disabled. We don’t consider ourselves disabled. We consider being deaf a culture and a community. We have our own language. It’s an official language.’ I asked many of the kids, ‘If you could get your hearing back, would you take it?’ They said, without skipping a beat, ‘Nope. I love who I am. I love being deaf. I love this culture.’”
While he might not categorize Audible as an educational film, Ogens hopes that people from all walks of life will be able to “empathize and learn” about the deaf experience from this one human story — and he could very well choose to expand this cinematic world beyond just McKenstry or the Maryland School for the deaf in the near future.
“A lot of people don’t know much about the deaf community. They think that their intelligence level is lower, that they can’t do the same things that hearing people can do,” he says. “So, first and foremost, I want them to learn that they’re the same. There’s no they; we are the same. They can’t hear, but that doesn’t make me better than them. They can’t hear, and guess what? There’s some things these kids [in the film] can do that I can’t do.”
DiMarco, on the other hand, hopes that “this documentary demystifies the stereotype that there is a constant struggle to our existence as deaf and/or disabled people. The ups and downs of senior year, playing sports, etc., is very universal and something most people, no matter their background, can relate to. I hope the major takeaway will be the importance of preserving sign language and that viewers walk away learning a little bit more about the deaf community and deaf schools.”
Audible will be available to stream on Netflix starting July 1.