There are people who simply understand how to make a documentary feature.
Bill Brummel is one of these people.
A Peabody Award and International Documentary Award-winning filmmaker and multi-Emmy Award nominee, Brummel has, with Can You Hear My Voice?, created an absolutely sublime moviegoing experience that will make you laugh, cry, shout, be grateful, and believe.
The first film for Brummel after having his own voice box removed in 2016, Can You Hear My Voice? tells the story of the rather extraordinary Shout at Cancer choir in the UK, whose members have all had their voice boxes removed, as they prepare for their most ambitious concert yet - a sold-out performance at London's historic Tabernacle Theater.
If you're expecting Can You Hear My Voice? to be a cinematic Hallmark greeting card, think again. Inspirational yet never maudlin or condescending, Can You Hear My Voice? ultimately portrays the resilience of the human spirit to live, truly live, amidst tremendous human challenges that most of us can't begin to fathom while also celebrating the power of music as a vehicle for healing, hope, community, and reclaiming our identities.
It's difficult to describe the wonder that is Can You Hear My Voice?, currently screening as a documentary feature finalist at Indy's 29th Heartland International Film Festival that has put on display its own special brand of resilience throughout this week with virtual and drive-in screenings amidst a health pandemic that has proven devastating to the movie industry over the past few months.
Winner of the Audience Award at Nashville Film Festival, Can You Hear My Voice? expertly weaves together elements of performance with intelligent, dignified, and honest glimpses into the lives of several choir members whose stories unfold and reveal their own struggles with self-doubt, loss and grief, and self-identity.
As someone whose ability to speak publicly helped to fuel my own resilience from childhood violence and a much longer than expected lifetime with serious health issues, I found myself immersed in this world created by Brummel and often immersed in smiles and sorrows, tears and even a few giggles. I remember sitting at last year's Heartland International Film Festival as the festival prepared to award the second year of the Richard D. Propes Social Impact Award, a reality that still tends to leave me weepy, and not realizing that I was in this awkward space between the highs of a 30th Anniversary Tenderness Tour event marking a lifetime of social justice work and the challenges of my 3rd limb amputation to come in November of last year.
Who knew that I would spend the last year having, at times moment by moment, to choose life and love and community over and over and over again?
In a way, I suppose, Can You Hear My Voice? allowed me to process this past year while also embracing the exceptionally moving and entertaining journey of the Shout at Cancer choir. There are, of course, delightful personalities galore. My favorite, and I almost feel guilty picking a favorite, was Pug Halliday, a delightful chap with a wife and child who are interviewed as well. Pug's presence is charismatic, his quiet demeanor at times seemingly bewildered at his growing confidence and this community he has joined where he finds connection and greater meaning. Pug's entire being is completely contagious.
There are others, of course, including the introspective Sara Bowden-Evans, Andrew Beaumont, and a host of others.
It practically goes without saying that we all could use people in our lives like Shout at Cancer director Dr. Thomas Moors, Shout at Cancer's remarkable Voice & Breathing Consultant LaVerne Williams, the compassionate and incredibly insightful Shout at Cancer Speech and Language Therapist Lizz Summers, and folks like artistic consultant Bruce Sherfield and Peter Edwards of the Peter Edwards Trio.
With a story as emotionally resonant as is present in Can You Hear My Voice?, there are a million ways that the film could have gone wrong. Thanks to the intelligent, sensitive direction of Bill Brummel, nearly everything goes right here. It starts, I must say, with Brummel's decision to trust the voice of his participants and not, thankfully, using subtitles in lieu of our listening, leaning in, and understanding the unique but wonderfully realized voices of the members of the Shout at Cancer choir.
Brummel does an awful lot more right, of course, from telling an intelligent story with incredible heart to creating a film that is visually compelling and an auditory delight from the voices of choir members to the music of Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Tears for Fears, and more.
D.P. Stu McCardle's lensing is vibrant and intimate, avoiding the all too frequent halo effect often present in this type of documentary. The camera doesn't flinch, as it shouldn't, during medical procedures and in creating comfort around the stomas that allow for breathing and vocalization. Dan Wolfmeyer's editing allows us to linger in all the right places while also working to keep us immersed enough in the worlds of Shout at Cancer choir members to help us at least begin to understand their lives.
I was familiar with the work of composer Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach from Crip Camp, one of 2020's top docs, and his work here is similarly wonderful.
Then, of course, there's Brummel himself. Brummel returns to the documentary world, one could almost say, by tackling his own story without actually tackling his story. His approach here proves once again that he's the consummate documentarian, a still powerful voice amongst filmmakers whose loss of a voice box couldn't extinguish his immense talent, resilient spirit, and intelligent storytelling. His new voice is heard occasionally here, a background question that it takes you a moment to realize is Brummel himself, and it adds a depth of poignancy that gives an already deeply meaningful film even deeper meaning.
Can You Hear My Voice? is most certainly a triumph of documentary filmmaking just as the Shout at Cancer choir is a triumph of the human spirit. Can You Hear My Voice? continues on its festival journey and is a film to be seen and heard if you have the opportunity.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic