With Moonlight Sonata, Irene Taylor Brodsky Explores Family, Loss and Deafness

By Allie Waxman

At the documentary’s premiere, the filmmaker discussed the intimacy of shooting a film about her own family.

At its core, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is a story about love, family and finding your voice. Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky (Beware the Slenderman, One Last Hug) has been surrounded by deafness her entire life: Brodsky’s parents are deaf and her oldest child Jonas lost his hearing at the age of 4. While Jonas can hear now with the help of cochlear implants, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, chronicles her son’s journey to learn to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”; a piece the composer wrote while he was losing his hearing. Following the world premiere of the documentary at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Brodsky, her family, and her crew were welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation where they discussed finding strength in loss and finding the positive aspects of deafness.

Here is some of what was shared.

Documenting runs in the family.

Brodsky has a history of making films about her family. Her 2007 film Hear and Now also debuted at Sundance and garnered the filmmaker and Academy Award nomination. When it came to turning the camera on her family, the filmmaker explained that her parents taught her how to have a camera in her face. “It’s really something very natural in our house to have iPhones out. I did obsessively document my kids’ childhood,” Brodsky explained, noting her father documented her childhood too. “It was easy from my standpoint because my family really let me in.”

Director of photography Nick Midwig, admitted he was able to do his job well by becoming Irene’s fourth kid. “I lived with Irene and her family and captured the chaos of living with these guys.” Midwig had worked with Brodsky before, but had to adapt to shooting in her house and. there was a bit of a learning curve. “Irene wants you to shoot everything,” he recalled. “Sometimes I wondered if I was too much in their space, but Irene was like, ‘No, the film is the space, so film all of it!’”

For the Brodskys, deafness yielded discovery.

“As I read Beethoven’s letters and obsessively listened to his music, I realized that Beethoven created the canon of music he did, not in spite of being deaf but because he was deaf,” explained Brodsky. “It defined the music and allowed him to shut out the world and hear his own voice.”

Through Beethoven’s story, Brodsky began to understand how her family, like Beethoven, had to find their own voices, in a literal sense with her father, and a figurative sense with her son. “As I heard my dad tell me the story of how he learned how to talk, I realized my dad had to find his voice and Jonas had to find his voice — not only as a musician and a pianist,” she recounted. “This is about a boy growing up. Isn’t that what finding your voice is?”

A doctor in the film refers to deafness as a “mutation,” but after creating the film, Brodsky began to understand it differently. “What’s perceived as a deficiency or weakness can actually be our greatest strength,” said the director. “I didn’t go into this film understanding that. I couldn’t articulate it until I met Beethoven.”

Moonlight Sonata is a love story.

“People called it a story of two deaf people or a deaf family but I think it was a love story,” Brodsky said about her film. “Deafness in this family hasn’t been easy. We all are working through this. Just like Jonas learning piano, it’s messy.”

The film also explores what deafness is and what it means in a cultural sense. Brodsky hopes that the documentary catalyzes that understanding. “This film can be a new focus of conversation about what it means to be deaf,” she offered. “Deaf people should be at the center of that conversation.”