But it also tells the story of McKenstry-Hall as he navigates his family relationships and the loss of a best friend. The film explains that the main character lost his hearing after falling ill with meningitis as a toddler, and around the same time his father left home. McKenstry-Hall’s entire family is not fluent in American Sign Language, which makes him feel disconnected at home. In the film, he reflects on the isolation he felt growing up when family members talked around him.
Ultimately, the film is a “coming of age” story, said Matthew Ogens, the film’s director. While the experiences and challenges are unique to the story subjects and the deaf community, many themes are applicable to all audience members, he said.
“This community has something to say and maybe they communicate differently, but that doesn’t mean less than,” Ogens said. “It means different.”
McKenstry-Hall graduated from the Maryland School for the Deaf in 2020. In a video for National Deaf History Month this year, McKenstry-Hall described himself and his friends: “Like the young people of world, we have big dreams. We have challenges to meet, sacrifices to make, to make these dreams come true.
The documentary short took 12 years to correspond with a distributor, Ogens said. Netflix stepped in in 2019. The film was released on the streaming service last July and received the Oscar nomination in the Best Documentary Short category last month.
Ogens said he knew all along that he wanted to make a movie focused on a Maryland School senior for the Deaf, but “a lot of people didn’t think there was an audience for it,” said Ogens. he declared. Some people didn’t understand how a documentary could take place mostly without speech, since many cast members use American Sign Language to communicate. During the 12-year span, Ogens regularly returned to school to recast the project with another senior.
“That was the hardest part, until Netflix came on board and totally embraced it and got it,” Ogens said.
Ogens’ ties to the subject go back to his childhood, he said; his best friend growing up was deaf. He felt deeply connected to the subject at first, he said, but only recently realized he was drawn to it to better understand his friend.
After Netflix greenlighted the project, Ogens began tracking McKenstry-Hall’s story in 2019 and wrapped filming by 2020.
“The most important thing for me is to take the time and spend time making sure Amaree and her friends and family were in a safe space to be able to be vulnerable and tell their story because I didn’t want to make an observational film from my perspective,” Ogens said. “I kind of wanted to be a conduit or a liaison for them to tell their story.”