THE DEAF SPEAK to us in this remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary, one of the best I've seen in years, and the effect is startling. Members of the extended Artinian clan of Long Island, N.Y., begin communicating silently in sign language, then—after a brief pause, like a UN speech awaiting translation—the voices of actors take over, dramatizing the subject at hand: cochlear implants. If that sounds uninteresting, the blunt, outspoken members of this fractious family will soon grab you by the lapels and possibly elicit a few tears.
Sound and Fury
directed by Josh Aronson runs March 9-15 at Varsity
A standout at SIFF last year, Fury provides an utterly fascinating and profoundly moving examination of how the "natural" collides with our supposed technological remedies. In this case, the early surgical implant of mechanical hearing aids offers deaf children the chance to mainstream themselves in society—i.e., hearing society, those of us in the majority who unwittingly discriminate against a tiny nonhearing minority. Its members naturally regard us with wariness yet are cognizant of how the deaf lag behind educationally and financially. Two brothers, Chris and Peter Artinian, heartrendingly embody the rift between what Peter proudly calls "deaf culture" and the lure of assimilation.
Each brother has an adorable child who might benefit from cochlear implant surgery. Both men's views gain equal, fair representation, but it's Peter whose prickly vociferousness speaks loudest. He despairs that surgery for his daughter will remove her from a defensive, separatist, insular society seemingly threatened with extinction. "In the hearing world, I feel locked up in jail," he complains. So why should he or his daughter be forced to conform to their jailers' standards? "When all three of my kids were born deaf, I thought, 'Great, my kids are just like me,'" this loving parent declares. And why shouldn't they be? What's so wrong with that?
Viewers should ask themselves the same questions, because there's something terribly frightening about how technology redefines what's considered normal and natural. Consider the hurtfulness and heat of being called too fat, too short, too ugly, too black, or too ethnic- or Jewish-looking—in other words, everything that can be surgically "corrected" (in other words, eliminated). The dilemma the divided Artinian family faces is universal. How many of us can measure up to society's ever more strict ideals of fitness, health, and beauty?
Extremely well made and told, Fury's like a great episode of Frontline, dealing with issues of self-marginalization and our American mania for physical perfection. "My deaf culture is being wiped out," Peter laments, and that loss would diminish us all.