Filmmaker Matt Ogens latest documentary short, Audible, tells the story of high school football player Amaree and his Maryland School for the Deaf teammates as they attempt to defend their winning streak while coming to terms with the tragic loss of a close friend as they prepare to venture off into the hearing world after high school. This coming-of-age film is a story of kids who stand up to adversity while demanding to be heard and being hopeful of what the future may hold. Director Matt Ogens, who has personal connections with the school, brings their inspiring story to the forefront without being exploitative.
We Live Entertainment got the opportunity to chat with the director about his latest short, Audible, while making the festival rounds.
LV: I’ll just start off by saying that I really appreciated and enjoyed Audible — as someone who has an older deaf family member, I know that this community is not often seen on screen. So I definitely appreciated the fact that you shined a spotlight on this community and did it in such an immersive and inspiring yet enjoyable way — thank you for that. My first question is, how did you come across Amaree and his friends, and why did you want to tell their story?
Matt Ogens: In a larger sense, I came across the school 10 years before making this film. I’m from Maryland and grew up 30 minutes outside of DC. My best friend since I was eight is deaf. I was getting into directing at the beginning of my career doing docs and commercials, and I did this campaign about high school football teams around the country. One of them happened to be Maryland School for the Deaf, and it clicked for me since I was from there, and because my best friend is deaf, I connected with it and stayed in touch with the school for 10 years — stops and starts, though. I had to start over every couple of years because kids graduate, they get older, and the story changes. But I’m glad it took that long because I could now tell a story about each kid that’s amazing. I liked Amaree’s personal story about his conflict and relationship with his father. I liked the unique relationship he has with Jalen, the cheerleader, and what brought them together — that conflict with Teddy — that, in a way, is a representation of acceptance, tolerance, or lack thereof. In and of itself, that was a good story, right, and in some ways metaphorical to a larger story about representation, overcoming obstacles, and equality in a way. I know that might sound much, but it is. It just felt right.
LV: I get that. So were the students apprehensive about you coming into the school and into their lives to tell this story?
Ogens: No, only because I had formed a relationship with a school and the coach. In the commercial that I did years ago, Coach Ryan was actually in as a player. So it kinda came full circle. I formed relationships, and the fact that I’d pop in when I’d go visit my family, at least every other year, I stayed in touch with them. So I think they trusted that, but of course, they were responsible and thinking, ‘is it going to be real this time?’ I spoke to the kids and to their parents beforehand. There was probably an emotional apprehension, like, I’ve never done this before, but it was pretty smooth in terms of connecting with them and forming a trust.
LV: Have you kept in touch with Amaree and his friends since the filming of this? How are they doing?
Ogens: Yeah, today. They’re excited. I mean, I can’t tell yet if they understand — July 1 on Netflix, in many countries, you’re gonna be up there. So maybe it’ll become more real when they see it and see it on Netflix. But they’re excited — nervous excitement.
LV: I bet. Life is probably gonna change a bit after this. I know there’s been more of a push in Hollywood for inclusion and diversity in recent years. Do you think that Hollywood will be able to do this community justice going forward, or do you think that it’s something that indie filmmakers and documentarians will have to continue to take on themselves?
Ogens: No, I think it’s both. Sometimes it starts with the indie filmmakers, but even on Netflix, you have Deaf U, you have Crip Camp. Those are docs and doc series, but they’re real, and they’re meaningful. Don’t misquote me on this, but I believe there’s a Marvel character in a big Marvel movie that’s deaf. You have Audible, you have Deaf U, you have CODA that came out earlier this year, you have The Sound of Metal — I actually met with that director before I went into production to talk about sound design. I think you’re seeing more of it — and you have people like my executive producer and one of our partners on this, Nyle DiMarco, who is deaf and really pushing for this in the deaf community, in particular, because he’s deaf, but also in the wider if you want to say disability community. Interestingly, Nyle is not just a named EP; he went to Maryland School for the Deaf. And his brother is one of the Assistant Coaches in the film.
So there’s an organic, meaningful connection. He was very instrumental in terms of the edit in terms of how we did subtitling, interpretations, and watch-out sensitivities. I think people like him and Netflix are kind of leading the way. And I hope this film, Audible, does that. I think it’s translating across the board more and more. And not just ‘Hey, look at this person with a disability” but that they’re just another character — just another person, not a token character that you have to make it about that. They could just be deaf.
LV: Right, so with that, what is it that you’re hoping people take away from Audible after they see it?
Ogens: You used the word ‘immersive,’ and that’s what we were after. I’m hoping that I’m just a vehicle for them to tell their story. I wanted to make it immersive, so it felt like it was not observational. In a way, it’s just a coming-of-age story about teenagers who just happen to be deaf. Maybe they have some added conflict on the surface — or not just on the surface but across the board — that they deal with. Certainly, they’re overcoming adversity and obstacles. We’re all human. I’m not deaf, I can’t speak for every deaf person, but I can tell you that these kids and many people at the school actually don’t like the word disabled. They don’t feel that they’re disabled. Sign Language is an official language. This is a culture; this is a community, and they’re proud of it, and I see why. Amaree told me, ‘I wouldn’t want to hear if I could have it back.’
LV: How has working on this project and meeting Amaree, his crew, and the rest of the students and staff at the school impacted you as an individual and filmmaker, if at all?
Ogens: This film — and I’ve done earnest films before — really made me realize the kind of films I want to make — whether it’s a film, a doc series, or a narrative — character-driven stories that say something about us. Even if it’s a culture, we haven’t heard of or don’t understand. It’s their personal story through a character or group of people, but it’s saying something universal and relatable that gets you to think differently. That’s what I want to do with everything — even if it’s something that has more levity to it. I want to say something, so as a filmmaker, it really made me curate more. Not that I wasn’t doing that, but really focus on that and maybe not do some other things. It’s hard to pinpoint what I learned from them as a person — I just feel like a better person. I certainly learned more from them than they learned from me, they’re just teenagers growing up. Perseverance, I mean, I never heard anyone at that school complain about anything or feel like a victim. And I’ve certainly complained about plenty of things in my life that are nothing. So, resiliency and perseverance and always empathy when you’re meeting someone else and learning about them.
LV: Final question for you — what’s next for you?
Ogens: It’s a good question. I just recently got back from Nigeria. A couple of months ago, I started shooting and exploring a potential documentary there in the world of dance — in the world of ballet. I can’t say more about that. But I have a scripted series being developed that I’m an executive producer on — narrative series about coal country West Virginia. I’m developing some other doc series and actually looking at a big disability project right now. I’m trying to think about what I can talk about.
LV: It’s always a tricky question.
Matt: Yeah, I think that’s it.
LV: That’s a lot. (laughing) You’re working on a lot. Again, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today, I definitely appreciate it.
Matt: Thank you. Thanks for watching it.