Josh Aronson and Roger Weisberg‘s poignant, award-nominated Sound and Fury addresses the controversial cochlear implant, a device that’s surgically embedded under the skin behind one ear to stimulate undamaged nerves and thereby create sound for deaf people. This apparently desirable option is responsible for a deep fissure among the deaf, some of whom advocate the retention of a natural condition and allegiance to the deaf community, while others argue for the implant‘s capacity to right nature’s mistakes and improve deaf people‘s chances for success in the hearing world.
Aronson, whose background is in commercials and music video, and Weisberg, who has worked extensively in documentary filmmaking, examine the fierce debate through the strife that rips through the Artinian family, a clan fairly evenly divided between the hearing and the deaf. Initially the filmmakers focus on 6-year-old Heather’s desire for improved hearing. ”Why do you want the implant?“ ask Heather‘s incredulous parents, who feel content in their deafness and the fact that all their children are deaf. ”I want to hear alarms, smoke detectors, a saw, nails being hammered into wood, and all the people talking in New York and Florida,“ she answers gleefully. Heather’s courage and guileless longing create the perfect backdrop for her extended family‘s battle over the rights and wrongs associated with the implant, and the right of parents to make decisions for their children.
At the heart of the debate is the conflict between nature and culture, as it reflects on more philosophical questions regarding ontological identity. The hardcore deaf advocates argue that being deaf is not only natural, but a central facet of personal identity. ”I want to be deaf,“ says Peter Artinian, Heather’s burly father, who maintains throughout the film that deafness is neither a handicap nor a defect, and that opting for the implant is not only a move toward a robotic society but an egregious betrayal of one‘s selfhood and the deaf community. Peter’s brother disagrees, and when one of his twin sons is discovered to be deaf, he and his wife choose the implant immediately, sparking rage among the deaf family members.
Sound and Fury‘s tremendous power derives from the fact that both sides of the debate are convincing. Peter argues passionately for the beauty of sign language, especially in contrast to the limitations of spoken English, and he pleads for the sanctity of the deaf community, which functions effectively both in and outside the hearing world. His argument is a familiar one, echoing those made by other subaltern groups resisting the influence of a larger, more dominant group. And the suspicion, repeated several times in the film, about the implant’s potential role in creating semi-human robots echoes a larger cultural anxiety over the eroding boundary separating people and machines.
Peter‘s brother and sister-in-law insist that being deaf will make their son an outcast, forever excluded from the opportunities of the hearing world. They decry the harsh ostracism faced by deaf people, but have already accepted the conditions set by the hearing community, couching their argument in terms of cultural success — money and a prestigious job — within that world. The debate grows uglier when other family members, accusing the parents of abuse, demand that they leave the decision for the implant to the child when he’s older — which would significantly reduce the device‘s power to facilitate his language acquisition.
Aronson and Weisberg shot Sound and Fury over 18 months, during which they clearly won the trust of the Artinian family. Full of the rage and pathos of domestic life, the film reveals the family as a snake pit of conniving and competing demands, with everyone vying to protect their own interests. Better still, the directors grapple directly with the rights of children. One of the film’s most touching moments comes toward the end, when Heather is asked yet again by her mother, Nita, whether she still wants an implant. ”No,“ answers Heather, ”I don‘t want the implant.“ Nita nods and notes that it’s Heather‘s decision. ”But you already decided for me,“ says Heather, who clearly has either been bullied into denying her desire, or merely wants relief from the constant bickering.
Perfectly situated in the maelstrom of the personal and the political, Sound and Fury creates a space for serious, obstinate contention. This is rare enough in a culture that likes to repress strife, but the film also allows the central questions it raises to rest unresolved, leaving room for thought. And viewers stand a much better chance than does Heather in coming to a decision about the parameters of culture, family and identity, and the potential — for better or worse — of a little gadget that lets you hear people in New York and Florida talking.