SUNDANCE 2019: Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements
Irene Taylor Brodsky is a documentary filmmaker whose career speaks for itself, layered with human connection and illuminated by the way she brings warmth and truth to the surface. It’s a testament to that natural ability that her new doc Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements finds intergenerational experiences to be some of the most compounded, cherished relationships you can have. As Irene’s parents, both experiencing deafness early in their lives, navigate what it means to understand their complexity against their vibrant grandson’s, they relish in memories and joys. As Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is a revelation in itself, this documentary embraces the facets of what it means to lose anything, reintegrate ourselves, and learn new things again.
Brodsky’s 2009 documentary short The Final Inch was nominated for an Academy Award, and in January of 2007, her doc Hear and Now premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, resulting in an audience award win. Twelve years later, she’s back with an unlikely continuation, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements. Hear and Now, which chronicled the journey of her deaf parents making the tough decision to get cochlear implants, is coupled now with Moonlight Sonata as her eldest son Jonas is learning to live with his own implants after his hearing began to decline at the age of four. This brings forth some struggle and pull as Irene’s parents both try to educate Jonas, as he’s followed in the film around the age of 11, and teach him awareness through the examples that were their lives before sound. For most of their lives, they’ve only ever known how to live in silence. Not having the experience of growing through childhood with some level of hearing, as Jonas has, they’ve had to make sacrifices and learn strength in ways Jonas fortunately won’t have to.
Irene’s sensibilities and drive as a filmmaker make her all the more aware in the telling of her family’s story. She beautifully retells the account of how her parents lived their lives in a time that wasn’t aware yet of its eventual advances for the deaf community. For them, it wasn’t a matter of waiting so long to receive the cochlear implants, but they were just not available during the time. As Paul begins to have difficulties remembering little details of his daily routines, a new path unfolds for him as he now has to evolve to change once more. To Jonas’ story, his grandparents’ lives are a shoulder of support to how he can learn from them and adapt to his own story. As he’s growing to become quite the pianist, something that sort of runs in the family, his keen liking to Beethoven’s classic is both a cathartic coping mechanism and a creative outlet. Jonas begins to find his musical gifts, feeling the vibrations of the piano keys, the ones in his voice, and learning to alleviate frustrations.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s classic sonata plays more roles than one in the film. As Brodsky documents Jonas’ piano skills and his entire learning process of patience and constructive criticism from his teacher, “Moonlight Sonata” binds to become the story of these three movements; the stories of Jonas’ hearing as a child growing up, how this weaves into the grandparents as one begins to feel the grip of memory loss, and the undeniable connection Beethoven himself has to the story. Just like his beautiful sonata follows three movements, the film is divided into their own components that bring together the fascinating intensities of family, understanding, growth, child naivety, musical escapism, and generational obstacles. As Jonas intuitively listens to his grandparents stress the importance of sign language and implementing it more, he can’t help but send them off with endearing bouts of tease and playfulness. As the grandfather, Paul sometimes decides to see his hearing impairment as a blessing when he can easily remove them when Irene’s much younger son decides crying and yelling will fix playtime woes. It’s in those little moments of humor and happiness that help balance tone and round out Moonlight Sonata into a whole hearted examination on how we maneuver through loss and carry on forward with life.
With beautiful animations by Jordan Domont, the documentary takes moments of fleeting creativity and perseverance, narrates it to soft renditions of Beethoven’s classic, and guides us along this family’s journey with magnificent heart and personal weight to support it. Brodsky’s directorial affection in the film is hard to miss as she composes the stories of her father and son to coincide with Beethoven’s story as he began to lose his own hearing at the time of the song’s creation. Sound and silence meet at the center of this film and crystallize into a beautiful sonata that will move audiences.
Directed by: Irene Taylor Brodsky