Sundance 2019: A conversation with 'Moonlight Sonata' director Irene Taylor Brodsky

In "Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements," director Irene Brodsky intertwines her family's personal tales of deafness with the story of Ludwig van Beethoven.
In "Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements," director Irene Brodsky intertwines her family's personal tales of deafness with the story of Ludwig van Beethoven.

After filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky’s 2007 documentary “Hear and Now" won the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival, she once again turned the camera to her closest family to explore what it means to be deaf. “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements” explores Brodsky's eldest son Jonas' adaptation to the world of sound after a cochlear implant surgery. Jonas had previously inherited the genetic mutation that caused his grandparents' deafness, a topic explored in "Hear and Now," where his grandparents receive cochlear implants at the age of 65. Jonas becomes interested in learning Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a beautiful and heart-wrenching piece written by the famous musician when he was going deaf. 

With the camera aimed at the most touching and revealing family moments, and gorgeous animation depicting a tormented Beethoven mourning his loss, “Moonlight Sonata” brilliantly takes three stories, two of them intertwining, and challenges the audience to rethink the concept of deafness and loss.

The Chronicle spoke to Brodsky about her experience directing "Moonlight Sonata." This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: How did you decide to do this project? And what was the experience like to film your family in such a personal story?

Irene Taylor Brodsky: I mean, you’re filming people you love the most. I think that to make a good film, you can be compassionate and respectful, but you also need to be ruthless. You have to turn on the camera and keep it rolling in highly inconvenient moment or involving incredible tension. And that can be really hard when the tension is between you and people who are really close to you. For example, there are scenes in the film where I am filming a conversation with my parents where I’m telling my father that he can no longer drive my children because I think his mind is not strong enough. He really didn’t want to have that scene filmed. I said to him that I’m really trying to understand what is going on to us here as a family and what’s happening to you. And he said okay. But it’s because he’s someone who has experience of being filmed. 

You know, there were a number of moments where Jonas didn’t want me to film him practicing. Maybe he was irritable at night, or he was mad at me for something that’s totally unrelated to the film. Yet we pushed through it. I already had my experience with my parents, so I knew exactly what I’m getting into. And that’s why it wasn’t an easy decision to make to make a film a second time. 

TC: What does this film mean to you personally? Is it something cathartic or were you trying to understand what was happening?

ITB: The film is character-driven. It is also action-driven. But I  think it’s really a meditation on deafness — it’s a meditation on a mistake. And what is a mistake? There is a scene in the film where my mother is learning the genetic heart of her deafness for the first time at the age of 79. She’s learning how and why she became deaf. And the genetic counselor effectively explained to her that she has what she called a “typo” in her DNA. Her gene has a typo; it’s not spelled correctly. 

But when you really look at greatness, when you really look at not just a genius in history but people who live their lives with grace and live their lives with perseverance, they often come from some “weakness” — maybe mental illness, maybe they have physical disability, maybe they have trauma in their life. We often don’t attribute these so-called “negative traits” or mistakes in our human condition to be the building blocks of greatness. And in the case of Beethoven, without a doubt, he made his music not in spite of his deafness but because of his deafness. All the things he did with music, the way he created music differently, disruptively than the way people did before him. And we’re very much influenced by the fact that he was not tuned in; he was not listening because he couldn’t to what was happening in popular music at that time. So he was doing things his own way. The way I see the film is that our mistake become the music we make.

TC: Apart from the story itself, I was also very interested in the structure of the story — it was divided into three movements. How does that structure inform the film? 

ITB: The film has a theme of three, this idea of three characters over three centuries. There are three movements in "Moonlight Sonata." So I break up the film into the first movement, the second movement and the third movement. What’s also interesting about the "Moonlight Sonata" is that it is structured very differently from typical sonatas. You didn’t typically start a sonata with a flow movement. And yet at the start of the "Moonlight Sonata" and at the start of the first movement, if you look at his original drawing, he writes there, “make it soft and slow”. He tells you that this is how he wants you to start the sonata, which is how you would start usually. 

So I think that there is a message in there that there is something different with this film. We’re trying to talk about deafness in a paradigm or in a way that hasn’t been talked about before. I think we’re coming out of a very contentious era in the deaf community over cochlear implantation. The conversation has evolved greatly in the last 20 years. They are much less controversial than they were. We really think the film is a step forward in that dialogue because I feel that my family is culturally very “deaf,” meaning that we embrace many things about deaf culture. We use a lot of sign language; we are a very visual family. And Jonas, he doesn’t really use sign language. He has deaf grandparents, and we have deaf friends, and we have deaf colleagues. So we are taking part in this new technology and having this whole new kind of experience. I’m not trying to argue that cochlear implants are for everybody, but it’s what we chose in our family. And I really want to show how far we’ve come from the time of Beethoven, where deafness meant absolute isolation.


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