Sign Language Returns to Hollywood's Oscars with Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal is a film about a drummer in a heavy metal band who becomes deaf and how he struggles with or accepts his new reality. The movie has won many awards, including two Hollywood Oscars, so a large number of articles have been written about the movie. So that you don't have to read them all, here is a summary of some of the most interesting facts we know from more than 30 press articles.


The Film

The film premiered in September 2019 during the Toronto International Film Festival, but was not released in the USA until November 2020 and in . In some countries it has been released in 2021 and in others it will still be released later in the year. Amazon acquired the distribution rights and it can currently be seen on Prime Video.

Contrary to appearances, the film is not about heavy metal, but about deafness and accepting new realities. The synopsis is as follows:
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer and one half of the metal duo Blackgammon, along with the singer and his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). They live in an RV while driving across the United States to perform gigs. When Ruben begins to lose his hearing, he goes to a pharmacy seeking a diagnosis. The pharmacist refers him to a doctor, who performs a hearing test and finds that Ruben can only make out 20–30 percent of words he hears and his hearing will deteriorate rapidly; moreover, although cochlear implants may benefit him, their high cost is not covered by insurance. The doctor suggests that Ruben eliminate all exposure to loud noises and later undergo further testing, but Ruben continues to perform (source: Wikipedia)
Left: actor Riz Ahmed, starring in the film. Right: director Darius Marder (photo: credit unknown).

The film received positive reviews from almost everyone and praised the good acting work done by the film's protagonist, Riz Ahmed, being nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in 2021. In addition, the film garnered five other Oscar nominations, eventually receiving two statuettes (for Best Sound and Best Editing), as well as numerous awards at festivals around the world, 81 awards at the time this article was published.

Some people believed that the film was based on real events, but this is not the case. Part of the confusion is because this film is based on an earlier production about a real heavy metal band, which was composed of a one woman, one man duo. This production was to be a docufiction, that is, a mix of documentary with fictional elements, but it was never finished, so director Darius Marder recovered the story and brought it forward as a fully fictional film.

It was shot in only four weeks, as it had a very limited budget. Here you can see the trailer with English subtitles:


Sign Language in the Film

The lead actor, Riz Ahmed, spent six to seven months before the film learning American Sign Language, two hours a day, five days a week, from a real-life Deaf teacher, Jeremy Lee Stone, who also has a small role in the film. Jeremy is the founder of the company ASL Elements. The film's director confessed that Jeremy's involvement went far beyond teaching and advising on Sign Language:
It’s immeasurable, the effect that Jeremy had on this movie. I leaned on him for a lot, and then I realized when I was shooting, I wanted a Deaf director with me... I wanted the Deaf community to represent themselves in this film. I didn’t want to be representing that culture myself, of course, because how can I?
Riz Ahmed's learning of Sign Language and approach to the Deaf community marked him deeply and he has expressed this in many interviews:
A lot of people don't realize that deafness is not a disability. It's an identity. Deaf pride is something that is real and rich and powerful
In addition, Ahmed attended some events organized by Deaf people during his learning period. All this allowed Ahmed to become fluent enough in Sign Language to communicate with the rest of the Deaf actors and actresses during the filming.


Deaf Actors and Actresses

In the American Deaf community, some Deaf people believe that this film represents a turning point, since a large part of the cast is played by real-life Deaf people. Among them, we find some well-known ones, for example:

From left to right: Lauren Ridloff, Shaheem Sanchez, Chelsea Lee and Jeremy Lee Stone. They are some of the deaf actresses and actresses in the film.

Riz Ahmed himself has said that 'there's plenty of deaf actors, tons of them that are talented, that deserve to work', so it is hoped that this film will encourage more participation.

In the following video you can watch an interview with Jeremy Lee Stone and Chelsea Lee in American Sign Language (without subtitles):


10 Fun Facts About the Film

1. Incident: a spectator fainted during the screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019, 20 minutes into the film. It is believed to have been due to the sound effects used in the film.

2. One exception: the American Deaf community has applauded the participation of real-life Deaf actors and actresses in the film as often these roles can be played by Deaf people themselves and hearing people are used. The one exception in the film was the role of Joe by a hearing actor, Paul Rici. They were initially reluctant to accept that a Deaf actor would not play the role of Joe but finally accepted it, as Paul is the son of a Deaf mother and father (CODA), was a Sign Language interpreter and has been fluent in American Sign Language all his life.

Paul was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and was on the red carpet at the gala. In the video below you can see him answering questions using a mixing of American Sign Language and English, further proof of why the American Deaf community has embraced his work:


3. Singer in real life: for many years, actor Paul Rici has been part of a real life heavy metal tribute band called Hands of Doom ASL Rock, in which Paul sings with voice and American Sign Language simultaneously. You can check out their Facebook page with videos and photos of the band here.

4. Hearing deafness: to convey how a deaf person hears sounds or through a cochlear implant, the film director and sound designer interviewed many deaf people to try to gather their experience, with audiologists and scientists. They even both experienced absolute silence by going into an anechoic chamber in Paris, which is unbearable for hearing people. They said about the experience: 'after 10 minutes, you can hear your tendons, the pressure of your blood, you reach the physiological limit of your hearing system'. This intense work has been awarded an Oscar for best sound and the film really allows the viewer to experience deafness.

Anechoic chamber similar to the one in which the film's director and sound designer experienced absolute silence (photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Adamantios via Wikimedia)


5. He cries when he can't hear: in one of the scenes of the film, actor Riz Ahmed put on ear blockers as he emitted white noise and couldn't even hear his own voice. The film's director said that after putting the hearing aids on Ahmed the first time, 'It brought tears to his eyes because he felt that loss of control when you lose that connection to your own voice'.

6. Riz's insomnia: The filming experience was stressful for actor Riz Ahmed and he suffered from severe insomnia that led him to believe it was due to the mattress of the bed he slept on. During the first week he bought up to three mattresses until he realized it was due to the stress of getting into character.

7. Rehabilitation of addictions: in the movie, the drummer of the heavy metal band enters a sober living home for the rehabilitation of Deaf people with addictions. Such homes actually exist in the United States and the movie is based on one of them located in Los Angeles, owned by Deaf people, run by Deaf people and where the rehabilitation program is conducted entirely in American Sign Language. It is called Awakenings and you can find detailed information here.

8. New friendships: Actor Riz Ahmed and his Sign Language teacher, Jeremy Lee Stone, became such good friends after the film experience that Riz attended Jeremy's wedding.

9. Director's sign name: Deaf actress Chelsea Lee christened the film's director, Darius Marder, with a sign name, which was shared on her Twitter account:
10. Donations: Riz Ahmed and Amazon donated a large amount of technological equipment to the NGO Off-The-Grid Missions, founded by deaf activist Angela Maria Nardolillo in 2009. This NGO provides resources to save the lives of deaf people in disaster-stricken regions of the world, especially women, having so far served more than 12,000 people in nine disasters. Visit Off-The-Grid's website here.


Highlights of the Film

  1. It puts Sign Language in the Hollywood spotlight again.
  2. It features a large number of real-life Deaf actors and actresses.
  3. Some scenes with Deaf people are not subtitled until the main character, Ruben, is able to understand American Sign Language.
  4. It approaches the experience of deafness with feeling, not sentimentality.
  5. The fluency in American Sign Language achieved by actor Riz Ahmed.
  6. The excellent portrayal of sound to convey the experience of deafness to hearing viewers.



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