In order to prepare for Oscar season, I try to see as many nominated films as possible. After I finished up all the best picture nominations, I turned to the shorts.
This year’s crop of live action films were politically charged and fueled by goals of social justice. The shorts explored themes such as a topical attempted school shooting, the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, and the solidarity of the Christians and Muslims during a 2015 terrorist bus attack in Kenya.
Most were based on or inspired by true events.
The second film in the lineup, entitled “The Silent Child,” was screenwriter and actor Rachel Shenton’s passion project and ended up being a PSA for the Deaf community.
The 20 minute short follows a family whose youngest daughter, Libby, is deaf. In the hopes of helping her transition into public school, the family hires Joanne (Shenton), an instructor intent on teaching Libby sign language — a skill her parents neglected to even attempt to adopt themselves.
Immediately into their first lesson, Joanne finds Libby to be bright, full of creativity, and eager to learn, rather than the drawn-back and reclusive child her mother describes her to be.silent_child_film/Instagram
As the short progresses, we see the rest of the family’s inability or lack of interest in doing the most to aid Libby, with the mother constantly reassuring herself by repeating:
“Libby follows what we’re saying really well.”
However, throughout the various family meals in the film, none of the members engage with the child, with the camera lingering on shots of a melancholy Libby. When the camera switches angles to show the breakfast table from Libby’s perspective with the voices drowned out, we can see how very isolating her life is with no one willing to engage or learn how to communicate with her.
— The Silent Child (@SilentChildFilm) December 20, 2017
A point Joanne stresses throughout the short: “She is normal, she’s just deaf.”
And that’s what the film is really trying to get at. Deafness is not a learning disability, but rather a different way of existing in the world. As a result, Libby, or any other deaf child, has the same potential to succeed as anyone else. Their only limitations are the ones placed on them by their parents and the lack of support available in schools.silent_child_film/Instagram
Shenton described deafness to Indie Wire, saying that unless it has touched you in some personal way, “the silent disability” will likely slip through your radar. She said:
“The more I got involved with it, the more I saw so many issues that just go unnoticed because it’s silent. There’s a huge lack of education. The thing that gets me all the time, and I say it to everybody, is it isn’t a learning difficulty. With the right support, a deaf child can do exactly the same as a hearing child, yet constantly they’re being failed.”
According to both the film credits and the National Institute of Health (NIH), over 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, however, only 22 percent of those children are placed into schools with the proper support they need to succeed. When I shared these statistics with my mom, she was appalled that any parent would ever do less than 100 percent for their child.
Shenton set out to do everything in her power to normalize deafness and bring attention to this disparity. This is clear from the start of the short, with the inclusion of subtitles and her decision to cast a deaf child actor as Libby. Shenton continued in her interview:
“I’ve been involved in the deaf community for years, and my friends in the community that are actors or performers get very frustrated when they see hearing people portraying a deaf role. So that was something that I was never gonna do.”
Although Shenton is grateful for the Academy recognition, she is even more pleased that the film has been able to bring attention to an issue that too often slips through the cracks. She said:
“We’ve had people leave the cinema that are in their seventies saying, ‘God, you know, I’ve never thought about that before.’ And I think, ‘Wow, well, if we can just educate a cinema full of people that have never considered that before, then it’s job done.’”
Check out the trailer for “The Silent Child” below and make sure to see the rest of the Oscar nominated shorts in theaters before the Academy Awards this upcoming Sunday, March 4.