Director Matt Ogens grew up in Frederick, M.D., not far from the Maryland School for the Deaf. One of his best friends was hearing-impaired and Ogens became familiar with the deaf community thanks to him.
“It just so happened that years later, when I decided to become a filmmaker, I directed a commercial campaign about high-school football teams around the country, and one of them was Maryland School for the Deaf,” Ogens said during a recent talk we had together about his film. “It brought me home and into a subject matter I was familiar with through my friend, but [that] I obviously had a lot more to learn [about].”
Ogens later began work on a documentary about the Maryland School for the Deaf’s football team. He spent several years filming and “recasting” his key actors as he worked to complete “Audible,” a documentary short that’s available on Netflix.
The main characters of “Audible” include Amaree, a football player dealing with the typical pitfalls of adolescence as he prepares for college and the world beyond. Parts of the film center on his relationship with Jaylen, a cheerleader. Other students are dealing with being gay in a macho sport, first love and heartbreak as well as the suicide of a close friend.
Ogens and some of his production team enrolled in an ASL (American Sign Language) class to be able to share pleasantries with their subjects, though they had sign-language interpreters on the set with them to catch all of the nuances.
“A lot of it is listening and being curious and attuning to body language,” Ogens said of the tics of non-verbal communication that even those in the hearing community project, knowingly or otherwise. “I like that challenge and that obstacle, it makes me curious, and that’s what I hope to bring to the non-deaf audience.”
Ogens stresses that the football athletes at the Maryland School for the Deaf are fierce competitors, having a streak of wins to their credit. “Audible” follows a particular season as they are preparing to take on a hearing team from another school, with their strong record on the line.
“I try to portray them as they’re not good for being deaf, they’re just really good, and they happen to be deaf,” Ogens said. “They play deaf schools and hearing schools and they kick ass.”
At the same time, the athletes are facing the most common afflictions of adolescence, just as the rest of us would.
“It’s not just a sports documentary, it’s all those … high-school tropes,” Ogens said. “It’s relationships, it’s sexuality, it’s gender, it’s high-school dances. I’m trying to make it feel immersive so that it’s from [their perspective], not from mine.
“Since this is a coming-of-age story, you know [of] those transitional moments in life for anyone.”
In addition to focusing his camera on deaf students, Ogens and his crew, both those he brought from Los Angeles and those he hired locally in Maryland, had students from the school observing them during filming, learning the trade in the process.
“The students I guess you would say shadowed us by the monitor with me and [producer] Geoff [McLean], and asking questions of the DP Billy [Pena]. It was really nice,” said Ogens.
Ogens and his team were deep into post-production when the pandemic hit last year. He and his editors and sound mixers collaborated over Zoom to get “Audible” into shape for the festival circuit this spring prior to the Netflix release.
“It would be Zoom, except I would have a live edit going,” Ogens said. “I would edit for eight, ten hours a day for a few months. [We] never sat in the same room.
“It was tedious and hard, but I’m grateful I got to make something.”
Ogens wants audiences to understand that his subjects are just as capable as those in the hearing community.
“Are they ‘less than’? I don’t think so,” Ogens said. “I learned from them. I can’t play football like Amari, I can’t cheer like Jaylen.
“They’re not a ‘they.’ We’re all human beings.”
“Audible” is now available on Netflix.