Revisiting Irene Taylor Brodsky
Music Credits: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the arts. this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. Today we’re revisiting my 2019 interview with documentary filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky who has made two compelling films about her members of her family who live with a disability and who has also been active in the struggle to ensure broader accessibility to documentary films.
Irene Taylor Brodsky is an Oscar-nominated, Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker. Her first feature documentary, Hear and Now, won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2007, a Peabody Award and numerous Jury and Audience Awards around the world. Hear and Now told the story of Brodsky’s deaf parents and the consequences of their complex decision, at age 65, to have cochlear implants that allowed them to hear for the first time. While Irene had gone on to make a number of documentaries about a range of subjects—she returned to Sundance in 2019 with a sequel, of sorts, to Hear and Now. It’s called Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, a film that focuses on her son, her father and Ludwig Von Beethoven.
Irene Brodsky: I have a deaf son, and that deaf son lost his hearing as a child. And when he was four years old, we decided to get him a cochlear implant, and when he was eight, he got a second cochlear implant. And through this whole time, he developed a very keen ear for music and piano. When he was 11, he told his piano teacher he wanted to learn a piece he'd always heard his grandfather play on the piano called the Moonlight Sonata. And she said, "Oh, no, Jonas, that's a little too hard for you. Maybe when you're 13 or 14, we'll get to that.” Well, he was determined, and he downloaded the music off the internet and he played it in spite of her <laughs>. And while Jonas started playing the song those first few days, I looked into the history behind the Moonlight Sonata. And I realized that Beethoven wrote this piece as he was ascending out of a deep, suicidal depression. That depression was rooted in the realization that he was going deaf. He'd been going to quack doctors, real doctors, he'd been retrofitting his pianos, but he was losing the ability to hear his own music. And I realized that I had this incredibly coincidental cosmic synergy of events here. And my son had no idea that there was a back story to this piece, and he was so drawn to it. I was also really amazed that my son loved this piece, because for listeners who may know about the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, it's very melancholic. And it's not something you'd typically expect an 11-year-old boy to want to learn.
[music from first movement of Moonlight Sonata plays]
So, I was grateful, as his mother, that he wanted to learn it, because he loved this piece so much. I never, even now, after having made a film about it, I never tired of it.
Jo Reed: I should interrupt to say I have a bust of Beethoven on my mantle. He is by far my favorite composer. And I can listen to him forever. He never gets tired.
Irene Brodsky: Well, I discovered Beethoven over the course of making this film. My son, my 11-year-old deaf son, was my entry into Beethoven. Go figure.
Jo Reed: Which is lovely. And the thing that-- I don't want to necessarily get off on a tangent, but the thing that always struck me about Beethoven wasn't even that he was losing his hearing and moving into a quiet deafness, he had tinnitus. So, he was hearing ringing and buzzing as he's writing, which is extraordinary to me.
Irene Brodsky: I think we have so many different notions of what deafness is, and we often think of it synonymously as silence. But I think in the case of so many people who lose their hearing, even my son who lost his hearing as a toddler, that loss was accompanied with sensory overload. Senses going haywire. Senses sending signals to the brain that are not typical. And signals that would morph speech into something unintelligible. So, I think that for Beethoven, we can only imagine what he was hearing in his own music. And I do think that over time, he was relying less on what he was hearing from the outside world, and relying more on what was inside of him. His memory, his sense of internal rhythm, his sense of melody, as his life went on. I believe this not as a music scholar, but as the mother of a deaf child and the daughter of two deaf parents, I really think that he heard his own drummer. Literally. Because he was losing the ability to hear others.
Jo Reed: I completely agree. I could not agree more. It was so internal to him. How long was this film in the making, Irene?
Irene Brodsky: Jonas started to learn this piece, and it took me about a month to kick into gear and realize that it was too much of a poetic coincidence for me not to document it. So, we filmed Jonas over the course of seven or eight months, but something happened about halfway through making this film, shooting this film, that was very unanticipated. We had two ancillary characters in the film, my mother and father, Paul and Sally, who are both deaf. And we always knew that they would be important characters in the film because they're very much a part of Jonas' life. And in a way, they are a historical reference point of the deaf experience. Not just for Jonas, but I think for the viewer and also for Beethoven's life. My parents had things that Beethoven never had, like the ability to learn how to lipread, for example. Or later in their life, they did have access to cochlear implants. But something happened that year around my father's life, and that is my father started to lose what was dearest to him. It was that he started to lose his mind and develop dementia. And my father was an inventor. He was a whiz. If he wasn't deaf, I'd say he could have been the president of the United States. Although more likely, he would have been Einstein, something more in the scientific realm. But he really went through this transformation in front of our camera quite by accident, and we realized that this film was becoming more and more not just a film about an 11-year-old deaf boy learning how to play a piece written by arguably the most famous deaf person in the world; it was also becoming a story about this deaf boy's grandfather and his own deafness and a story about loss and how we come out on the other side of loss with sometimes something even more gracious.
Jo Reed: Yeah, that was a really hard part about the film. We find out on film that your son Jonas, when he is a toddler, is losing his hearing. How did you happen to film that?
Irene Brodsky: Well, I am a film-maker, so you can imagine I bring out my iPhone even in what some people would call the most private of circumstances. Because, I'm not a big social media poster. I just like to document things, and I like to have them. And I watch them and I almost process my life by watching and re-watching raw footage. And so, I already just had lots of home movies, because I have equipment, professional film equipment, sitting around my house. But something else happened which really, I must give credit to Sheila Nevins and Sara Bernstein, who were two heads of the documentary unit at HBO at the time. And we were having a friendly meeting in New York that had nothing to do with this movie, but when they asked me about how my family was doing, I said, "Go figure. Jonas is learning this piece that Beethoven wrote while he was going deaf. Remember the Moonlight Sonata?" Well, at the end of a very long, fun lunch that we had together, the head of HBO documentary films said, "Irene, I think we need to make a movie together and we need to call it 'The Moonlight Sonata.'" And part of the reason she knew that this would be a powerful story was not just the obvious, it was that when Jonas was a year and a half old, and we realized he was going deaf, Sheila Nevins at the time, and Sara-- they worked together then, they asked me if I was interested in documenting Jonas' life. We didn't know how deaf he would become. We didn't know if this was just a temporary thing. So, they actually gave me the resources to formally document about a one-year long period. And it happened to be the time he was going deaf.
Jo Reed: That's extraordinary.
Irene Brodsky: It is extraordinary. And they knew that there was a wealth of media that I could use to tell the story of my family, because I've made a story about my family before, called Hear and Now that we released in 2007. That film told the story of Sally and Paul, my father and my mother. Sort of a love story around two deaf people at 65 deciding they want to hear for the first time and getting cochlear implants. And sort of the perils and excitement that came with that. So, everyone at HBO already knew that I was sitting on reels of film footage and then Sheila also knew-- because she had given me the resources to film ten years ago my son as he was going deaf-- she knew that we would have a lot of plot points that we would have visual representation for. The challenge, of course, is Beethoven. Beethoven lived at a time before there was photography. So, all we have are these busts and these drawings of him, right? And so that was probably the biggest creative challenge of the film was determining with my filmmaking partner, Tahria Sheather, how we wanted to depict him and how literal we wanted to be about that.
Jo Reed: And what you ended up doing I thought was absolutely wonderful, so please share that.
Irene Brodsky: We decided that we didn't want to be too literal. We thought it was a little, in my very professional parlance, ‘cheesy’ to try to depict Beethoven. We thought it would be more powerful to represent Beethoven in a more abstract way. So, you do see Beethoven in animation in our film depicted as a human form. He has eyes, but he doesn't really have a face with detail. He's wearing clothing that suggests maybe it's another era. He has long, wavy hair, as we know he did. And his creative process is depicted through a hand just twirling in front of the camera. So, we really just tried to come up with things that didn't have to make sense, because we really just wanted you to be a little dreamy. We wanted a viewer to be in sort of a dream state when we would talk about Beethoven. I read as many of his letters as I could get my hands on. And that was so exciting for me as a journalist by training to go to all these original sources and just see the way he would write and the way he would talk and the way, from day-to-day, how his moods would go from dark and stormy to light and very hopeful. So, I had an Excel spreadsheet of probably 40 quotes. And I would think about where those quotes might fit as a plot point in my narrative. And ultimately, we only used four of them. But they were critical to understanding his trajectory in our film, which was really limited just to one year in his life, when he was writing the first movement of this piece. So, Beethoven, I consider him a major character, but he only gets seven minutes in the film out of 90 minutes.
Jo Reed: But he still permeates that film enormously. And it feels very equal between your son and your father and Beethoven.
Irene Brodsky: And thank you for recognizing that, because that was definitely by design. When I say he only had seven minutes of the film, you know, one of the tools I have as a filmmaker is that I can come up with these visual metaphors or these auditory metaphors, right? But I can refrain them throughout the film. And so, I can create an atmosphere like Beethoven is here in the scene with us simply by using similar music as we did the first time we met him in the film. Sometimes we have Beethoven music playing over a scene with Paul and Sally. So, we remember that just as Beethoven lost something, so here does Paul lose something. It’s a mood. And one of the things I worried about in making the film was if I was making the film too lyrical, too moody at times and not direct enough. And I think probably many filmmakers struggle with the same thing. Like how do you allow yourself to sort of drift a little bit? And then you kind of have to rein yourself back in or rein your narrative back in and your characters back in and sort of keep your audience with you and not lose them.
Jo Reed: Yeah, that's always a juggling act. One of the many juggling acts in making a film, especially a documentary and especially a documentary about family, which has to be its own kind of minefield. Your son, Jonas, I have to say is one of the most confident kids I've ever seen on the screen. He's really an extraordinary boy. And I'm curious about many things about him, but one thing; how did he adjust to having cochlear implants?
Irene Brodsky: Well, let me answer that by describing a scene that we didn't include in the movie. One day, Jonas stayed home from school and he just wasn't feeling well. And so, I had him in my studio with me and he laid under a blanket most of the day in a window seat. And he was in such a quiet mood, which was unusual for him. And the opportunist in me said to him, "You know, honey, I'm just going to take the camera out if it's okay. I just want to ask you some questions. I'd love to do a little interview with you." This was in the middle of him learning the Moonlight Sonata. And I asked him a series of questions about his early childhood as he was becoming deaf. And essentially, he said to me this; "Mom, I don't think my deafness or going deaf was sad, because I don't remember it. It doesn't feel sad to me. I don't feel like I lost anything. This is just how I've always been." And that's extraordinary, because you see in the film he had a personality. He was a little kid, and he could still hear a lot. So, I think it's remarkable when you think about a child's resilience, but also his sense of self. That early year and a half when he did have some sound, and up until the age of four he still had some degree of acoustic hearing. But it really was a lens into what you hear so many deaf people say all the time, that they don't feel sick. They don't feel like they lost anything, they just can't hear and that's how it's always been. We see them as someone who has lost something because we have something they don't have. But if you talk to most deaf people, who have been deaf all their lives, or in Jonas' case deaf all of their memorable lives, it's just who they are. It's just the way they operate.
Jo Reed: I guess what I'm asking about is then when he had access to that sound through the implants, was that a strange adjustment for him? That's the part I'm curious about.
Irene Brodsky: He really did not like hearing aids. He wore hearing aids for about two and a half years. And he was always yanking those out of his ears. He never wanted to wear them. When he got the implant, he pretty much wore it all the time. We didn't have to force him to wear it. He wanted to wear it, because he could hear, obviously, more. Much more than he could hear with a hearing aid, but he was also just his brain was just devouring meaning, right? And so, the only time it would get bad for him is if there was too much stimulation. And we also just had to give him some space to relax a little from all the noise. But the time he was filmed for Moonlight Sonata, in the life of his deafness, I think I will always look back at this as a watershed time for him, not only because he had a movie made about him or because he learned one of the most beautiful pieces of music I think ever made, but because he was learning that there's a power in not only his deafness, but in this 21st Century tool that he has to be deaf or not to be deaf.
Jo Reed: And that's what I'd love to have you talk about, because he takes off the implant at a certain point in the film. Can you explain how that works and what happens when he does?
Irene Brodsky: An implant has an external component and an internal component. The internal component is the implant. And then the external component is actually the processor for the implant. The microphone for the implant, and a magnet attached to that processor, it kind of sits on your ear like a hearing aid. So, if you want to take off your implant, you're never actually removing the implanted component. You're just taking off what looks like a hearing aid sitting over the back of your ear. So, Jonas had been learning Moonlight Sonata for probably six or seven months at this point, and he had pretty much memorized the piece. What he wasn't doing, if you listen to his teacher, who eventually came around, of course, but there's a scene where she says, "Jonas, you're playing it, but you're not playing it well." Now, that might sound pretty harsh, but she's a very old-school teacher. And what she was essentially telling him was he was getting the notes right, but he wasn't bringing any value-added to it that was Jonas Brodsky and his personality and his particular take on Beethoven's composition. So, the last two months or so before his recital, they were just working on what they call ‘dynamics’. Dynamics in any piece of music are the nuanced things. There are expressions that certain concert pianists have that we come to recognize, right? Because their dynamics are so unique. So, the problem for Jonas became that he was playing the notes but every time he would play a note wrong, then he would get flustered and then it was all about the mechanics. He'd get flustered in the mechanics. So, what if he could just forget about the mechanics for a moment? What if he could just be like, "I made a mistake. Who cares? I played a C instead of a B and now I'm just going to keep going and I'm just not going to skip a beat." Well, for most typical people, that would require a certain mental discipline. For Jonas, he realized, "I can just turn off my implant, and then I won't hear any mistakes. I won't hear any of the music, but I will hear it in my mind." Because for Jonas, as a deaf person, he was feeling this piece. He could feel it in his fingers. So, he was able to kind of fly a little bit, if you will, without being so worried about getting one foot right in front of the other. He could just kind of explore. And for me, as a mother, the most powerful moment for me in making the whole film, was when Jonas, one night, took his implants off because he was so frustrated and I happened to be filming him that night, as I usually did. And he just took off his implants just to play the piece through, and then he put them back on and he said to me, the person behind the camera, but also his mother he said, "How did it sound?" And I told him I thought it was beautiful. So, for me, that was such a powerful metaphor for how Beethoven must've made his music. Because not only could Beethoven not hear what he was actually playing, he was feeling it and he was very aware of it. And when he was composing, that's even more interesting, right? Because he was just imagining what all these instruments-- he was composing symphonies as a deaf person. But he also had enough confidence. You were saying Jonas is a confident kid. You know, I think thanks to his confidence, he did just play the piece all the way through, instead of being really self-conscious that maybe every fifth note was incorrect. Because what mattered to him was that he just played it and he didn't hear one mistake. And that's all that mattered.
Jo Reed: Tell me, Irene, what led you to becoming a filmmaker?
Irene Brodsky: Photography was my first love. My parents were very avid photographers and home moviemakers in the '60s and '70s, and when I was growing up in Saint Louis and Rochester, New York, in both places we had a darkroom. And my parents would tinker in the darkroom at least two or three hours a day. They'd be behind the dark door. You couldn't knock on the door, because of course if you open the door then you ruin the film, you ruin the exposure. But my parents couldn't hear us knocking on the door. So, they would just be in there, you know, for hours when we were kids. And it was a really early example for me of just watching two people who had a passion. Well, I wanted to spend time with them, so I would go in the darkroom with them from, the early ages of, like, three, four and five years old. And then when I was about seven or eight, my dad got a new 35-millimeter camera and my mom and dad gave me their old one. And when that happened, I remember they said, "Our only rule is that you always have to wear the neck strap, because we don't want you to drop it." And so, I just walked around with a camera around my neck all the time. And I loved not only taking pictures, but developing pictures and printing them in the darkroom. All through high school I was very involved. I was the photo editor of the yearbook and did some photographing jobs. I got some side jobs. And then when I went to college I was just a garden-variety journalism major, and I took one photography course in college, which actually happened to be my lowest grade. I always tell my kids that. But that’s when I realized I liked writing and showing pictures and then putting them together, and from that would come, like a metanarrative. So, I made my first film after I graduated from undergrad in my early 20s. I was living in Nepal and I was making a photographic, like a coffee-table style book on deaf people all throughout the Himalayas; India, Nepal and Tibet. Mostly in Nepal. And I realized how much I loved to create this metanarrative. So, I had my first opportunity to make a film. UNICEF asked me to make a film about deaf children, because they knew about my book, and then I just got totally hooked.
Jo Reed: And you never looked back. Moonlight Sonata was the opening night film at the Reel Abilities Film Festival. If you can just tell me a teeny bit about that festival, and then also what it meant for you to be the opener there.
Irene Brodsky: Reel Abilities Film Festival is doing what no one else in the world is doing. They are telling stories about people with different experiences. Differently-abled experiences, and they are prioritizing filmmakers that might be differently abled or disabled or however they self-identify. And they show the films to garden-variety audiences. They show them to schoolchildren. They do a lot of outreach in the disability communities of blindness, deafness, people with mobility impairment, sensory impairment. And they start their premier festival every year in New York City in the spring. And then a lot of their films travel around not just the country, but around the world. What I would say, they preach the gospel of just differently-abled lives. Reel Abilities is the most-- it's like a fairytale. You get to this festival and more than 50 percent of the people in the audience have some kind of what most people would call a disability. They've got this entire front area of their theater that's just dedicated to wheelchairs. So, everyone gets a good seat. All of their films are fully open-captioned, which means they have burned-in captions on the film, and anyone who has hearing loss or deafness or a sensory impairment that makes them follow dialogue and narrative better with words, they don't have to watch it through a personal captioning device. They actually get to look at the cinema picture with the words right on the screen. So that's a really value-added experience for them. All of their films also have what's called audio description, which means there is another narrative that is only audible to someone wearing a little earbud. And that narrative is someone reading a script that was very carefully written to describe everything that's happening in a scene that is not apparent if you can't see it. So, when I watched our film premiering in New York City at the Reel Abilities Film Festival, A, I was super-proud of the fact that that's where we were premiering. For me, the most important thing was making a film about the deaf experience that was fully accessible to the deaf community, to the blind community, to the differently-abled community, to the mobility-impaired people who live in New York. I was so proud that they had access to the movie. And I really think that some of the values that that festival has been espousing for years now, other festivals, mainstream festivals; Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, Hot Docs. They're an excellent example. They want to make their films more accessible, and that has been something that I have been extremely passionate about and I recently started a nonprofit organization called the Treehouse Project. And what we are committed to is reaching deaf and blind audiences through accessibility assets. So, we help filmmakers. We work with filmmakers and film-presenting institutions, but mostly with filmmakers to learn how to make their films more accessible to deaf people and blind people. Not because morally it's the right thing to do. Well, sure it is. We know that. But because it's a value-added for the filmmaking community to have those people in seats. To have those people experiencing our movies and giving us feedback and being participants in the Q and A. And being seen, being in the movie theater and being seen. And for our children, who look up to adults, to see disabled people in the movie theaters making intelligent comments, because they're literate in film because we're making our films increasingly accessible to them. And as a mother of a deaf kid and as someone who sees deaf kids every day, I really care about that. I'm really concerned that there's a lack of role models.
Jo Reed: It just reinforces the isolation that so many people feel.
Irene Brodsky: Exactly. Exactly.
Jo Reed: I just want to say a word about distribution, because once the film is done it's almost like, "And then the happiness begins." You get to figure out how to distribute it, which it's-- it's a lot of work. And festivals really come in handy for that.
Irene Brodsky: Yeah. I mean, I think the analogy is often used that you're birthing a baby when you first show the film, when you premier the film. But as any of you parents out there know, the real work is raising the child and making sure that you're making decisions along the way that best serve the interest of that product that you've created, right?
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Irene Brodsky: So, what that means is sometimes making decisions that might be counterintuitive. You really, really, really want to express yourself and you really, really, really want to get that film out there. But don't post it on YouTube just yet. Give it a year. Try to find a distributor. Try to find someone who actually might be able to take it to higher heights than you could take it. That's my advice that I often give to young filmmakers is just, "Be patient. Be patient, because these things take time." And sometimes when you birth your film, maybe some of the ideas in your film are not in the Zeitgeist, but then within six months, a current event happens and suddenly they're more relevant. Or even better, your film slowly, like an earthworm, starts to till the soil and people start talking about the themes in your film. And before you know it, your film has become a tour du force. It has become something that people are talking about in the public sphere. And that's what every filmmaker hopes to happen, because we work so hard on making these films. It's really quite a shame if they just wither away. We want them to have purpose, or at least I certainly do. My own. I want them to be meaningful. And I want them to resonate with people.
Jo Reed: And I think that’s a good place to leave it. Irene, thank you so much.
Irene Brodsky: You're very welcome. Thank you so much, Jo.
Jo Reed: That was my 2019 conversation with Irene Taylor Brodsky, she’s the director of Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements. You can find out more about Moonlight Sonata and Irene’s work at vermilionpictures.com. And we’ll have a link to Reel Abilities as well as to Irene’s non-profit The Treehouse Project in our show notes.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Special Thanks to accessibility director at the Arts Endowment, Beth Bienvenu, for her introduction to Irene. Follow Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, and leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
In this 2019 podcast, filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky discusses her project Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, and her commitment to making films accessible to differently abled audiences. We talk about her first feature documentary, Hear and Now, which won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2007 and explored her deaf parents’ experiences when they were 65 with cochlear implants, and its relationship to her film Moonlight Sonata, which was partly inspired by her deaf son, Jonas, who was driven to learn to play Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata.” We discuss the emotional and historical significance of Beethoven’s work, particularly how his deafness influenced his compositions. She also recounts the unexpected twists during filming, including her father's development of dementia. And she discusses the Reel Abilities Film Festival where her film premiered; her commitment to making her film accessible to the deaf, blind, and differently abled communities; and her nonprofit The Treehouse Project and its Accessibility Lab, which works to elevate deaf and blind audiences’ access to and participation in theatrical independent film.