Entertainment

Oscar-hopeful CODA a lesson in inclusive filmmaking, in front of the camera and behind the scenes

Oscar nominations for CODA and Audible are a rare but encouraging sign that the industry is recognizing actors and stories from the deaf community. Canadians working in the film industry say inclusivity also means hiring behind-the-scenes collaborators who are deaf.

Feature film about a child of deaf parents is a front-runner in the best picture race

Emilia Jones stars in CODA as Ruby, the only hearing person in a tight-knit family of four, as she joins her school choir and sets her sights on a prestigious music college. Jones is joined by veteran actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant, who play her family members. (Apple TV+)

For the first time in history, a film with a predominantly deaf cast is up for best picture at the Oscars. 

CODA (Child Of Deaf Adults) follows teenage singer Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing person in a tight-knit family of four, as she joins her school choir and sets her sights on a prestigious music college. Jones is joined by veteran actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant, playing her family members.

Matlin told the Associated Press she thinks it will lead to more actors who are deaf being cast in films.

"A lot of people just aren't in the know. They don't know that we can work just as easily as anyone else," she said through an interpreter.

"I know — I don't hope — that CODA will change the landscape."

Matlin, who plays Ruby's mom Jackie, was the first actor who is deaf to win an Oscar when she took home best actress for Children of a Lesser God in 1987. In the 35 years since that film, her co-star Kotsur (playing Ruby's dad, Frank) is only the second actor who is deaf to receive a nomination.

From left, Jones, Kotsur, Matlin and Durant in CODA. Matlin was the first actor who is deaf to win an Oscar when she took home best actress in 1987. Her co-star Kotsur is up for best supporting actor, only the second time a performer who is deaf has received a nomination. (Apple TV+)

But CODA isn't the only movie nominated for an Oscar this year featuring people who are deaf. Competing for best documentary short subject, Netflix film Audible tells the story of a star football player at a Maryland high school for deaf students.

The nominations are a rare but encouraging sign that the industry is recognizing actors and stories from the deaf community. Canadians working in the film industry say there are various approaches to making productions inclusive to deaf talent — and that includes hiring behind-the-scenes collaborators who are deaf in an overwhelmingly hearing industry.

A family story

Much of CODA's charm is in the comedic chemistry between its lead quartet.

During an early dinner table scene, Ruby's mother admonishes her for listening to music as they're sitting down to eat. Why can't she listen to music, Ruby asks, if her brother is allowed to scroll a dating app mid-meal? Because "Tinder is something we can do as a whole family," her mother responds.

CODA celebrates the joys of being deaf, and showcases deaf culture and humour, said Joanne Weber, a Canada research chair for deaf education at the University of Alberta and the artistic director of Deaf Crows Collective, an all-deaf acting troupe based in Regina.

"When we get together, that's when we can make fun or jokes about that experience," Weber said through an interpreter.

"So CODA brought that out, I thought … They showed that part of our natural discourse when we're with each other."

WATCH | The trailer for CODA, a front-runner in the best picture race:

In hearing-produced films, people who are deaf are often portrayed as sad or unknowing, said Jennifer Roberts, a Montreal-based actor who is deaf-parented. While watching CODA, she said she appreciated Kotsur's comedic performance, calling him a master of American Sign Language (ASL).

"[CODA] highlighted the normalcy of daily life, of the love that is felt in families, and how quick, funny, and capable deaf people are," Roberts wrote in an email to CBC News.

"In essence, they are normal. And if everyone knew ASL, they would understand that."

In the film, as her family's sole interpreter, Ruby feels pressure to stay in their small town and help run their fishing business. 

Roberts said her hometown had a significant deaf community, and her parents strongly believed that hearing people should learn to communicate with people who are deaf without using their children as interpreters.

"I was happy to support it, [I] hope to see more stories like it, but [I] wasn't looking to see my own experience represented perfectly in a movie," Roberts wrote.

Creating an inclusive and accessible film set

Audible, which is streaming on Netflix, follows Amaree McKenstry-Hall as he gears up for a high-stakes season championship game. While crushing on a girl at school and grieving a friend's suicide, he prepares to navigate the hearing world.

Netflix film Audible tells the story of Amaree McKenstry-Hall, a star football player at a Maryland high school for deaf students. The film will compete for best documentary (short subject) on Sunday night. (Netflix)

During filming at Maryland High School for the Deaf, students in the school's media program took part in a shadowing initiative, where they learned the ropes from various crew members, said Geoff McLean, the Toronto-born producer of the film.

"They were sort of figuring out what they wanted to do in film and got to learn a lot just by following different departments or following [director] Matt [Ogens] or me," McLean said.

WATCH | The trailer for Audible, a contender for best documentary (short subject): 

In a 2020 research report on deaf and disability arts practices in Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts found that artists who are deaf and or have disabilities face major barriers in accessibility, funding, communications and cultural representation. One of the recommendations was that the cost of hiring ASL interpreters should be funded separately instead of coming out of the funding allotted for creation.

In a statement to CBC News, the Canada Council for the Arts said that in 2021-22, they dedicated over $4.6 million in funding to deaf and disability arts projects in Canada. For perspective, the council allocates $58.1 million in funding per year to music and sound projects, and $54.5 million to theatre, according to their website.

With Deaf Crows Collective, Weber and her collaborators made a short film, Fable Deaf, which was shot last summer in Regina. While the crew were a mix of hearing people and people who are deaf, she and other producers ensured that everyone on set used sign language at all times.

"Talking in front of deaf people without signing, like, no, that's rude ... It's a power imbalance that shows disrespect," she said.

The deaf arts community in Canada is trying to build a presence on the technical side of filmmaking, for people who wish to become editors, cinematographers and designers, said Weber.

One of the reasons why CODA was so successful, Roberts believes, is because its director Sian Heder worked with collaborators and consultants who are deaf. Heder told Variety Magazine this month that she went over her script line by line with two ASL experts. Her lead actors also improvised, contributing ideas while filming.

"ASL directors, ASL coaches, consultants, and crew members who are deaf will make all the difference in the accuracy of the story and the quality of the film," Roberts wrote.

According to Roberts, the industry has an untapped well of producers, directors and technicians who are deaf. Incorporating different perspectives in behind-the-scenes roles can lead to rich and rewarding creative results.

"Deaf people innately are extremely visual and see the world through a different lens," she said.

"I've seen incredible artistic choices from deaf technicians that I believe could greatly benefit the hearing industry."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jenna Benchetrit is a web journalist for CBC News. Based in Toronto and born in Montreal, she holds a master's degree in journalism from Ryerson University. Reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

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