In the acclaimed new film Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Rogue One) portrays Ruben, a professional drummer in a heavy metal band who finds his life completely upended when he begins to lose his hearing in the middle of a cross-country tour. The film explores his journey towards acceptance of his hearing impairment not as a disability but as a new way of living.
To prepare for the role Ahmed spent six months learning ASL, American Sign Language. Deaf actor Chelsea Lee, who portrays Ruben’s roommate at a rehabilitation clinic for deaf people, praised Ahmed’s dedication to the role, saying “To go from zero-to-sixty in such a short amount of time is evidence of his passion and his ability.”
The experience was transformative for Ahmed, who says “It’s a tragedy that we live such separate lives, the deaf and hearing communities.” Ahmed went on to comment on the difference between “treating things like deafness as a disability rather than a culture. And that’s the big takeaway for me was that deafness isn’t for many people a disability, it’s a world. It’s a way of being.”
Director Darius Marder, who co-wrote the script based on a story by Derek Cianfance (The Place Beyond The Pines), wanted to take a different approach to the way the film portrays deaf people. He was adamant that members of the cast who were portraying deaf characters were not actors pretending to be deaf, telling Variety “I made it very clear that I wasn’t going to represent deaf people unless the actors were deaf or from a deaf culture.”
The major exception is, of course, Ahmed’s role as Ruben, but Marder felt it was important to show his journey. “It’s a process of being thrust into a world that’s unfamiliar,” says Marder. “Hearing people become the minority. You would lose that element if the actor was deaf, because they would come from a place of comfort.”
Marder and Ahmed used a variety of techniques to thrust Ruben into a new, unfamiliar world. “Early on, [Ruben] sees deafness, as many hearing people do, as a loss of something, a lack of something,” said Ahmed. “And for those sections of the film, we used auditory blockers. We took hearing aids and put them in a white noise setting and then placed them really deep into my ear canal and left them there for the day. So you can’t hear other people, but you also can’t hear the sound of your own voice, which is very disorienting. And I thought that that respected how derailing that experience is for people, for many people in real life, just to kind of gain a glimpse into how disorienting that is.”
Later, as Ruben acclimates to a new world of deafness, no auditory blockers were used. Ahmed says “And to be honest, it wouldn’t have made a difference because at that point, I was conversing with the deaf actors on set both on and off camera in American Sign Language. So it kind of became a moot point. It was kind of an emotionally led approach to hearing loss.”
The groundbreaking approach to portraying deafness as something other than a disability or a lack has met with overwhelming support from the deaf community. Yat Li of Vancouver was born with a congenital deformity that prevented his ears from developing. He notes that seeing his own experience on screen was “revelatory,” adding, “I’ve never had such raw emotion while watching a movie,” he said. “I had to pause because I need time to breathe.”
At one point in the film, community leader Joe (portrayed by Paul Raci) explains to Ruben that his deafness is not a problem to “fix” and that instead of trying to get his former life back he needs to focus on moving forward: “Learn how to be deaf.”
Marder calls this film a “wake-up” to those who “think of deafness as a physical disability,” when instead they should be thinking of it as a culture.
Ahmed agrees. “To be honest I think that’s the best you can ever hope for, for a story that you tell, that it connects to people that are often overlooked. That it contributes a new point of view to our kind of collective culture.”
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