Sign of the times

Oscar-nominated film documents a Sound debate

Like most things outside my immdiate sphere, I learn what I know about the world of the deaf from the movies. In that regard Sound and Fury is the most educational film since Children of a Lesser God.
Nominated last week for an Oscar, Sound and Fury, a documentary by Josh Aronson, not only places us in a world of deaf culture but introduces us to people who are fiercely protective of it. The catalyst for the drama — and no rule says a documentary can’t be dramatic — is the cochlear implant, a relatively new procedure that gives at least partial hearing to the deaf and, if done at an early age, allows them to function among the hearing.
The hearing are naturally heartened by this news and can see no reason why the parents of deaf children wouldn’t do everything they could to give their children the surgery. That shows how much we know.
Our introduction to the various points of view comes through the families of two brothers, the Artinians, of Long Island. (The opening shot is of Long Island Sound, irony probably intended.) Peter and Nita are deaf and have three deaf children, the oldest of whom is persuaded by her hearing grandmother that she should have a cochlear implant. Her parents consider, then reject the idea. Chris and Mari, both of whom can hear and speak, have twins, one hearing and one deaf. They decide the deaf one should have the implant.
There are a lot of arguments on both sides — more against the cochlear implant than you can probably imagine — and most of them are heard at least once in this film. There were moments when I thought they should be fighting it out on “Jerry Springer” rather than subjecting us to it, but those were few and far between.
In the wake of the Elian Gonzalez fervor, it seems especially silly for Peter and Nita to pretend they’re letting 5-year-old Heather make such a major life decision for herself. It’s not as if she read about the implants and had the idea of getting one on her own. Although Peter is opposed to the idea, he goes along with it for a time. Nita even considers having the surgery herself until a counselor tells her the improvement in hearing would be minimal at her age. That seems to be the turning point in her attitude toward Heather’s implant, and there’s a telling interchange late in the film where she mentions Heather’s decision and the girl says, “But Mommy, I thought you decided I wasn’t going to have it.” Nita signs back, “No, Heather, we decided together — remember?” Already proficient in sign language, Heather seems like the surgery would equip her perfectly to live in both worlds.
“I just want my daughter to be happy,” Peter says, as people from the hearing community accuse him of child abuse for denying his daughter the opportunity to hear. To their credit they do a lot of exploring, including visiting two families whose little girls have had implants. In the deaf family the girl maintains her deaf identity, including signing with her parents, but she is also able to function among the hearing. In the hearing family the girl has lost her deaf identity. She attends a regular school, although special accommodations must be made for her, and she speaks at home with her parents.
The last straw comes when they go to Frederick, Md., home of one of the best deaf schools in the country. The school has had an impact on deaf awareness in the surrounding community, where many hearing people have learned to sign. Beset by conflict on Long Island, Peter decides to move his family to Frederick, where Heather and her siblings will have the most ideal surroundings a deaf person can have.
Chris and Mari, who have made the opposite decision, also take grief for it, especially from Mari’s deaf parents who are afraid of rejection from their hearing grandchildren. After the surgery Chris says, as if in a commercial, “The cochlear implant is providing my son with freedom and opportunity and the key to the world.”
Not having to read sign language I can’t say how much of Sound and Fury will be accessible to the hearing-impaired, but an excellent job has been done of providing voiceover for hearing audiences during signed sequences.
During the year-and-a-half in which Sound and Fury was filmed, the National Association of the Deaf was opposed to the implant; but the organization has, we’re told in an end credit, “decided to re-evaluate its position on cochlear implants for young children.” Although the film appears to present balanced arguments wherever possible, the director can’t help showing his bias in one shot of a street sign warning of a “Deaf Child Area.” Just next to that sign, at an angle but plainly visible, is another that reads: “Dead End.”