How Riz Ahmed's 'Sound of Metal' aims to bridge important gap between hearing audiences, deaf community

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY
·4 min read

Many hearing people don't understand or have never experienced what it's like to be deaf, and the new movie "Sound of Metal" tries to bridge that gap.

"This film is told from a hearing perspective, and that’s obviously my world as a hearing person," director and co-writer Darius Marder said in a panel Sunday for the film at the virtual AFI Fest, which runs through Oct. 22. "It’s an invitation into deaf culture and a celebration of an aspect of deaf culture."

"Sound of Metal" (in select theaters Nov. 20 and streaming Dec. 4 on Amazon Prime Video) stars Riz Ahmed as a heavy-metal drummer named Ruben who loses his hearing, his livelihood and his bandmate/lover (Olivia Cooke) but begins to find his way at a halfway house for deaf drug addicts run by a man (Paul Raci) who takes a special interest in his plight. The film, which uses closed captioning throughout as it makes the viewer experience Ruben's hearing loss, is now available to stream as part of AFI Fest.

Opinion: Hollywood is talking about inclusion more than ever, but not for disabled actors

Related: Julianne Moore is 'Wonderstruck' by the beauty of deaf culture in poignant new drama

Riz Ahmed stars as a drummer who experiences a sudden loss of hearing in "Sound of Metal."
Riz Ahmed stars as a drummer who experiences a sudden loss of hearing in "Sound of Metal."

On a gut level, Ahmed – who learned American Sign Language as well as how to drum for the role – liked that "Sound of Metal" explored someone who has to reimagine his identity because it's "something that is constantly shifting and evolving, either because we evolve or because the labels project onto us evolve." The British-Pakistani actor said someone like himself "would have been considered Black in the U.K" in the 1980s, because it was a "political term," while today "the label strung around my neck" is British Muslim.

"As much as identity can root us, it can also trap us," he added. "These labels can prevent us from making new connections, from walking across bridges and reimagining what our social circle or friendships or identity can be. In an era of identity politics, it’s fascinating to tell the story of a character where you realize how identity itself is a kind of vapor."

"Sound of Metal" also shines a light on persistent challenges faced by people with hearing loss. "There’s a complete disconnect between the deaf community and Hollywood," said Nanci Linke-Ellis, who's worked for decades on bringing deaf accessibility and inclusion to movie theaters. "It’s a work in progress. Films like this help progress it."

Oscar watch! These 5 festival films are already the talk of awards season

Never been to a film festival before? Thanks to COVID, they're more accessible than ever

Raci, a hearing son of deaf parents, said there's a big discussion going on in the deaf community about deaf actors and how they should be represented on film. For example, watching Julianne Moore play a deaf woman in 2017's "Wonderstruck" was "a direct insult to the deaf community when there are so many talented deaf actors and actresses out there who are capable. But Hollywood again thumbs its nose at the deaf community, as well as wheelchair-bound people or blind people.

"This is a problem for years and years and years. I think this may finally crack the egg a little bit but Hollywood is tough to crack when it comes to that."

Shaheem Sanchez and Chelsea Lee are two deaf actors who co-star in "Sound of Metal." Signing through an interpreter, Lee said she hopes it'll create more opportunities but "not to just represent deaf folks just because they're good actors. If we’re looking at auditions, for example, we assume that they're looking for a white, able-bodied, straight, cis person. ... I’m hoping the takeaways from this are truly intersectional."

Ahmed said the talent out there among deaf actors is "mind-blowing" and found them "to be embodied in a different way" than hearing performers. "It unlocked something in me and I’m sure it would unlock something in audiences to see talent like this on the screen."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Sound of Metal': Riz Ahmed film bridges hearing, deaf audiences