Director Matt Ogens’ latest documentary short, “Audible,” zooms in on the lives of high schoolers at the Maryland School for the Deaf as they grapple with relationships, loss and adversity in the midst of senior year.
The intimate, coming-of-age story centers on athlete Amaree McKenstry, who has since graduated (in 2020), and the school’s championship high school football team.
In addition to the moving — and, at times, gut-wrenching — story, locals will appreciate the Frederick street scenes caught on film, as well as some rich shots of Baltimore, where McKenstry’s family is based.
Nyle DiMarco, a deaf model, activist and former Frederick resident who attended the Maryland School for the Deaf, is an executive producer of the film, alongside Ogens.
Ogens grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and currently resides in L.A. He took some time to talk with us about “Audible” ahead of its premiere on Netflix on July 1.
Do you have any friends or family who are deaf, or was this film an introduction to that culture for you?
A little bit of both. I grew up 30 minutes away from the school and knew of it, and my best friend since I was 7 or 8 years old was deaf. He didn’t go to that school but still was my best friend. I give him a thank-you in the credits. I had a little foot in that world through him. Years later, when I’d decided to be a filmmaker, one of the things I directed was a commercial campaign for high school football teams around the country, and one of them was Maryland School for the Deaf. What’s interesting is the coach [in “Audible”], Ryan, was the star player in the commercial I did 10 years ago.
Oh, wow. That’s so cool.
So I stayed in touch with the school, because I knew there was a bigger story to tell — one, because I’m from there, and there are not a lot of underrepresented stories from D.C. and Maryland and no deaf stories from there, or not a lot, and you have the Maryland School for the Deaf and Gallaudet [University]. And it’s personal to me, because of my friend.
I stayed in touch for many years, had stops and starts, and a year and a half ago, the timing was right. The timing was right because we had found the right characters through which to tell the story — Amaree’s story and his relationships with Jalen, Lera, his family, his father, and Teddy. It hit all the marks for storytelling, but I also thought it was a good cautionary tale about tolerance and acceptance in the deaf community.
How did you first learn about Amaree and his story?
Just staying in touch with the school and Ryan. When I’d go visit my family, I’d stop by the school, probably every other year. I’d stop by a game and go meet the kids. So I knew about Amaree when he was a junior. I wanted to tell the story through seniors, because they’re about to leave the safety and confines of the school to go out into the world. In talking to him, he told me about himself, about Teddy, about his father — that’s how I learned about it. Just talking to them, being there, listening.
So it sounds like this film really was in your head for a decade.
I couldn’t let go of it. I’ve made lots of things, but there are always a few you have on your mental list or written list, and this was one of them.
I don’t know if you’re this way, but I find that some of the projects that are most important to me, I put off the longest for that very reason, because you really want to bring yourself to it fully.
Yeah. Or it’s not the right time. We were close a couple times, but I’m glad it waited because we had this moment and this story through Amaree, and with the right partners, with Netflix, with Pete Berg and Nyle DiMarco [both executive producers]. Everything felt right.
Tell me about Nyle. How did he get looped in on the film?
It happened organically. He’d went to the Maryland School for the Deaf. He was one of these kids. His brother, Neal, is in the film. He’s one of the assistant football coaches and has a couple of little moments. I knew about Nyle before I made this film, and we wanted to bring someone in not just by name but to really be involved. I can’t tell you how important his involvement was, in terms of getting it right — because this film is just as much, if not more, for a deaf audience, as it is for a hearing audience, and I wanted to get it right. He helped me get it right. Little, granular things. Sure, we had ASL interpreters all along the way, but little, nuanced stuff, the timing of it, capitalizing the word D in deaf when you write it [in subtitles], sensitivity things, things we should include — like, ‘Hey, we should really hit harder on that.’ He was really important creatively and really important to get it right.
You always want to get it right, but did you also feel a sense of responsibility toward your best friend to really get it right?
Yeah. I mean, I’m not supposed to show anyone cuts [in advance]. It’s a secure platform, but I had to show my deaf best friend — in person, on my laptop, I hit play. He was really blown away. Even though we’re best friends, he thought I was gonna come in and make a film about the deaf community and deaf culture, like, “He’s gonna interview a lot of people.” He didn’t understand I was telling a story with a narrative arc that was personal and intimate. He felt I got it right. It was interesting to see what scenes he liked the best, too. And I showed it to his sister, who’s hearing, to get the perspective of being a family member of someone [who’s deaf].
There is another film you just made, “Home and Away,” that has some similar themes — coming-of-age, high schoolers who are marginalized for a totally different reason. Did that film inform “Audible” in any way?
No, it’s interesting, I did “Audible” and “Home and Away” back to back, and there’s another one that hasn’t come out yet about mental health through the eyes of a teenage girl [the first film in the “Meaning in Madness” series]. I guess I’m on a teenage storytelling, stylized, maybe-dark-at-times run. “Home and Away” is not out yet but premiered at Tribeca [Film Festival], and it’s about seniors living on the U.S./Mexican border in El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico, and they go to the closest high school in America to the Mexican border. The conflict, story-wise, is the border.
What was your biggest takeaway after working so closely with the deaf community to make this film?
It sounds buzzworthy, but representation and acceptance and tolerance. Showing a community that maybe you don’t understand and trying to be curious about it. I don’t even like to use the word “them” or “they” in that regard; we’re all human beings, and isn’t it beautiful? Being deaf is a community and a culture. Amaree, if you asked him, and I have, he’d say he wouldn’t want to be hearing, if he could have it back, because he was born hearing. It’s a beautiful culture. It’s a beautiful language.
I tried not to make something that politicized anything or made it about the deaf community but rather tell a coming-of-age story that just so happens to be about people who are deaf. Look at all the relatable touchstones in the film of any high schooler: they play sports, they have relationships, they deal with sexuality and gender, they have dances — and they can dance, and they can play football, and they can cheer.