- LOS ANGELES
While CODA won the marquee Best Picture Oscar last month, it wasn’t the only film at the awards ceremony recognized for telling a relatable story that shed light on the Deaf community. Nominated in the Best Documentary Short Subject category was Audible, a coming-of-age film--directed by Matt Ogens--which offers an immersive look into the young Deaf community. Audible introduces us to Maryland School for the Deaf high school football player Amaree McKenstry, his teammates and close friends--including girlfriend Lera Walkup and cheerleader Jalen Perry (who has since become Jazie, identifying as female)--as they face the pressures of senior year while grappling with the realities of venturing into the hearing world.
They are also coping with the loss of Teddy Webster, McKenstry’s best friend, who committed suicide. A football teammate, Webster transferred to a hearing school where he was ridiculed and bullied, ultimately deciding to take his life in his sophomore year. As McKenstry and his community try the come to terms with this tragedy, they are also buoyed by the joyful memories of inspiration which Webster left them.
Though Audible didn’t win the Oscar, it won the hearts of viewers on Netflix as well as praise from critics. Ogens had cobbled together an Oscar acceptance speech--like all good directors he was prepared. And he shared it with SHOOT. It read in part, “This film is for anyone who feels like they don’t belong. You DO belong! It took 12 years to get this film made. People thought there wasn’t an audience for it. Thank you all for helping us show that there is. On a personal note my childhood best friend is Deaf and this project was a way for me to connect more deeply with him. To Amaree, Jazie, Lera, Maryland School for the Deaf, and the Deaf community. You taught me how to truly listen with my heart. Thank you for sharing your pain and your joy.”
Ogens also thanked the Motion Picture Academy, Netflix “for creating a space for the underrepresented and their stories,” his supportive family, production company Film 45, his talented crew, his producer and fellow Audible Oscar nominee Geoff McLean, and executive producer Nyle DiMarco (who went to Maryland School for the Deaf and whose brother was one of the coaches in the film). Ogens thanked DiMarco for “helping us get this right.”
Ogens concluded his acceptance speech not heard publicly until now with: “My hope is for us to live in a world where we understand each other’s stories. Thank you for letting us share this one with you.”
Unlike his acceptance speech, Ogens’ post-Oscar sentiments were delivered--to whom he affectionately called “Team Audible.” He posted online a message which read: “We may not have walked away with a statue. But you won something else. The film changed these kids’ lives and showed the entire world that the Deaf community has a voice, has stories to tell, and are defined by more than the word ‘Deaf.’ Hearing is not just about listening with your ears, but feeling with your heart. I get messages weekly from people of all ages, Deaf, Disabled, and people who just feel different, saying the film made them feel they belong and can achieve. THAT is the win. I am proud of Audible, this journey, and knowing all of you. I am humbled by you. I am grateful for you. I am better because of all of you. And you made a difference in many peoples lives...including mine.”
Last year Ogens joined the roster of production house m ss ng p eces for representation spanning spots and branded content. His roots as a filmmaker are in commercials--and it was in a Toyota spot years ago in which the roots for Audible were planted. Ogens was directing a Toyota campaign which had a “Friday Night Lights” feel, centering on football at varied local high schools--one of them happened to be the Maryland School for the Deaf, about 30 miles from where Ogens grew up. Ogens soon recognized that there was more of a story in that school than could be fit into a commercial. He envisioned a coming-of-age story, not a football story, from the point of view of a high school senior. For 12 years, Ogens persisted, recasting 11 times annually in the hope he could bring the documentary to fruition. Along the way he met resistance, the rationale being there was no audience for Deaf stories, for a film with little or no spoken words. “In my heart, in my bones, I felt there was. I never stopped,” said Ogens as the project had assorted starts and stops, with different partners.
In retrospect, though, Ogens feels fortunate it took so long in that he would not have found Amaree and Jazie otherwise. The director is also grateful to have found Netflix who “got it” when it came to the substance and viability of the Audible story. Fast forward to awards season and Ogens found himself at Netflix chief content officer and co-CEO Ted Sarandos’ house during a reception for the streaming service’s Oscar nominees. Ogens quipped that he felt like the low man on the totem pole, rubbing shoulders with the likes of eventual Best Director Oscar winner Jame Campion (The Power of the Dog), among others.
The awards season also brought Ogens together with the team on CODA (Apple TV+) as he got to meet Apple CEO Tim Cook, actress Marlee Matlin and actor Troy Kotsur. The CODA and Audible camps, related Ogens, kind of rooted for one another--with Kotsur, who wound up winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for CODA, even doing a couple of interviews with the kids from Audible.
Ogens recalled Matlin telling him and EP DiMarco that she hopes to “get to a place where we don’t have to call it a Deaf story or a Deaf film.” Observing that we don’t call something a hearing story or a hearing film, Ogens added that while he isn’t Deaf, he could fully relate to the story in Audible. He too was a kid who didn’t feel like he belonged. Rather he felt like an outsider, growing up in Maryland with filmmaking aspirations, hardly the norm in his neighborhood.
Ogens added that his experience on Audible taught him an invaluable lesson about filmmaking and the art of listening. “I thought I was a great listener,” said Ogens, particularly when interviewing people. “But the kids taught me how to listen better. Listening isn’t always about hearing with your ears.” Ogens said that listening also entails feeling, being attuned to body and facial language. Besides engaging with some sign language, Ogens also learned “to hear with my heart, which these kids were already doing.”
The director further shared a question he asked of McKenstry which didn’t make the final film. “If right now you could snap your fingers and get your hearing back, would you?" McKenstry's answer, recalled Ogens, was, "No, there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not disabled. I don’t want to change a thing.” McKenstry views his life’s experience as a story--not a Deaf story.
The Oscar nomination adds to assorted honors that Ogens’ work has received over the years. Ogens’ breakthrough documentary Confessions of a Superhero premiered at SXSW to critical acclaim, and he subsequently went on to earn a primetime Emmy Award for his ESPN 30 for 30 piece, "From Harlem With Love" about the famed basketball Globetrotters. Recent projects include the two-time Sports Emmy-nominated documentary series Why We Fight, which Ogens created and executive produced, the News & Documentary Emmy-nominated La Louvre, an augmented reality film for RYOT and Huffington Post, and two films for the UFC 25 Years In Short series--nominated for a Sports Emmy Award and earning a Clio. His feature film Home + Away, which follows high school athletes living on the U.S./Mexico border, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Ogens has also collaborated with leading ad agencies and brands to helm major award-winning work, including the Verizon Super Bowl campaign “The Team Who Wouldn’t Be Here,” which earned three Cannes Lions, four Clio Awards, a Webby Award, and One Show recognition. Additional brands he’s directed for include Ford, Under Armour, Land Rover, Visa, Toyota, IBM, FIFA World Cup, McDonald’s, NASCAR and Ancestry.com.
Among the honors Ogens garnered early on in his career was inclusion in SHOOT’s 3rd annual New Directors Showcase back in 2005.