Signifying something

In International Sign Language: “But why <i>can’t</i> I watch the entire <i>Scooby-Doo</i> marathon?”

In International Sign Language: “But why can’t I watch the entire Scooby-Doo marathon?”

Rated 4.0

Sound and Fury is a documentary by Josh Aronson about conflicts and controversies in the world of the deaf. The title is peculiarly appropriate, because the story distills a conflict that, according to Aronson’s film, is polarizing the deaf world—one that hearing people are unaware of and, most likely, can barely understand.

Aronson focuses on the family of Peter and Nita Artinian, all of whom—Peter, Nita and their three children—are deaf. Peter’s brother, Chris, has normal hearing, as do their parents. Chris, meanwhile, is married to Mari, whose parents are both deaf. The extended family, therefore, has a rather complicated mixture of the deaf and the hearing—Peter and Chris, their wives Nita and Mari and all of their parents and children.

What causes the conflict in the family is their reaction to an innovative surgical procedure called a cochlear implant. Aronson doesn’t go into detail about exactly how the implant works; essentially, it involves inserting a tiny electronic device into the cochlea, the spiral cavity in the inner ear, and wearing a sort of microphone behind the ear in the manner of a hearing aid. The wearer is thus able to attain something close to normal hearing, although the quality is akin to what a prosthesis might give them: if the implant is disconnected or the battery is removed, they’re still deaf.

The conflict is precipitated by two events in the family. First, Peter and Nita’s 6-year-old daughter Heather announces that she wants to have the implant. Then Chris and Mari discover that one of their twin sons (named for his uncle Peter) has been born deaf. Both sets of parents, ironically, are devastated. Chris and Mari are upset because they remember the problems Chris’ brother and Mari’s parents faced trying to get by in a hearing world. Peter and Nita are hurt because they feel that Heather is rejecting the world in which they grew up and are happy—without sound but with the expressive joys of American Sign Language, and with the awareness that what “normal” society considers a drawback is for them a source of uniqueness and individuality.

As Peter and Nita agonize over whether to allow Heather to have the implant, Chris and Mari agonize over their own decision to have the implant done for Baby Peter. In this case, it’s Mari’s parents who feel rejected. They wonder why Chris and Mari can’t just love their son as he is; why do they feel they have to tinker with him? Inevitably, traces of reproach and guilt-tripping enter the conversation: Is Mari ashamed of the baby’s deafness? For that matter, is she ashamed of her parents?

For their part, Chris and Mari don’t understand why Peter and Nita wouldn’t want to give their daughter every possible advantage. No matter how you cut it, they say, deafness is at the very least a hurdle in the hearing world; to deny their daughter the implant is, to them, a form of child abuse.

Aronson avoids taking sides in what quickly mushrooms into a major family dispute, although for those in the audience who can hear (the film is shown with subtitles for the hearing impaired and voice-over readings for those who don’t know sign language), it’s probably unavoidable that the issue should be weighted on the side that favors getting the operation. Even so, Peter and Nita express themselves so forcefully (and in the process so effectively counter the idea of deafness as a “handicap") that it’s impossible for us not to see both sides of the story.

The chief appeal of Sound and Fury is the way it takes us into a world most of us never give much thought to, then coaxes us to look at the world from which we came through the eyes of the so-called “disabled.” The film begins with Peter telling—signing—how thrilled he was when his own children were born deaf. It’s a sharp contrast with the bitter disappointment his own brother felt over one deaf child, and it sounds strange to those who can hear it. And yet, by the end we can understand what he means. Sound and Fury may take its title from Shakespeare, but this is not "a tale told by an idiot," nor does it signify nothing.