Not A Film About Deafness

  • Siân Heder
  • .August 29, 2022
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“Not A Film About Deafness” Siân Heder Talks ‘CODA’:

CODA (Children Of Deaf Adults) began its creative life as a French film called La Famille Bélier (The Bélier Family) in 2014. Several years later, writer/ director Siân Heder (Orange Is The New Black, Little America) reimagined it into CODA – a story of the Rossi family who are deaf except for their daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) who acts as their interpreter.

“I think the idea of a CODA identity, who is the sole hearing person in their deaf family and an outsider as a result, is interesting,” said Heder. Despite being able to hear, Ruby didn’t neatly fit into either the hearing and non-hearing communities. She’s ostensibly a hearing person embedded in deaf culture and speaks primarily in ASL (American Sign Language). “Ruby has to navigate both worlds and serve as a conduit between her deaf family and the hearing world.”

Living with one foot in each world contains a lot of inherent tension and drama. “I was also interested in the intricacies of the family dynamics and making each family member fully-realised and three-dimensional – each with their own journey,” Heder continued.

Is It A Remake?

The writer/ director wanted to be inspired by La Famille Bélier, but not be beholden to the French original. “I watched the original and wanted to be absorbed and moved by it and hold on to the moments that stayed with me.” Determined not to make CODA a remake, Siân didn’t even read the original screenplay. She only watched the movie. Then she spoke with real CODAs as part of her research to make the film her own. “I went to Gloucester, Massachusetts and spent time with the fishing community there, I spoke with local fisherman about their pressures and conflicts to allow myself the freedom to explore the story as I was finding it.”

Heder did not seek to make a cause film which explored the challenges deaf communities face. She always wanted to make a family comedy drama. “Audience don’t necessarily want to be educated on a topic. There is a negative reactivity to that.” She specifically didn’t want to tell a story about the deaf or the CODA experience because it is so variable. “I wanted to be as specific as possible with the Rossi family – these flawed, messy characters. I wanted to tell a story about a family who happened to be deaf. It’s only one aspect of their identities. They’re not defined by it.” Drawing characters as relatable humans is what’s going to change the conversation about deafness and CODAs rather than preaching.

Siân is neither deaf nor a CODA, so writing a story about them came with inherent risks. “I came into the writing knowing what I didn’t know and the ways I needed to be educated.” Then she surrounded herself with collaborators from the CODA community to infuse authenticity into her story. “I put my own hearing perspective in check and invited them to take this journey with me.”

Appropriately, Heder’s hearing status served as a bridge between the two worlds in the same way as Ruby. “Sometimes I felt that outsider perspective allowed me to speak to both of those groups.” Heder studied ASL and inserted herself into relationships in that world before she started writing. “This was important because the story I was telling was not my own lived experience.”

Writing dialogue for deaf actors comes with its unique concerns, namely the silence on the screen. Heder knew that half the dialogue scenes were going to be silent in ADL with subtitles. “I made sure there was a balance between the dialogue, the silence, and the music in a way that would ease an audience into comfortably watching ASL on screen.” There were increasing numbers of scenes with ASL as the film progressed as the audience became more accustomed to them. “We have earned the audience’s attention, patience and emotional connection of that world.”

Family Conflict

CODA is mainly told through Ruby’s perspective and she experiences conflict from all directions – her family who don’t want her to study music at Berklee College Of Music and abandon them, from Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), her singing tutor who always scolded her for being late, and her conscience which nags her to choose between her family and her desires.

Siân Heder wisely made Ruby a seventeen year old. “She’s right on the cusp of adulthood, trying to find her identity and pulling away from the people who make you who you are. The same people were pulling at her from opposite directions.”

Ruby was always conflicted by the responsibilities she felt she owed her family and pursuing her dream singing career. “Ruby’s life was more than Ruby being an interpreter. It was also about being a fishing family who are very reliant on each other – hearing or not.” Fishing tends to be a generational business which is expected to be handed down.

“I took an interesting turn in the writing because neither of these things are pulling on Ruby to the extent she believes. It’s a war Ruby is having with herself.” Heder also learned of the burdens many CODAs face during her research. “Many are forced to grow up before they’re ready or thrust into adult conversations while they’re still children.” This is offset by their sense of self-worth that arises from their roles. In some respects, the feeling of being needed may be difficult to give up. “You’re powerful when so many people rely on you; a power you may not have in the outside world.”

“Much of the blame that Ruby is throwing around stems from her own fear of leaving,” said Heder. “It’s her own fear of discovering who she is outside her family that is holding her back, not her actual family.” Ruby verbalizes her fear in the film when she states, “I’ve never done anything without my family before.” Despite the self-declared burden Ruby places on herself, there is a degree of co-dependency in the family because they still require a hearing person to assist with their fishing business, especially since they’re in financial straits.

During her interactions with CODAs, Heder learned that many CODA families push back against hearing family members who insert themselves into a situation without being invited.

Ruby’s brother Leo (Daniel Durant) gives Ruby clear permission to follow her love of music in defiance of her mother Jackie’s (Marlee Matlin) requests for her to stay. Father Frank (Troy Kotsur) is more ambivalent. He wants her to stay, but won’t stand in the way of Ruby’s dream.

At one point, Leo snaps at Ruby telling her that they were fine before she was born; not from malice, but from frustration that Ruby is clinging to her CODA role she must relinquish. Ruby’s family will find their place in Gloucester and cope in the same way they did before. Leo advises Ruby, “Let them [their parents] figure out how to deal with deaf people.” Ruby may be unwittingly worsening the situation with her constant presence because she won’t allow the other hearing people in Gloucester the opportunity to help the Rossis. Leo forces Ruby to accept her role in the family problems.

In another tender scene between Ruby and Jackie, Ruby asks her mom if she ever hoped she was born deaf. Jackie responded in the negative because she was concerned they wouldn’t be able to communicate as well. “Jackie didn’t have a good relationship with her [hearing] mother. She felt she didn’t have a voice and was only valued because of her looks. People didn’t look to her for an opinion.” Jackie was driven by a fear of this pattern repeating. Ironically, this scene brought them closer together, despite Jackie’s fear of being a bad mother, especially if Ruby’s signing career doesn’t pan out as expected.

CODA straddles rich subject matter with an often raucous and playful tone. “I knew I wanted the comedy to live in an edgy and provocative space,” said Heder. “Laughter allows the audience to open up and be open to other emotions. It was important for the Rossis to be an outrageously funny family.”

This approach is in direct contrast to many stories addressing disabilities where the characters are earnest and noble as they struggle in the face of adversity. “The comedy disarms the audience and allows them to connect with the dirty, messy lives of the Rossis.“
Originally Published:
Creative Screenwriting Magazine
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