Deaf artists praise film Sound of Metal, but say better representation still needed
Darius Marder's feature-length debut casts Riz Ahmed as a metal drummer who rapidly loses his hearing
While Darius Marder's feature-length film debut Sound of Metal has received acclaim for audiences, critics and even members of the world's deaf communities, three deaf artists who spoke with Day 6 say it's an example of what more can still be done to ensure better representation both in front of and behind the camera.
The film stars British actor Riz Ahmed as metal drummer Ruben Stone, as he rapidly begins to lose his hearing following endless nights of loud, often bombastic performances.
And though Ahmed committed to the role by spending months learning both drumming and American Sign Language, the fact that Sound of Metal featured a hearing actor in a predominately deaf role is one of the reasons why Adam Pottle had "mixed feelings" about the film.
"It's just really discouraging," said Pottle, a novelist, playwright, screenwriter and adjunct professor at the University of Regina who was born deaf.
"There are so many spectacular deaf and hard-of-hearing actors and directors and writers who have been toiling away for decades, and unfortunately, hearing people are … the ones society commonly designates to tell deaf stories."
The goodwill created through the film's themes and ideas, Pottle suggested, is undone through some of its casting and production hires — including the film's director and writers, who are all hearing.
"Why did they feel compelled to tell this story, why did they feel that they were the best people to tell this story?" he said.
Catherine Joell MacKinnon — a born-deaf actor, filmmaker and producer — enjoyed the film and Ahmed's performance, but acknowledged controversy within the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities when it comes to casting decisions like the one made in Sound of Metal.
"For [Ahmed], I think he did his research so well.... He talked to actual people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing performers, real people with experience and he worked with an ASL coach too," MacKinnon, who also co-founded the Toronto International Deaf Film and Arts Festival, told Day 6 through an ASL interpreter.
"So he learned ASL for the role, specifically, which is not easy to do."
Still, MacKinnon said she would have loved to spend more screen time with characters who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, since they were largely played by a cast that understands deafness.
"I'd [have] liked to see more of them, the connection with [Riz Ahmed's] character and their characters," she said.
MacKinnon was impressed to see Sound of Metal was released with open captions — where captions are displayed on screen, regardless of the viewer's closed captions settings.
She also noted that the film's distributor Amazon Studios hired a deaf consultant to work with a hearing consultant on the film's marketing and outreach.
Deafness is not silence: musician
For her part, Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie said she believes the film remains important because it doesn't "pigeonhole a situation."
Glennie lost her hearing at the age of 12, and will be involved with the production of the film's soundtrack in 2021.
"It's very easy for deafness to be represented as silence, and it's very easy to forget about what that journey is or perhaps box that journey into what you imagine it to be," she said.
She added that Sound of Metal doesn't try to tell a story that every deaf person, or every person who is losing their hearing, will instantly relate to.
"I think it will really ignite a lot of emotion from a lot of people, not just hearing-impaired people, but those people around them as well. And for people to get a better understanding as regards to what hearing is, what listening is, the difference between being deaf and the different types of deafness, and … how this whole journey can affect so many aspects of your life," she said.
Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.