In 2007, documentary filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky made her first feature film, Hear and Now. The film charters the complex journey of her deaf parents being introduced to the hearing world after opting for cochlear implant surgery in their 60s. Over a decade later, Taylor Brodsky revisits her family’s relationship to sound, this time with the addition of her son, eleven-year-old Jonas, who is also profoundly deaf. Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is a compelling and deeply moving exploration of three generations navigating disability, focusing on Jonas’ love for classical music.
Thanks to receiving his cochlear implant at a young age, Jonas is able to talk, and to learn the piano. First introduced to Beethoven by his hearing grandfather, Jonas becomes determined to master the haunting Piano Sonata No. 14, otherwise known as the Moonlight Sonata. Here the thread is drawn between the young boy and the composer himself, who, like Jonas, was deaf. This is aided visually by the film’s animated sequences, which have a beautiful synesthetic quality that emphasises the multi-sensory experience of music. We don’t so much hear the music as feel it; the melodies are abundant with colour, movement, and emotion.
The other crucial relationship of the narrative is that of Jonas and his deaf grandparents, Paul and Sally. Taylor Brodsky observes the difference between her son’s deafness and her parents’ given that the latter did not have access to the same kind of technology and assistance until much later in their lives. Jonas remarks that he has spent less of his life deaf than hearing; his grandmother feels that he will never know what it is like to be deaf in the way that she does. To Paul and Sally, the introduction of sound so late in their lives was not necessarily a blessing. The additional complication of his grandfather’s memory loss encourages Jonas to invite himself into Paul’s quiet world and find the same peace.
Moonlight Sonata might be a film about our differences, but Taylor Brodsky frames them in such a way that there is never a question of ‘overcoming’ disability. Instead, Jonas learns to welcome silence and incorporate it into his identity, much as his grandparents have done their entire lives. He even finds himself choosing to play the piano with his implants switched off, preferring to focus less on his technical mistakes and more the inhibited feeling of playing. The parallel lives of the narrative demonstrate that there is no singular voice of deafness, and that there are many stories still to tell.
Whilst closeness to your case might not please advocates of impartiality in documentary practice, Taylor Brodsky’s intimate and loving relationship with her subjects is the foundation of her tender and attentive filmmaking. Essentially a collation of home movies and interviews between mother, son, and grandparents, Moonlight Sonata feels deeply personal whilst also retaining a universal message of acceptance and embracing of the ‘typos’ in one’s life – they might just become your super power.
by Megan Wilson
Meg (she/they) is a film and gender studies graduate, now working on a PhD at the University of Manchester. When not wrangling her cats or playing football, she dreams of being a professor and writing endless books on lesbian cinema just because she can. Their favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and she’ll always have a soft spot for Matilda. Find them on Twitter.