Oscar Nominated film on deaf musician causes a storm of protest for its depiction of Cochlear Implants

The new film “Sound of Metal” (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5363618/) garnered 6 Oscar Nominations, winning the Oscars for best sound and best film editing, for its searing portrait of a Musician who goes deaf due to the loud music he has been exposed to. Film critics have praised the actor’s performances and the script. However, the film is generating significant controversy due to its depiction of Cochlear Implants. Lise Hamlin is director of public policy at the Hearing Loss Association of America and has kicked off the conversation on the film.

The Sound of Misinformation By Lise Hamlin

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences brings on their Oscar Awards April 25, 2021. “Sound Of Metal,” has been nominated for six awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Riz Ahmed), Best Supporting Actor (Paul Raci), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound at the Academy Awards. “Sound Of Metal,” is a story about a heavy metal drummer who is suddenly deafened. The actors Ahmed and Raci are receiving the most attention and driving people to see the film. Just what the Oscars buzz is supposed to do.

For sure, Ahmed delivers a fine performance portraying the drummer, Ruben. In every way Ruben’s life is upended when he loses his hearing: his livelihood, his music, and his girlfriend all ripped from him in one fell swoop. Ahmed conveys the trauma of losing not just your hearing, your ability to communicate with the world, but finding the world you knew suddenly gone. While I can applaud the acting, the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) takes issue with a screenplay full of misinformation. This movie that took years to research and, yet, still got totally wrong, basic information about cochlear implants and implantation itself. The film that started on good footing, delving into the emotional upheaval of one man dealing with his devils, turned into a disability message movie. The message is both facile and retro: cochlear implants equals bad; deafness equals good.

It’s been a long time since cochlear implants (CIs) have received such bad press. Cochlear implants have been around a long time. We know their possibilities and limitations. We know they are not a miracle cure; they are simply another tool in our communication toolbox. But it is a powerful tool that allows many to work, to stay with the people in their lives who don’t know sign language and to enjoy a life that includes the sounds of bird calls and music, alarm clocks and emergency alerts. It’s a choice that works well for many, just as sign language is an option that works for others. We have long said that no one size fits all people with hearing loss. Each of us needs to evaluate the options and chose what works best for him or her. No choice is perfect. After all, life itself isn’t perfect, is it?

What is distressing about this film is that the choice the character makes is based largely on misinformation about cochlear implantation. The movie would have benefited from a fact-checker or even better, consulted with someone who actually has been implanted to eliminate the obvious errors. Some of the obvious errors are:
• A doctor who tells Ruben the cost of cochlear implants without informing him that most insurance covers implantation.
• Putting Ruben in the position of being implanted bilaterally, all at once, without any time spent on preparing him for the procedure or aftermath.
• Subjecting Ruben to an audiologist who provides no guidance or empathy about expectations or help when he finds the quality of sound on activation is not like the sound he is used. to. (Didn’t anyone warn him it takes a while? Apparently not.)

Around the world there is a massive gap between those who could potentially benefit from CIs and those who have them: only 5-10% of those in high-income countries with severe-to-profound hearing loss have a CI, in spite of the benefits to individual and society being well-proven. In low-income countries access is even lower. With movies like the “Sound of Metal” receiving so much applause, it’s a wonder anyone gets a CI.

HLAA has recently joined the newly-formed Cochlear Implant International Community of Action. We hope to learn from others who are advocating worldwide for greater acceptance of cochlear implants. Together we can see to it that more people find the truth of the matter even in an Oscar-nominated movie.

We hope to stamp out misinformation. That’s the last thing people with hearing loss need.

Lise Hamlin is director of public policy at the Hearing Loss Association of America. She can be reached at lhamlin@hearingloss.org.

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Read the reactions and join in the discussion here.

23 April 2021

5 Replies to “Oscar Nominated film on deaf musician causes a storm of protest for its depiction of Cochlear Implants”

  1. EURO CIU says:

    Sound of Metal: A world of lies about cochlear implants

    The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced the Oscar nominations to be awarded on April 26th of this year. The film “Sound of Metal” has six nominations. It’s about a musician who goes deaf. As a person with a cochlear implant (the theme of the film) I must state that these nominations are well-deserved, except that for the original script. Why?

    Darius Marder and Abraham Marder, the director and screenwriter of this film, are unfortunately inclined to favour the signing deaf community.

    The film takes place in the US, where I have read news such as that there, signing deaf parents prefer to have a deaf son to a hearing one, and even take an interest in genetic manipulation to achieve it. I don’t want to reveal spoilers, but there are scenes that hit my heart. The lack of empathy shown in the film towards a person, more significantly a musician, who wants to regain hearing after falling deaf, is mind-blowing. The protagonist, a drug addict, becomes deaf and arrives in a community run by a former Vietnam fighter who was deafened by a bombing. This character welcomes the protagonist to “help” him on his way to accepting deafness. The musician only dreams of listening again, but his environment only provides him with the tools to function in sign language and just accept his new reality. However, the protagonist is operated on and then, while he is convalescing and awaiting implant activation, he returns to the signing community. He explains his decision and asks to be allowed to stay in the community while the months of healing pass and then leave when it is time to have his cochlear implant activated.

    The signing community deny his request, because he has decided “not to be deaf”, and chosen other ways to go on his life with his disability. That is not true. A C.I. user is still a deaf person! Does the screenwriter really understand the world of cochlear Implants? Can we really believe that a musician will readily give up hearing again because he has discovered a new world of silence that is far more welcoming than the worldly noise? I think it sends a damaging message to deaf people who choose to embrace new technologies to alleviate a disability which isolates people and prevents them from enjoying the sounds of the world.

    I know very well that among deaf people there are two opposing sides, and that unfortunately although we are grouped together, our needs are totally different. Some of us want to integrate into the listening world, and some choose to live in a world of silence and communicate with sign language.

    Everyone is free to choose, but not to exclude those who do not think like them. Cochlear implants are still not well known, so its disclosure must be realistic and true. I have also seen an episode of the “New Amsterdam” TV show in which a deaf patient decides to say, after having a cochlear implant, that it does not work well for her and wants it removed. She is not comfortable in the noisy world and is nostalgic for her world of silence. I think it is her right to decide how she is most comfortable. Nevertheless, we watch the show come up with a new lie that millions of people will believe: the doctor tells her not to worry, that they will remove the implant and return her to her old world. He also not mentions that the operation is dangerous, since removing the implant carries a risk! Cochlear implants have one part implanted inside the cochlea and an external part (like a hearing aid) that connects to the inside by a magnet. If you do not have this external part connected, you hear nothing. So why do they give this message that they must intervene again to remove the implant and that it is a risk, to satisfy the patient? She could just remove the external device if she feels that strongly about the silence.

    These films and shows should be careful with these topics, as they convey a dangerous message about deafness, which thanks to advances can now be overcome. With a truthful and accurate message, they could give valuable information that would help the deaf to decide without lies or pressure the way of life they prefer. We shouldn’t deny anyone the enjoyment of all five senses. The world is noisy, sometimes environmental noises bother, but that’s it… the world! I’ll be on the lookout to see whether the Oscar for Best Screenplay goes to a half-truth story, which normalizes the rejection of those who want to regain hearing.

    Silvia Lazausa, Cochlear Implant User

  2. Lidia Best (UK) says:

    I have seen a constant drip of characters in screenplays on TV and in movies that show only one part of deafness- cultural deafness narrative. While I do not begrudge the Deaf community getting their stories heard, it is high time to show stories of deaf and hard of hearing people who are not in Deaf culture.

    One of the problems lies in the fact that the movie is based on observations hearing people have had in childhood (both director and supporting actor). On top of that, the deaf character (Joe) is played by a hearing person, sign language interpreter!

    Given the clear influences of growing up in and working with the Deaf community, this film was bound to be about cultural deafness. However, this was a completely wrong representation and even understanding deafened people perspective.

    Here is the review I wrote https://seehearinclusion.com/2021/04/24/beyond-the-obvious-what-sound-of-metal-did-not-tell-you/

  3. Patricia Faletty says:

    In relation to the recent movie Sounds of Metal I subscribe to the comments by AICE and by the Hearing loss Association and I wonder if someone did not feel like me the enormous void that a bad guide and lack of support can leave, where Ruben is submerged in his process and that leads to a terrible ending where he plunges into a world of silence after clearly hearing the sounds that surround him.

    En relacion a la reciente pelicula Sonidos de Metal , Sounds of metal

    Subscribo a los comentarios por Aice y por Hearing loss Association y me pregunto si alguien no sintió como yo el enorme vacío que puede dejar un mala guía y falta de contención, donde queda Rubên solo sumergido en un proceso que lo lleva a un terrible final donde se sumerge en un mundo de silencio después de claramente oir los sonidos que lo rodean.

  4. Sue Archbold says:

    Jill Hipson: National Association of Deafened People, UK. Jill wrote this in NADP’s recent newsletter – and we share it here.
    The Sound of Metal – the deaf equivalent of The Little Mermaid?
    An emotional reaction to the film

    This is one of the saddest films I’ve seen in years.
    The rootless, hedonistic lifestyle of Ruben and his girlfriend Lou at the start of the film feels rather reminiscent of the 1980s film ‘Betty Blue’. They are perpetually on tour in their silver RV. Betty and her lover Zorg lose their life together when Betty has a breakdown. Ruben and Lou’s lifestyle unravels when Ruben loses his hearing.
    The film is unsparing in how it details the full horror of becoming deafened very suddenly. The total lack of communication, with Ruben having to ask people to write things down for him. The inability to use the telephone, and the total dependence on Lou, who is obviously struggling as much as he is. She too has to write everything down for him. I could empathise with his anger and frustration when he smashes up his equipment in the RV. He is very obviously experiencing the first stage of grief.
    For some reason, Ruben gets signposted to a deafened man, Joe, who leads an addiction group, and is soon learning American sign language (ASL), helping with the local school for deaf children, and taking part in the life of the deaf community. It comes over as idyllic, and Ruben is obviously enjoying himself. He has a genuine empathy with the deaf children and engages well with them. However, Joe the leader is very controlling and will not allow Lou to stay. He makes Ruben give him his RV keys and his mobile phone as a condition for being allowed to stay. Ruben resorts to sneaking around behind Joe’s back to try and keep in touch with Lou. Joe suggests that Ruben could have a full and enjoyable life in the community. This feels like swapping the whole wide world for a tiny ghetto. Ruben decides to sell all his possessions and his beloved silver RV to raise the money for a cochlear implant, despite the strong warning Joe has given him against this.
    There is a strong hint in the film that Joe is not as satisfied with his life as he appears to be: he recommends that Ruben spends time each morning sitting quietly and if he cannot do this, he should write down his thoughts in a notebook. He then reveals that he uses this therapy himself, all the time when he isn’t actually with the rest of the community.
    Ruben arranges for himself to have cochlear implants, and disappears early one morning leaving just a scribbled note on a napkin. It is at this point that I was reminded powerfully of Hans Christian Andersen’s well known story of the Little Mermaid. The mermaid falls in love with the prince and gives up all she has to become like a human woman, with legs. But to do so she has to give up her ability to speak, and every step she takes causes her excruciating pain. The prince marries someone else, and the little mermaid chooses to throw herself back into the sea and dissolves into foam. The parallels with Ruben’s story leap out. He wants his girlfriend and his old life back, so much that he gives up everything he has to pay for his cochlear implant. But he finds the noises he hears through it are distorted and unpleasant. It is useless for listening to any sort of music. And he is rejected by Joe when he attempts to return to the deaf community. He finds Lou at her father’s, but her life has changed and she has moved on. Ruben ends up sitting alone on a bench, taking his implants off, and then the film ends.
    I felt really depressed at the end: at the idealistic portrayal of the deaf community, the suggestion that becoming deaf means you have to accept a smaller world, and at the totally wrong description of the entire process of obtaining and using a CI. The film makers picked the wrong advisor!
    Jill Hipson, UK

  5. Sally Harvest (Ireland ) says:

    The Sound of Metal showed clearly the impact of noise induced hearing loss, however as others have stated it is harrowing to watch.
    As a CI user I found myself becoming more saddened and frustrated about the ‘wrong’ messages. I’m sure many people watched this movie (both hearing and HOH/DEAF).
    Hoping that in the future the positive and clear messages are handled in a much more sensitive way.

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