In documentary-style films and series, you see an abundant amount of filmmakers completely immerse themselves into their narrative and characters to give audiences an inside look at a certain subject. With Oscar-nominated director Irene Taylor Brodsky’s latest film, “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements,” you get that in-depth look but at an extremely personal subject to her — her family. “Moonlight Sonata” follows Brodsky’s deaf son Jonas, who is learning to navigate life and music while developing his disability, while his deaf grandfather (Brodsky’s father) slowly begins his own difficult journey health-wise. On top of it all, Jonas is determined to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” which consequently was the very piece of music the composer penned while going deaf himself.
Brodsky sat down with Metro to discuss her inspiration for the film, the challenges surrounding documenting within your own family and dive into more on the conversations she hopes “Moonlight Sonata” starts.
Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky on deeply-personal new film: ‘Hopefully it can be a conversation starter’
You’ve given audiences an inside look at your family life before with your 2007 docufilm “Hear and Now.” Why choose to turn the cameras back on your family life now?
I did tell myself the last time I made a family film that it would be one for a lifetime. But I think the story surrounding Beethoven and my son was just too powerful to pass up. I realized my deaf son was determined to learn this piece written by a composer as he was going deaf — and Jonas had no idea what Beethoven’s backstory was. So I figured out what a watershed time this was for Beethoven, and I also realized gosh, I have 200 years of the deaf experience right in front of me: this piece of music which lives on through the composition and the melody that we know as “Moonlight Sonata,” and then my son who is a very 21st-century deaf kid. I just knew it was an opportunity to really explore a lot of themes around disability and creativity.
One aspect I really enjoyed about the film was the different cinematic tools utilized such as the animations peppered in representing Beethoven – what was the inspiration behind that?
I knew from the get-go that depicting Beethoven would be a challenge. Beethoven lived before there were any pictorial records, so I looked at other examples of Beethoven in popular cinema, filmmaking and documentaries – but I just really wanted to depart from that. Living in Portland, Oregan, we are a real animator town. There are a lot of independent animators who have so much talent, so I decided to use animation to depict it. That was a first for me as a documentary filmmaker, I had never really poured myself into using animation as a cinematic tool. It’s a very abstract idea, but I knew that I didn’t want to depict Beethoven always as a human being, I wanted to have my viewer kind of rely on their own depiction of who he might be. So sometimes you’ll see him without a full face, sometimes he’s a bird, sometimes he’s just a hand with planets swirling around. So hopefully the animation sparks people’s imagination.
As the film goes on, your son is progressing but we also see your father run into his own challenges. Did this change the narrative of the film from when you first started?
Absolutely. With every documentary, a good filmmaker must be open to the narrative shifting and changing. All we can do when we set out is say, “This is what I think my film is going to be.” We don’t really know until life unfolds in front of us. In the case of this film, I started thinking that the film was going to tell the story about a deaf boy and a deaf composer. But really, as I saw Jonas’ deaf grandfather starting to come of age as an older deaf adult and develop his own problems, I thought it was a really poignant entry into the loss Beethoven might have felt. My dad was losing his mind in much of the same way that Beethoven was mysteriously losing his hearing. Neither of them knew how to stop it, neither of them necessarily saw it coming, yet as it was happening they were acutely aware of it. So, the film became a story not only about creativity and the generation of ideas but also about loss as well. Beethoven lost his hearing, my father lost his mind and Jonas through it all was sort of coming of age and understanding his own loss with his hearing as a young child could actually become a tool for him as a musician.
Is it difficult to work on a project that is this personal?
I think from the get-go this film was very much an artistic and spiritual endeavor. It felt professional because I am a professional, and I apply my standards, but I also just made it very intuitively. I often had to pick up the camera in my own home when I was in the middle of a mundane activity, but then something would happen that I really needed to film or that I thought was a really important building block in the narrative. So to that extent, it was grueling because you had to be on all of the time. I had to be ready at a moment’s notice, and that was the professional in me, but it was also really the mother in me and the more intuitive artist that had been developing in me to make those choices – do I pick up the camera for this, or do I leave it alone? I also think there were times where I really had to check-in on the family and make sure that there was not any resentment creeping up around filming. So I tried to be reasonable – but my family is very accustomed to having cameras around, I’m sort of an obsessive documentarian, even if it’s just on my iPhone. I have to give the characters in my film a lot of credit though because they really tolerated the camera more than I think most people would.
Overall what do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I hope it’s a film that makes us think about our own families and all of the life lessons that are right under our noses that we are living with every day. But more broadly, I think this is a film about people with differing abilities. There has been a very common narrative in literature and history surrounding people with disabilities when they do something great, it’s always in spite of their disability. I think we don’t give that so-called disability the credit that it deserves for how it makes individual people more insightful, sensitive, intuitive or even more able. It makes them ultra-able to take things on. Watching my son grow up and my father grow old, there are so many things about their deafness that contribute to their greatness. It’s not like they exist in spite of that. So hopefully it can be a conversation starter about our own families and about disability in general and what that really means, and what its value is.
“Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements” premieres Dec. 11 on HBO