Oscar-nominated director Irene Taylor Brodsky opens up about her family and 18-19th century composer Ludwig Van Beethoven in her latest documentary “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements,” released on HBO Dec. 11.
A black raven takes flight across a blue and purple water-colored sky, slowly meandering among the wind gales and gliding over the water below. Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” originally composed in 1801, accompanies the flight on a sorrowful piano. Suddenly, the bird dives head first into the waves, disappearing from view. Sound altogether stops.
“The bird is soaring through the air and diving, he’s not crashing,” Brodsky said on the documentary. “Beethoven was very much engaged with his intellect in hearing, because he grew up hearing, but he was not afraid to dive into his deafness within this work. I took this theme of water, my son and deafness and created a visual and auditory metaphor.”
The Oscar-nominated director gives her audience a shockingly intimate look into the experience of her son and father as they learn to navigate their deafness and accept it as an asset rather than an inhibition.
Beethoven, widely recognized as one of the greatest musicians and composers of all time, began going deaf at the age of 26. His dark, brooding piece “Moonlight Sonata” was written during his transition into deafness and deep depression. Although Beethoven couldn’t hear the melody of the song, he worked with the vibrations of the piano and his own memory and expertise.
Jonas, Brodsky’s son and the subject of the documentary, shares Beethoven’s love for music, specifically the piano, and his deafness. Aided by Cochlear implants, 11-year-old Jonas now has the ability to turn his hearing on an off like a switch. Jonas’ “superpower,” the documentary describes, is his ability to transition between the two.
“You know, I think there is really a historic narrative surrounding disability as something one must overcome, as an obstacle,” Brodsky said. “Beethoven was great because of deafness. My son is a better musician because he is deaf. He can turn sound on and off again. He relates to music differently than we do.”
Brodsky follows her son as he learns and perfects his chosen piece, the first movement of “Moonlight Sonata,” for an upcoming piano recital, highlighting the similarities between the two musicians.
“My son led the way. He had no way of knowing about Beethoven coming out of a depression, his deafness, but he was really drawn to the melody and composition.” Brodsky said. “I saw a very poignant story.”
Brodsky also directs the camera toward her parents and her father’s struggle with dementia. Brodsky’s parents’ fascination with filmmaking and photography had a large impact on the now director and filmmaker. Brodsky admitted “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements” was her most challenging piece because of its many different themes surrounding her family members.
“I was raised most importantly by two people that were very focused and challenged by communicating,” Brodsky said. “I’m trying to be the best communicator I can be. I try to be clear and have the confidence to tackle complex thematic works.”
Although Brodsky was trepidatious to turn the camera inward toward the people in her own life, she views “Moonlight Sonata” as an open invitation. Brodsky said she hopes this documentary will impact the way film is made for the blind and deaf. Brodsky pointed out the difficulty in creating a cinematic experience for a blind or deaf audience. According to Brodsky most directors only focus on the dialogue without thinking about the importance of music, scene work and other components.
Cinema, according to Brodsky, is more than just words. It’s the music, the pauses and the dramatic elements that make movies a thrilling or cathartic experience. Brodsky said she challenges other filmmakers to explore different audiences to make cinema more accessible.
Brodsky said she hopes any audience can take something away from the film. She hopes “Moonlight Sonata,” can be a way for families to take a break from each other and learn something from her own.
“We all have bonds that tie us and it’s not always deafness, but love, being, societal elements, art, sports.” Brodsky says. “We all have these family values that bring us together. I don’t want to tell people what they should be thinking about. I want them to lose themselves in the narrative.”
“Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements” is available for streaming on HBO.