Jazz Tangcay Talks to Director Irene Taylor Brodsky About The Very Personal “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness In Three Movements”
Irene Taylor Brodsky is no stranger to making personal films, one of her first feature documentaries Here And Now was a story about her deaf parents, the film looked at her parents getting cochlear implants.
In Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, Taylor Brodsky tells another very personal story, this one even closer. She follows her young son around as he learns to play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ Her young son is deaf and the film explores the closeness Jonas has with his grandparents, but also looks at the power of sound and silence and music.
Taylor Brodsky talks about the challenges of filming inside her own home and knowing when to turn the cameras on, but also knowing how important this story was.
I really love what you did with Moonlight Sonata, you just gave the song a whole new perspective and it’s such a beautiful story.
You know, one of the things we struggled with was whether or not to play the whole of the Moonlight Sonata. It’s a four-minute piece and in cinematic terms, it’s a pretty long time. We thought we were giving you so many bits and pieces of it during the film. Even the score informs and riffs on it, and we thought that by the time Jonas performs it you’re going to be sick of it. We decided against it and some people say, “Why didn’t you play the whole thing?” And that’s the ‘get out of your seat’ and listen to it action item. That’s up to you, the audience to do it.
That’s exactly what it made me do.
It’s such a personal story to you, and you’ve done them in the past, but this is another level of personal because it’s about your child. At what point did it become one you needed to share?
It was a combination of my son wanting to learn this piece. It was entirely coming from him. He’d heard his grandfather play it his whole life and so, he had really always loved the piece. He had wanted to start playing it before his teacher thought he was ready. I watched him become very engaged in wanting to play the piece and watching him fight and bicker with his teacher about it. In the process, I started looking up the story behind Beethoven writing the Moonlight Sonata, and that’s when I realized the incredible, poetic and historical coincidence of what Beethoven was going through at that time. It was a watershed in his personal life and his career. That definitely piqued my interest, but what set the wheels in motion was having an impromptu conversation with Sheila Nevins about it. I’ve made a handful of other films with her and I told her about it, and she said, “We’re making this movie.” That’s really how it all started.
It’s crazy that parallel between Beethoven and all he was going through at the time and how he wrote it.
You create an aural environment for the film, and it’s something that’s so powerful when you’re watching this. Talk about how it was so important to this.
Sound is something good filmmakers value and thinks about. I’ve really been thinking about sound and what it does for us as humans and emotionally ever since I was a kid because my parents are deaf. They really made me appreciate as a kid, silence. Everyone always thought it was so sad that they were deaf. It was an enormous disadvantage for them to be deaf, and I don’t mean to downplay that. When I made a film about them in 2007, I had an enormous intellectual epiphany about sound, and that was that sound really only is valuable if it’s meaningful. I don’t even just mean emotionally meaningful, I mean interpreting. If you hear Russian or you find life on another planet and you hear everyone speaking, in the beginning, it’s novel because you’ve never heard anything like it. After a day or two, you’re no longer intrigued because it doesn’t mean anything to you, you don’t understand it. My parents had that experience, trying to learn how to hear when they were 65. Even though they found a lot of novelty in sound, they realized it just didn’t mean anything to them. They couldn’t understand it, and in fact, it had no emotional resonance with them. They would hear a song like the Moonlight Sonata that made everyone go back to a time or a place where they felt a certain way. They don’t have those experiences. They don’t have those aural reference points. When we say, “Those poor deaf people.”Yes, it’s very disabling to be deaf, but I don’t think deaf people aren’t missing all the things we think they’re missing because they don’t have those emotional reference points with sound. Instead, they have them with their other senses, and they are just as meaningful, and they bring them joy and happiness.
We wanted sound to set the tone for the film. We wanted it to be suggestive and even discordant at times. The Moonlight Sonata is so beautifully melodic in a melancholy tone, we wanted to take the ball and run with that. We also wanted antidotes to that.
What was it like shooting the documentary and seeing Jonas grow so close with your parents, not just as a filmmaker, but also as a mother?
One thing I didn’t anticipate was just the time in Jonas’ life and how critical developmentally this time was for him. He was very open, precocious and wide-eyed at the time. He was also very much trying to learn how to live inside of his own body as a deaf person who wears technology inside his head. We often forget that young people who live with cochlear implants, they are the ones who have to live in their body. We can’t live in their body for them as much as we love them as a parent or how we study them as a clinician. Only they can really render meaning and value out of the sound, they are hearing. This was a year of Jonas learning a difficult piece. It was a year where he was seeing his grandfather use his superpower to turn off his implant when he didn’t feel like hearing. Also, he was watching him go through this evolution that was not at all welcome- which was his dementia, and I think everything made him grow up a little bit. As a parent, I realized what was happening. As a filmmaker, I decided to employ the coming of age narrative in the film where it’s about a boy coming to terms with what kind of strengths he might bring as a deaf musician to what he’s trying to learn, and also where he fits into the history of being a deaf person and what does it mean to be deaf when you have this ability to hear or not to hear. It was very emotionally profound for me, but it was also scary emotionally because making a film about your child and exposing your child is very different than making a film about two fully informed adults who might have their own self-determination. My son is still very much someone who depends on me for his food and well being. To put him in the limelight like this was not a decision we did not take lightly.
Aside from the choice of playing the Moonlight Sonata, or not, what were your other challenges?
When we were shooting the film, it was often hard to know when to stop filming. When you’re filming in your home, the temptation is to just utterly exhaust yourself and your subject matter. It doesn’t always serve your subject well to be filming them all the time. The problem is, if you don’t film them all the time, you are lowering the statistical probability that you are going to come away with lots of good moments and scenes to choose from. You’re constantly searching for plot points. As a documentary filmmaker, you don’t know what those plot points are going to be. You can sketch out with notecards what you think they’re going to be, but you can’t really know because you’re not directing actors and you’re not writing a script. There was this constant tension where I would be filming in my own house while my kids were saying, “I’m hungry” or “Mom, are you ready to go now?” Here I am saying, “Jonas is practicing and I’m filming.” So, there were times I just didn’t know when to stop. There were a few times when Jonas asked me to stop, but not that often. We had this nice studio light in our living room, and I live in this 130-year-old house, and I loved it. We kept it there so we could flip the lights on at any time so we could shoot him at the piano.
The other thing that was tricky was filming someone with dementia. What is fully informed consent in this case? How do you know that the person you are filming is really capable of consenting to be filmed? In this case, it was my father and I know him well. He’s been filming me my whole life and I’ve already shot hundreds of hours, so he’s someone who I’ve spent a lot of time with him in front of the camera. There are times where I brought up with my siblings and my mother and I’d see he was going through these changes and I would say, “I could see the changes. He’s got a doctor’s appointment coming up, and I have a feeling they’re going to tell him he has some kind of dementia because it’s so obvious to me.” I’d check in with my family because they were my barometer. I’d check in with my siblings and my mother. Those were other tricky things that weren’t always clear cut. You have great access because it’s family, but on the other hand, it goes beyond the traditional and ethical questions, it gets into looking at the view of your family and what you want for your family. The last thing I wanted was for my family, ten years from now to say, “That footage you took of dad humiliated him and that’s how people will remember him.” So, I was really cautious about that.