The personal becomes the universal
February 29, 2008
Irene Taylor Brodsky says she gets a lot of letters from people that don’t know her, many four or five pages long. They feel close to her and want to pour their hearts out to her about their families.
What they are responding to is her documentary, "Hear and Now," which chronicles her 65-year-old deaf parents’ decision to disturb their life-long silence and experience sound for the first time. In the film, each receive cochlear implant surgery, first her mother, Sally Taylor, then her father, Paul, and though their emotional and physical reactions to hearing are dramatically different, their bond is solid. They’ve known each other since attending St. Louis’ Central Institute for the Deaf, a progressive boarding school for hearing impaired children. They’ve been married since high school.
Brodsky will return Wednesday to Park City for a special Sundance Institute Documentary Series screening of "Hear and Now," with a new sense of why her film matters. After stepping on stage at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival closing night to receive the coveted "Audience Award," after a nomination for Producer of the Year in Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures by the Producers Guild of America, and after accepting four more audience awards at other festivals including a festival in Abu Dabi, where audience members wore burkas and robes Brodsky is beginning to understand why her personal narrative is also personal to complete strangers. What she is starting to conclude, one year after her film’s premiere, is that the deafness is only secondary, she says. What amazes people about "Hear and Now," and what is universally appealing, is her parents’ love for one another.
"Based on the outpouring of feedback from people, I think people connect with a story about family and I think they look at my parents and see something admirable in their marriage," she says. "What the deafness does is, it gives everything this twist, where people are so amazed that my parents’ love is as profound as it is, and yet they’ve had this profound disability their whole life I think it makes people reflect on family relationships and family dynamics."
What Brodsky remembers while grasping the Sundance award in her hand the first time is her father crying. "I’ll never forget that, because I’ve never seen him that way before, and I think that right there made it all worth it," she recalls. "He was crying because he was so amazed, but also because I think he couldn’t believe it. I think it was a certain validation for him for a way of life that he’s led."
"Hear and Now" is full of clips from the Taylor Family Film Archives: Sally making faces at the camera by a swimming pool, Irene and her brother and sister playing. And throughout the film, in these old clips and newer interviews, Paul Taylor, a successful engineer and pioneer of the telephone-relay technology for the deaf, maintains a softly stoic demeanor. Before getting his implant, he looks forward to good conversation, he says.
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Sally is quite the opposite always talking, turning the radio up in the car to feel the vibrations of rock music. For her the process and the promise of being able to listen to the world is all at once exciting and terrifying at the same time and full of all sorts of emotions she can’t even articulate. To comfort her mother while she was filming, sometimes Brodsky says she reached out from behind the camera too touch Sally’s leg.
"It was hard," Brodsky confesses. "With other films, I’ve been able to be a little bit more detached Sometimes I would check in with them and say, ‘Are you O.K.? ‘Cause I’m not O.K.’ But we never had an argument, really, about it. They never made me feel bad about wanting to shoot, and I knew that they’d be all right."
Brodsky’s documentaries have aired on HBO, The History Channel, A&E and Fox and she won an Emmy in 2004 for "Heart of the Country," a documentary short on architect Samuel Mockbee, which aired on CBS Sunday Morning. This year the seasoned television film maker also completed another project following public health workers in India and Afghanistan, and the world-wide effort to eradicate polio. But "Hear and Now," has been the most surprising. Brodsky says she had no idea how her parents would respond to sound that they didn’t quite see its advantages, that they wouldn’t necessarily like to hear all the time and she wondered if the story would mean as much to anyone else.
"When I made this film, I really just kind of started on it as a very personal project. I made it for my family and sent it to HBO on a whim, because I’d worked with them before," she explains. "I never made it with the idea in mind that I would be sending it all over the world. I kind of thought it was my business, and do people really care about my business? I really didn’t know if it would translate."
Since Sundance, the film has screened at 15 other festivals, and sometimes the Taylors travel with the film without Brodsky, addressing audiences themselves. If it’s changed Brodsky’s relationship to her parents at all, it’s brought them closer, she says.
"Making it brought us closer, but I think this past year traveling with the film and talking about it and talking about it publicly and talking about our family in very intimate ways with audiences of 400 people as if they were a therapist or a sister or a brother that has changed us I think, that has brought us all a lot closer."
"Hear and Now" will also be aired on HBO in May.
See ‘Hear and Now’
What: "Hear and Now," the 2007 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award-Winning Documentary
Where: The Jim Santy Auditorium, 1255 Park Ave.
When: 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 5
How much: Free
If you miss the Santy Auditorium screening, look for "Hear and Now" on television in May on HBO.