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Boardroom Q&A with “Audible” Director Matt Ogens

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally published on Jan. 25. On Feb. 8, Audible was nominated for the 2022 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

The filmmaker gives the inside story on his documentary focused on students at Maryland School for the Deaf, including senior football player Amaree McKenstry.

You love a good coming-of-age story. You love a good sports documentary. But Audible, a documentary short from director Matt Ogens currently streaming on Netflix, is not Hoop Dreams 2.0. This story is one that’s much more seldom-seen and seldom-heard.

The culmination of 10 years of creativity and commitment, Audible plays out through the eyes of high school football player Amaree McKenstry and his friends at Maryland School for the Deaf, including Jalen Perry, Lera Walkup, and Teddy Webster. Viewers get an intimate look at the unique uncertainties that come with a Deaf student’s senior year — and ultimately, the rugged optimism that doesn’t cease even in the face of tragedy.

Boardroom spoke with Ogens this week to learn more about how the film came to be and the message he most hoped to send about the remarkable lives of McKenstry and his friends.

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SAM DUNN: How did your relationship with Maryland School for the Deaf begin, and how did it all culminate with this film?  

MATT OGENS: We wanted to create a window into a world that a lot of the hearing community may not know about or understand. Audible is a film as much or even more for the deaf community – to honor them, respect, them give them a voice to tell their stories.

It took me over 10 years to get the film made; multiple factors led me here. I was born and raised in Maryland, about 30 miles away from Maryland School for the Deaf. My best friend since I was seven years old is Deaf, so I had a touchstone into the Deaf community. In some ways, perhaps on a personal level, I wanted to make this film to connect with my friend.

All these things lined up and the universe spoke in a way. I knew I needed to make this film.

SD: What were you most excited to share with the world about Amaree McKenstry?

MO: I knew I  wanted to follow a senior. It’s such a big moment for any teenager, a very big transition to be leaving a Deaf high school and move more into the hearing world, which means over the course of those 10-plus years in trying to get this film made, I had to recast every single year because that senior graduated. And I’m so glad it took that long, as crazy at that sounds, because Amaree’s story is so powerful and epitomizes some extreme examples of intolerance.

His relationship with his father and what happened to Teddy added conflict that plays into what many Deaf individuals might go through. And how Amaree and his friends are navigating those conflicts into something better is inspiring and empowering.

I’m interested in telling stories through people, not my observation of people. This is Amaree and his friends’ memoir about a pivotal moment in their lives — a moment when they are on the cusp of moving into a new chapter.

SD: How did Peter Berg come to be involved as an executive producer, and what did he bring to the project? 

MO: Behind the camera, Audible’s own executive crew is no stranger to the same societal challenges the teenagers faced, even in their adult lives. Executive Producer, Nyle DiMarco, attended the Maryland School for the Deaf and was essential and important to get a Deaf perspective, to make sure we got it right. 

And of course, Peter Berg. Pete set the bar when he made Friday Night Lights. More than a football film, it was a human story; sports was the hook and metaphor. I was developing a few projects with Pete’s documentary company Film 45 and felt Audible would be a great fit for them. I pitched them the story of these resilient kids and their impressive football team and it clicked for him.

Amaree McKenstry (AUDIBLE/NETFLIX © 2020)

SD: Who are some of the other breakout characters who helped you bring home the story you ultimately wanted to tell? 

MO: In addition to Amaree, who couldn’t fall in love with Jalen? What a confident, authentic kid who knows who he is. Amaree’s friendship with Jalen formed through a tragedy is beautiful. Lera, Amaree’s on-and-off-again cheerleader.

And of course, Teddy. Without giving away a spoiler alert, Teddy is very much present in the film, a catalyst that brought a community together. 

Jalen Perry (AUDIBLE/NETFLIX © 2020)

SD: What do you most want viewers to take away from the film?

MO: I always like stories that help us grow and learn. I felt that this was one of those stories.  We all want to be in a world where we understand each other’s stories and I want to build those connections the best way I know how. 

I want people to feel that they are on this journey with Amaree, with Jalen, with Lera, and with the team as they are growing up and going through a important moments in their lives. To connect with these young people who are on the same journey we all are. How you handle successes and setbacks and how you keep moving forward in life.

L to R: McKentsry, Walkup, and Perry (AUDIBLE/NETFLIX © 2020)

I tried to make it with the Deaf community, with everyone in the film, [telling] their stories, not my version of their stories. To immerse the audience into their hearts and minds rather than it being an observational approach from my point of view. I hope I honored them.

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Audible, a Film 45 production in association with Forager and Vision Films Co, is available to stream now on Netflix. To learn more about Matt Ogens, click here to visit his official website.