Sound and Fury, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2001, addresses the cochlear implant controversy in the Deaf community in the United States. But this mild, factual description in no way conveys the extreme drama portrayed in the film.
The documentary focuses in on one extended family debating the pros and cons of cochlear implants for children. The main nuclear family featured is Peter and Nita Artinian and their children Heather, Timothy, and C.J.; all five are Deaf. Peter's brother Chris is also Deaf; their parents are hearing. Chris's wife Mari is hearing, but the child of Deaf parents. Chris and Mari have five children: Emily, Christopher and Peter (twins), and Joey and Nicholas (also twins). Got all that?
Well, now it starts to get a little bit complicated. Chris and Mari's children are barely shown, mercifully. Their baby Peter, who is a year and a half old at the time of filming, is the only one who really features here. He is also the only Deaf child in his immediate family, and they decide to get him implanted. The documentary opens with a scene in which Peter's hearing mother, alone with six-year-old Heather, begins pressuring her to get a cochlear implant too. And thus the drama begins....
Heather loves the wild promises her grandmother makes her and tells her parents she wants a cochlear implant. They are upset at first, because they see it as a rejection of their culture, their community, and more troublingly, of herself as a Deaf child. She insists that she wants to use both sign language and speech, to communicate with hearing as well as Deaf friends. She doesn't want to stop being Deaf, she just wants to be able to hear too. Nita starts thinking about getting a cochlear implant herself, but is told that it would not be very effective on an adult who has been Deaf her whole life. Cochlear implants do not make things sound the way they sound to hearing ears, and they do not make speech intelligible to ears that did not grow up hearing it.
Cochlear implants do not always work even for "good candidates", but they do always destroy whatever hearing the person has naturally. And most Deaf people have some hearing, often quite a bit. In one scene, an audiologist shows Chris and Mari what speech might sound like to their Deaf son, and rather than being surprised that he can hear anything, Mari bursts into melodramatic hysterical sobs at how very terrible it is that her son, who she knows is Deaf, can hear so little.
The hearing people in the movie are striking overall for their ignorance. Peter and Chris' mother tries to argue that without cochlear implants, Deaf children will not grow up with the skills they need for adulthood: to support her argument, she challenges Nita about whether Nita can read a recipe. This seems ludicrously off-topic, but Nita immediately snaps back that her mother-in-law knows she can't, because her mother never taught her to. Her mother, like the vast majority of hearing parents of Deaf children, never learned to communicate with her. Her mother-in-law seems to think that this says something about Deaf people themselves, but then, she would: despite having at least two Deaf children, she can barely sign herself. She communicates with them by speaking English as she normally would and throwing in a vaguely-executed sign every few words when she thinks of it. Her argument, and her husband's argument, is that instead of hearing people educating themselves about Deaf culture and meeting Deaf people halfway, Deaf people should have a sometimes-effective bit of circuitry grafted directly to the bones of their skulls and be raised within the hearing community as much as possible. The message communicated by hearing people, over and over, is "We know we oppress you; that's just how it is. If you want to overcome that and have equal opportunities, your best bet is to become as much like us as possible."
Sound and Fury does a good job of showing the emotional, gut-level reactions to cochlear implants from both the Deaf and hearing communities, but it is very irresponsible about which ones are presented as facts. The film uses a common documentary technique which omits narration entirely and lets the story be told through the words of its interviewees, but the story can still be manipulated and “told” by the words and images that the filmmakers choose to include. This is very problematic: the film gets to seem as though it is simply showing an unbiased series of opinions and experiences while actually communicating specific biases clearly.
One effect of this technique is that different audience members may end up seeing very different films. The hole created by the absence of explicit narration is filled by all the expectations and knowledge we bring in with us. I expected Sound and Fury to be all about how terrible cochlear implants are, so that - at first - is what I saw. When I watched the grandmother telling Heather about all the things she would hear if she had a cochlear implant, I saw a biased hearing woman manipulating her grandchild with a lot of inaccurate and empty promises. When Mari tells Nita that they plan to send baby Peter to hearing schools because Deaf schools are terrible, I automatically filled in the part about how it is the hearing culture’s demand for oralism and pressure to fund mainstreaming over Deaf education that has negatively affected Deaf education in recent history. When the filmmakers included a pointed shot of a street with a Deaf School sign and one that simply said Dead End, I didn't even notice it.
However, I had already learned that cochlear implants, contrary to the grandmother's claims, do not generally let people hear over the phone. And that the majority of people with cochlear implants still rely on lipreading to understand spoken words. I had already learned that Deaf education was excellent before the Milan Conference, that there are good Deaf schools in existence today, and that they could send their son to a mainstream hearing school without a cochlear implant if they were so sure that it would give him a better education.
More importantly, even with all this background information, I discovered that the movie had changed my feelings about cochlear implants dramatically, and there wasn't much that I could point to in the movie that openly caused this change. I came out of the movie thinking that cochlear implants were probably good for some people; the problem is not that that is or is not true, but that a movie with so little hard information about the implants was able to change the opinions I formed through actual research.
I had been surprised to find that many people in the Deaf community considered the movie to be anti-Deaf, but the more I read about their reasons, the clearer it became to me. As critics have pointed out, Sound and Fury has very little hard information about cochlear implants; by and large, it presents as fact the opinions of people who do not even have the implants. Even when the documentary presents or mentions supposed experts, their statements are often blatantly inaccurate: for example, Peter and Nita talk to two hearing parents of an implanted child, who were told that a Deaf child with an implant should never learn ASL because it would become a crutch.
Statements like this are left as unchallenged as anything that any of the family members say to one another; we do not even see the Deaf parents respond. Critics point out that the movie gives airtime to doctors, teachers, and audiologists who are talking to different family members about cochlear implants and who are all pro-implant, but only show Deaf laypeople speaking out against it. It does not include any experts on Deaf culture, or even acknowledge that such people exist; nor does it treat Deaf people as experts on their own culture or needs.
Mainly, it is a movie about a family full of adults who are struggling with unresolved neglect from their pasts and lashing out at each other as a result: grandparents acting out control issues on the children they don't respect, Mari ranting about her parents denying her a childhood by forcing her to act as their interpreter all the time and projecting that onto every child of Deaf adults around her, Nita struggling with her parents' extensive neglect, and Peter fighting with the parents who he feels are rejecting him and have tried to control him all his life. Ultimately, Peter, Nita, and their children reject the rest of their family and move to Maryland so that their children can go to good Deaf schools and so that they can all be surrounded by a more understanding regional culture.
In their new community, near Gallaudet University, they even find that hearing clerks at the local grocery store can sign to them. For a while it is paradise, but Peter keeps his job in New York and commutes to Maryland on weekends; ultimately the strain is too much and they return to New York three years later. A sequel, "Sound and Fury: Six Years Later," shows them reunited with their estranged family members and, in a surprising twist, shows all three children and Nita living with cochlear implants. Mari, who had been so vehemently against leaving the children unimplanted, says that the most important thing she and Chris learned from the original documentary was "everyone has the right to make their own decision, and that decision should be respected." She is teaching baby Peter, now 7, sign language, and sharing it with children at his school; he uses it with his Deaf family members and when his implant is out. Meanwhile, twelve-year-old Heather, fluent in both ASL and English, is the only Deaf child in her school and navigates it with only occasional use of an interpreter. She can speak to her grandmother on the phone, but can't talk to others over the phone unless she is already intimately familiar with their voices.
Nita comments that "Looking back, we were so overwhelmed with all the information about the implant at the time the documentary was made. It was too new for us, and we had so much information from both sides (deaf and hearing people) that we weren't ready for any of it." And this is part of the problem with the original documentary: it is often just an outpouring of argument, information, and misinformation.
The bigger problem is that Sound and Fury neglects to separate the real issue - respect for Deaf language and culture - from the straw man of cochlear implants. Over and over, it shows Deaf people objecting to cochlear implants on the grounds that they would make Deaf people into hearing people. Or that the implants do not make the children hearing, that they remain Deaf but are purposely being lied to about their identity and isolated from their Deaf community. Or that the implants will eventually destroy Deaf culture.
But as the family members screaming and fighting throughout the film show, the true problems here are ignorance and disrespect of Deaf people, inadequate communication with and respect for Deaf workers, and ignorance of Deaf culture - problems which have little to do with cochlear implants. They are much larger and more emotionally charged issues which have threatened the Deaf community with erasure since the Milan conference. Cochlear implants and the medicalization of Deafhood are indeed often used by the hearing community to erase Deaf people, but no more than the educational system, the medical system, the media.... By leaving the research up to the viewer, Sound and Fury ultimately just highlights the losses of
information caused by the hearing culture’s invasion of and attempt to control Deafhood by defining it as a disease.