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Ad Astra Goes to the Movies: CODA

CODA - Sign Language - Movies - The more you know - Events - Food for thought

The Ad Astra team recently watched the Apple Original film CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), directed by Sian Heder. The film is a remake of the 2014 French film, The Bélier Family. Both films focus on the story of a hearing daughter with Deaf parents, who wants to pursue her singing talent. The US remake stars hearing actor Emilia Jones as the diligent and dedicated daughter Rubi Rossi – supported by some incredible Deaf talent; ranging from the legendary Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, to character actor Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant a former Washington D.C. Gallaudet student. On the tail of an exciting year for Deaf representation and stories on film, television, games and more – this heartwarming movie about family and finding oneself was a touching experience to see.

Our Deaf and Hard of Hearing Interpretation Project Manager Karen sat down with me to chat about the film and share her overall impressions of it.


Introduction to CODA

The film is set in a rural Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Rossi family runs a small fishing vessel staffed by hearing daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones), grizzled Father Frank (Troy Kotsur), and sibling Leo (Daniel Durant) with Mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) staying at home to manage the books. Ruby’s role becomes evident within the first few minutes of the film, as we watch her interact with fellow fish salespeople, butchers, and vendors while her father and brother hang back in most interactions.

The importance of her language brokering later becomes a critical plot point in their fish sales work. Ruby’s days are comprised of 4am mornings up and to the sea, schoolwork, and then straight home to study and assist with chores and housework. She soon picks up interest in pursuing joining her choir class after finding the courage to put her voice in to the open.

Children of Deaf Adults Pride and Language Brokering

One of the films first conflicts emerges here, where a hearing/singing daughter feels unable to fully share a special part of herself with her parents. As the film shows in a comical early scene with her folks driving and blasting some bass heavy rap music – her parent’s enjoy music through feeling and vibrations, so are unable to experience this talent in quite the same way.

We also see the strain of Ruby’s role as language broker or family interpreter in a First Act scene that hits too close to home for any Deaf person, CODA, or hearing child of Limited English Proficient parents. Ruby has to interpret at a doctor’s office for her father who is seeking medical assistance. While Ruby’s exasperation and her loving parent’s intent gaze on her and the doctor draws an audience chuckle, this troubling interaction is an all too common occurrence for children of Limited English Proficient parents and Deaf Parents.

deaf and hoh project manager
Deaf HoH Project Manager Karen chats with Rashaad about CODA

Karen – “This scene was very raw for me. It was very emotional. I felt everything from anger, embarrassment, sadness, isolation. Anger towards the doctor for allowing this to happen and him knowing this was not an ethical interaction for their daughter. The legwork and hassle I have to do before even seeing a doctor requires me to call them before via video relay, determine if their office size legally mandates that they have interpreters, asking them to staff an interpreter for my appointment and then I can still show up and have no interpreter arrive and have a very rude and stressful experience.  I know we’ve had a lot of team members like our Account Manager Ashley who had to interpret as child for her parent. It’s way too common – and really should not be a go-to for a business, it’s definitely not acceptable for government places due to ADA, but it still happens.

The film also shows a perspective that many hearing viewers may have no knowledge or understanding of. We watch the lead character Emelia learn to embrace her Signing heritage more deeply – taking pride in her multilingualism and parents. In a powerful scene where she’s auditioning for Berklee, we see her begin to musically and lyrically interpret the voiced song she is performing – this technique in ASL interpretation is referred to as simultaneous communication (simcom). Giving a nod to her parents and including them more closely in her journey to music school. A later touching scene with her father shows him placing his hands on her neck to feel the vibrations and notes as she sings or him.

Karen – I loved seeing the scenes where she is exploring her CODA background! My nephews are the Children of Deaf Adults and their journey and many like hers is similar. I’d see them refusing to sign in public because they hadn’t accepted themselves yet or didn’t want to be teased. If during my childhood back in the day locally we had more resources, camps and things to support CODA’s there would be more understanding and acceptance. One thing related to the Doctor visit in the movie and more is the boundaries that they will have to learn to make. How do they advocate for themselves and their parent separately? What’s acceptable for them to handle when they are forced to terp?

Community and Commerce

A more subtle point that we see in the film was a throwaway line regarding how Ruby’s parents and brothers didn’t have good friends or Deaf friends specifically. While the fishing town they live in is ostensibly a community – the viewers can feel their isolation in a lot of their interactions around town.

Karen – Yeah! Deaf people tend to stay together – they find support and relationships in their community, so I know just how her parents felt in the film. I tried to live in Minnesota one year and it was terrible… I missed people, Sign Language, experiencing my culture. Proximity makes a world of difference. We’re in DC, Gallaudet and more is all out here. Seeing that they were in such a rural setting definitely added to their feelings of loneliness and dependency on their daughter.

The next major crisis and key point in this movie that wasn’t really part of the marketing and promotion was that of Deaf business ownership and surviving economically in an ableist, capitalist society. 1 in 20 Americans are considered Deaf or Hard of Hearing with about 53% being employed. Due to discriminatory practices in private business and avoidance of ADA compliance in some federal job settings, it can be incredibly difficult for Deaf people to find and hold work.

A stomach tightening scene slowly unfolds as we watch a parallel edit between Ruby performing with her new singing class and her brother and father navigating the seas without her. A US Coast Guard boat radios them, with no one to respond or hear the signal. The Coast Guard then begins to tail them and forcefully onboards them. Without an interpreter or explanation to articulate beyond being Deaf, the authorities pull their fishing license and force them to go to court. Again, we see Ruby now interpreting for her dad in a legal setting. Another highstakes setting that a child has no reason to be working in.

Rashaad – What I found most terrifying in this scene as a hearing person was seeing parallels between how dangerous it can be to have a police interaction and how much more dangerous they are for Deaf people. I know my heart was racing in this scene and thankfully it only ended in them being escorted back to the shore. It was sad to see how easily their way of life and income could be yanked from them.

Karen – Absolutely! They were lucky it wasn’t worse… And you see also just how much more difficult it can be to even run or have a business in a hearing society. Not only is the Rossi family dealing with prejudice, but they are trying to bargain, advocate, sell their product all without any formal assistance or language support. It makes me think of some of the awesome stories like Mozzeria pizza here in DC. This is an example of a Deaf owned and operated business that is fully accessible for the Deaf and encouraging a hearing population to interact with it. Not the other way around.

Rashaad – I still have to go get a slice from that location! I also thought it was interesting how there was a connection in a way between the Riz Ahmed film Sound of Metal that came out last year and with CODA. In one film you see a musician losing his path to income, losing the ability to make money due to his hearing loss. We also see him exploring his identity, who he is without music. And in this film, you see a family that also is at risk of losing their way of making money due to losing their hearing daughter, their interpreter.

CODA was a great introduction to the general public about the experience of being a hearing child in a Deaf family. This film took great effort in making sure the script, shooting, and Deaf talent had involvement in the process and more. Director Sian Heder pushed to cast Deaf actors and recruited ASL Masters to ensure the script could be translated, interpreted, and composed for film properly. The hope is that this film can trigger more financial interest in the funding of all sorts of Deaf stories, and lead to more Deaf actors getting roles, getting behind the camera, and getting full control of their narratives.

The film also is a sobering reminder of how a lack of language access really limits the lives and opportunities for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people. The importance of qualified interpreters and business to better support and accommodate their Deaf coworkers, customers, or patients really becomes clear in this movie. It’s also important to see why more open caption screenings need to take place to allow Deaf filmgoers to experience cinema.

We encourage everyone to check out CODA and check out more books and films to educate yourself for this Deaf Awareness Month and beyond!