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An 'Audible' coming-of-age story

MH Audible
Credit: Netflix

Amaree McKenstry-Hall was in his senior year at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick. Football, Homecoming, and his future weighed on his mind. That’s why filmmaker Matt Ogens made Amaree the heart of his coming-of-age documentary, “Audible.”

"Audible" was recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary - Short Subject. The Oscars air March 27. "Audible" is available on Netflix.

TRANSCRIPT:
Sheilah Kast
Good morning, I'm Sheilah Kast. We're On the Record. The documentary “Audible” follows an important season in Amaree McKinstry Hall's life football season. It's his last. He's a senior at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick. The stakes are high. The Orioles have not lost to a Deaf school in 16 years. Just minutes into the film, that winning streak is broken. In the film, we see the searing pain of that loss. But we also see that while that streak was broken, the Orioles are not. Over and over, "Audible" shows how Amaree and his friends persevere. The film, out on Netflix, was recently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary -Short Subject. Joining us to talk about it is director Matt Ogens, a Maryland native. His other projects include the documentary, "Confessions of a Superhero," about the costumed superheroes who roam the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Emmy nominated docu-series, "Why We Fight," which follows fighters from across the globe. Matt Ogens, welcome to the show.

Matt Ogens
Thank you so much, Sheilah. Thanks for having us.

Sheilah Kast
Also with us is Amaree McKinstry Hall, who graduated from the Maryland School for the Deaf in 2020. We're speaking to Amaree with the assistance of Anessa Hughes, an American Sign Language interpreter from the Centralized Interpreter Referral Service. Welcome, Amaree.

Amaree McKinstry Hall
Thanks. Happy to be here!

Sheilah Kast
Matt, where did the idea for this film come from?

Matt Ogens
So I grew up in Maryland, about 30 minutes away from from Maryland school for the Deaf in Frederick. But I had a lot of connections, so my aunt is an ASL interpreter in the D.C. Maryland area and interpreted at the Maryland school for the Deaf for about six years when I was a kid. But I think the biggest connection is my best friend, also from Maryland, is Deaf. We've been best friends since we were seven years old, I was just texting with him. And so it actually I came up with the idea of wanting, wanting to do something with Maryland School for the Deaf 12 years before I made the film. It took that long of just stops and starts and different partners and almost and maybes and getting it made until I connected with Netflix. And they really understood and believed in the story. And I think at the end of the day, in some ways, on a personal level, it was a way for me to try to understand and connect with my friend and the larger Deaf community.

Sheilah Kast
And why did you decide to make Amaree the main subject?

Matt Ogens
I wouldn't say this is a football or a sports documentary. It's a coming of age film. There's relationships, there's family, there's tragedy and there's sports. And when I say coming of age, I wanted, I knew I wanted the main character to be a senior. Because for every teenager, graduating high school, going off into the larger world or college or whatever you're going to, do is a pivotal moment. And imagine that if you're Deaf and going out into a more of a broader hearing world. But what that meant is over 12 years I tried to make the film. I wanted a senior. That means I had to recast every single year for 12 years because they would graduate. And I'm so glad it took 12 years because if I didn't wait 12 years, I wouldn't have met this man on on this as well, Amaree. And besides just being an amazing human, what I loved about his story, it has all the marks of a great of great storytelling. His relationship with his father or lack thereof when he was younger, his unlikely friendship with the cheerleader. And that friendship coming about through a tragedy through Teddy, it helped show the struggle, his struggle and perhaps others in the Deaf community. And I've never heard another filmmaker saying, I'm glad it took 12 years to get a film made, but I'm glad it took five years to get a film made.

Sheilah Kast
Amaree, how did Matt approach you about being in his movie?

Amaree McKinstry Hall
Well, to be honest, you know, Matt asked me about it and just told me that he wasn't, he was on my side. He wanted me to be able to tell my own story about becoming a man, and he wanted me to just get it all out. You know, the whole story and that it was a way for me to have some healing happen in that way. He just emphasized that he wanted other people to be able to relate to those frustrations and everything that I've been through. I mentioned it to a counselor and just described what the experience was going to be like, and I agreed with everybody else that it would be a perfect opportunity. I'm not sure how to describe that. Yeah.

Sheilah Kast
Amaree, that loss to the school from Texas. How did that moment feel?

Amaree McKinstry Hall
So, you know, that loss to Texas was so unexpected. You know, I just always had complete confidence that we would do what we needed to do, that they would do something wrong that we can add such pride in the Maryland school for the Deaf. And that moment that we lost, I was completely enraged. I mean, I wanted to start beating the ground. I wanted to get out of there. I just wanted to escape. I felt ashamed, just embarrassed to have it happen. But it was such a learning experience that I could apply it to the rest of my life. If something's getting in the way of me being successful somewhere else, if something happens on my job, I can't just walk away. You just can't just give up like that. So it was really it really threw me being at the real school for the Deaf and having that loss.

Sheilah Kast
You and your teammates are very close. What did you do to not let that loss weigh you down?

Amaree McKinstry Hall
After we had the loss, I just knew we needed to regroup. We had to do some exploration. We had to figure out how to grow from it. We'd go to practices. We might start at three o'clock and before then we would right at five o'clock sharp, just all walk away. And we decided, you know, we're not going to quit at exactly five. We're going to do what it takes. We're gonna stay late if that's what we need and just get back in the game and see if we can get back into a championship rating. So. It made me happy to have that happen because we saw that we could come back from it. We actually only had that one loss. We had nine more wins, so it wasn't as big of a deal as we thought it was definitely didn't give up.

Sheilah Kast
Matt, there are lots of personal moments in this film, conversations about dating, friends dancing at a party. What did you do to earn the trust of these teens?

Matt Ogens
Going back for 12 years. Obviously, they were just kids, but I think in general, going back every year because I'd go visit. I live in Los Angeles now, going back to visit my family in Maryland. Every year, every other year, I'd pop into the school and say, Hi, meet the new kids. And I think coming back over and over and really being invited in. Also, I met Amaree when he was a junior and and Lira. So, you know, I had a year of talking to them and actually, I didn't know there was a person named Teddy. They told me that story when I met them. I assume because they wanted to share that. And so I didn't know that. I think just showing up and talking to them and doing a lot more listening than talking. I mean, I'd say at the end of the day, I don't know that Amaree and them learned anything from me. I hope I was just a conduit for them to tell their story and created a space, a safe space for it to be about them. It's not an observational film, it's that it's their film. And I learned a lot from them.

Sheilah Kast
Amaree, Matt mentioned Teddy, Teddy Webster. You endured the death of your friend and fellow football player. He died by suicide in 2017. Tell us about Teddy.

Amaree McKinstry Hall
I'd be happy to. Teddy. He died in November 2017. And he was my best friend. We grew up together, we were at the Columbia campus of the Maryland school together up until eighth grade. We got our education together, and he was my best friend just because of all the experiences we had together, all the fun that we had. We didn't see ourselves as being any different from each other. He was so funny. He loved acting. He loved everything about Hollywood. Everybody knew him well. Everybody knew his name. It was one of those kind of kids. You wanted to go to some Ivy League school like Yale, Harvard or something like that. He had big goals in his life and we all knew he was capable. And then suddenly he was gone and died by suicide.

Sheilah Kast
You wrote Teddy's name on your wristband before the big homecoming game. Why?

Amaree McKinstry Hall
I did that was just to reinforce his memory you so many people actually didn't want to say his name when he actually died just because it's too painful, too painful to remember, too painful to think about. But I mean, we knew each other since we were little kids. So to me, I wanted to keep that, even after he was dead and gone. I feel like people who die by suicide leave behind friends and family who have a lot to work through when it comes to trying to understand why they felt the need for that. Teddy was the last person I would have guessed for someone to do something like that. So that's why I wanted his name on my wrist.

Sheilah Kast
This is On the Record on WYPR. I'm Sheilah Kast, speaking with Amaree McKinstry Hall, who graduated from the Maryland School for the Deaf in 2020, Anessa Hughes, an American sign language interpreter, is assisting. Also with us is filmmaker Matt Ogens, who directed "Audible," a coming of age film about Amaree and his peers. "Audible" was recently nominated for an Oscar. Matt, how did you approach the sound design for this film?

Matt Ogens
I knew I wanted to do something special with sound and make it a character kind of for obvious reasons way before I made the film. And lucky enough to have an A-list sound team, I mean way more than I can afford, but they really connected with the material. Our sound designers and sound mixers, our composer. I wanted to. There's a few reasons. One, I wanted for the hearing audience for them to, they'll never fully what it's like to be Deaf, but to be able to feel something. And so to show that spectrum of sound from silence like the very first frame to very vibrant and saturated, especially from different points of view, like, for example, a pretty important scene is a memory in the kitchen at his family home, and he's the only one that's Deaf and they're all talking around him. And so you switch to his point of view where it's very distant and muffled. So the audience, at least the hearing audience, can try to come close to putting themselves in his shoes. And then he leaves and goes upstairs and really playing with that. I did a lot of research, and that research mainly was talking to Amaree and his friends. What music do you listen to? How do you feel things. All of that they talk about in the film. So you'll hear a lot of the sounds having a lot of bassey sounds, a lot of distortion underneath. So if you turn up the volume, you're actually going to kind of feel something. And even if not, you sort of feel it emotionally in your gut. So that was sort of the idea. Also, something that I learned from Amaree and his friends in the Deaf community is that, their their minds, their worlds are not silent. I mean, certainly go in the locker room with Amaree before the game. There's nothing silent about that. They're not silent on the field and they have a voice and they have something to say. But also being Deaf is not, there's a spectrum of that. You know, Amaree's level of hearing is different than someone else. I also wanted to show that.

Sheilah Kast
Amaree, you talk in the movie about moments of isolation as a Deaf person out in the world and even in your own family, as Matt mentioned. Tell us more about that.

Amaree McKinstry Hall
Well, as Matt just described, you know, even in my own family, in the house, everybody, I can see their lips moving. People chatting and laughing, and I don't have access to any of that. So when everybody's chatting with each other, it's kind of exhausting to try to even figure out what's going on. Somebody says something and then another person laughs, and nobody's letting me in on what's going on. So, often I just want to get away from it. I'll go up to my room. I'll turn up the music, get the bass going, play a game, watch TV or something like that. Or especially, you know, face time with my friends and be able to communicate that way.

Sheilah Kast
Were you nervous about sharing those feelings on camera or worried that your family, how your family would react to knowing that you feel isolation?

Amaree McKinstry Hall
No, I wasn't nervous, actually. I wanted to be really open about that. I know that, you know, my mom honestly doesn't understand Deaf culture. She doesn't have the awareness. I wish she had. So I looked at it as a great opportunity for her to watch the film, and through the production of the film, get to see it from my side and then consider what had been going on in my family up until this point. And it's great exposure for any family, any hearing family who has a Deaf child to understand that they need to make things visual, especially when they get together. They need to have their hands up and signing, communicating with each other. If they're not doing that, they're excluding somebody in their family.

Sheilah Kast
I read, Amaree, that you are not only a football player, you also did track and field - the discus and javelin throw. Is that right?

Amaree McKinstry Hall
Right, I did discuss and it was actually one of my favorite sports. Then the javelin throw, that was a real way to get out some aggression. You know, just frustration just to let it all out. And sports in general, I really depended on. I know that's an individual thing. Not everybody has that feeling, but I love having something in my hands, like the discus or the javelin and being able to measure how I'm doing, how far I can throw it.

Sheilah Kast
Amaree, you graduated from high school two years ago. What are you doing now?

Amaree McKinstry Hall
After high school, I moved to Indiana, I've since moved to Minnesota, and I really wanted to start my own YouTube channel. I wanted to blog and I wanted to record more things about my life. I wanted to keep the film-making going. Then, when things didn't really work out in Indiana, no offense to Indiana, but there just wasn't a whole lot going on in the town I was living in. I'm not used to being so far out in the country. I decided to move to Minnesota because I could be on the Deaf Olympics wrestling team, Greco-Roman wrestling. So that way, you know, it was a sport where I could have my whole body involved, it's a head to toe kind of sport, and we'll be competing in 2022 in Brazil.

Sheilah Kast
Wow! And you have made one film and it was Oscar nominated, so more films might be in your future.

Amaree McKinstry Hall
I hope so. I love it. Yes, I don't have any expectation, but I'd love for that to happen.

Matt Ogens
I would, too.

Sheilah Kast
And Matt, what what are you working on next?

Matt Ogens
I can't say too much, but I'm currently directing a feature documentary that shoots in Nigeria and England about a ballet dancer.

Amaree McKinstry Hall
Go Matt!

Sheilah Kast
Good luck.

Matt Ogens
Thank you.

Sheilah Kast
Matt Ogens directed the documentary Audible. Amaree McKinstry Hall starred in the film. He graduated from the Maryland School for the Deaf in 2020. We spoke with the assistance of Anessa Hughes, an American sign language interpreter from the Centralized Interpreter Referral Service. Matt, Amaree, thank you and good luck.

Matt Ogens
Thank you, Sheilah. Thanks for having us. Amazing.

Amaree McKinstry Hall
That's great, thanks.

Sheilah Kast
Audible is available on Netflix. The Academy Awards air Sunday, March 27th. This is On the Record. I'm Sheilah Kast, short break now and then a Stoop Story.

Maureen Harvie is senior producer for On the Record. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and joined WYPR in 2014 as an intern for the newsroom. Whether coordinating live election night coverage, capturing the sounds of a roller derby scrimmage, interviewing veterans, or booking local authors, she is always on the lookout for the next story.
Sheilah Kast is the host of On The Record, Monday-Friday, 9:30-10:00 am.