Things got up and running on the second day of Newcastle International Film Festival with a matinee screening of the Oscar-winning short film The Silent Child, and an enlightening Q&A with associate producer Julie Foy. I’m certain the extended queue outside the Cineworld screen was buzzing with excitement, although you couldn’t hear it as most of the audience were communicating their excitement (I hope) through sign language.
The film itself is a heartbreaking insight into the life of a deaf child named Libby, plus an exploration of how Libby’s condition affects her family. For the twenty minute duration, we are sent to a regular enough house in rural England, where life for the family in focus seems to roll on as usual. In between mother Sue rushing the kids off to school and begrudgingly taking the mother in law on runs to the hospital, we hear that Libby has struggled with hearing since birth and has minimal ways to communicate with her family other than through smiles and frowns. Parents Sue and Paul, hoping to have a ‘normal’ child again, decide to enlist social worker Joanne to help with their daughter. Libby and Joanne bond through learning to sign, it is a means of expression for Libby and learning appears to allow her to develop an identity through language which she had not yet realised.
The relationship between social worker and child is explored to an impressively intricate level, owing to incredible writing and acting influence from Rachel Shenton, whose life experience around deafness will have informed her impassioned display. The careful selections of brief moments between the two which are shown to us will warm and break your heart in equal measure, the brilliance seeing of a child learn how to communicate to the world contrasting with the crushing feeling of Libby’s world refusing to speak back.
The following Q&A, hosted by deaf comedian John Smith, provided inspiring insight into the production of the film. Associate producer Julie Foy detailed some of the hardships along with joyous moments met in production and the route towards the Oscars.
In the search for the ‘Silent Child’ herself, hundreds of deaf child actors were auditioned until Maisie Sly was found for the role. Foy stated the team thought it “important to establish a strong bond with the family” and as a first-time actor, Maisie’s family were deeply involved in the process of making the film, her experience as a silent child in family life being formative for the building of her character. A testament to their meticulous method, Sly’s performance as Libby locks your attention and not once could I shake the idea of her experience in this film being anything but absolutely real.
Foy spoke passionately about film as “the most powerful medium” for communicating a message or idea and this is translated expertly into the 20 minutes on screen. The short has all the insight and information of an educational video but with unbounded emotion and character development enough to provoke a few tears at the end.
There was a real sense of the group having a very clear vision for the film which they would not let be tainted by production houses or any other outside influence. Their vision was rejected at various levels and so crowdfunding was the way to go. A budget of £10,000 was brought together by friends and patrons (much of this came from Geordieland apparently!) to allow the small size production to begin and more importantly to allow the team to paint the picture of child deafness exactly as they had intended. A testament to the film’s impact, their crew size of “16 on a good day” paled in comparison to the large budgets and expert teams of their Oscar challengers.
As a family, the production team, writers and Maisie’s parents set off to the awards at Rhode Island where Sly would win Best Actress and the film itself would take Best Live Action Short, automatically placing them on the long long list for Oscar nominations. A fairytale story in many ways, the film went from longlist to short, shortlist to nomination, then finally from nomination to standing on the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, receiving an Oscar. Humble as ever about the award, Foy’s sentiment was of someone who feels the film’s message has not yet reached the heights it will but “let’s hope that little gold statue makes things a little easier”. With talks at several studios ongoing about a feature-length film or televised series adaption, it feels like she might be bloody well right.
The Silent Child is available on BBC iPlayer until May 1st: The Silent Child
By Rowan Lees / @_rowanlees