By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Troy Kotsur made history at the 2022 Academy Awards as he became the first deaf performer to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Honored for his role in the acclaimed CODA, Kotsur was moved to tears by the Dolby Theatre crowd’s silent applause as he dedicated his award to the deaf community. In his moving acceptance speech, Kotsur also mentioned his love for his father. “My dad,” Kotsur described. “He was the best signer in our family, but he was in a car accident and became paralyzed from the neck down and was no longer able to sign… you are my hero.”
To My Father, a new short documentary film from director Sean Schiavolin and nonprofit content studio Emergent Order Foundation (EO) premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, expands upon Kotsur’s speech in detailing the actor’s heartfelt relationship with his father and the role his father played in encouraging Kotsur to excel despite his difficulties.
To My Father is narrated by Kotsur, who sits wearing a hat and flip-flops on a stage telling the camera and, in turn, the audience about his upbringing. As Kotsur is deaf and signs, Schiavolin intelligently chooses to focus much of his short film on Kotsur himself, rather than overlaying the short more exclusively with another’s narrator’s voice. Kotsur’s chronicles are coupled with a number of vignettes featuring actors, including actual members of the deaf community, which add a visual language to complement Kotsur’s stories.
With To My Father, director Schiavolin manages to craft a strikingly endearing and emotional story in a project with a runtime of a little over 20 minutes. Indeed, it’s a testament to the power of Kotsur’s story and the craftsmanship of Schiavolin that this short documentary packs more emotional poignancy than most feature length films. Kotsur is a superb storyteller, detailing a life made more difficult by being deaf, but one that never ceases to be fulfilling and meaningful.
As the title suggests, the film’s emotional weight comes from Kotsur’s relationship with his father Leonard Kotsur, an inspirational figure who learned American Sign Language (ASL) to be the father he believed his son Troy deserved. As Leonard Kotsur had passed away by the time of this documentary’s creation, it does not feature interviews with the titular figure, instead relying heavily on archival footage and Kotsur’s storytelling prowess to convey what kind of person Kotsur’s father was. Troy Kotsur recounts in the film that his father never saw him as deaf, but saw him as capable, a sentiment that more generally conveys what kind of person he was and how he inspired his son to pursue acting despite the challenges he encounters. The emotions that these moments of the documentary evoke become all the more powerful upon learning of the tragedy that befell Kotsur’s father and how this impacted how the father and son communicated with one another.
It all comes to a head with rousing archival footage of Troy speaking at his high school graduation shortly after his father’s tragedy. The compelling score from Hanan Townshend mixed with Troy’s speech and his present day narration collectively make it difficult to withhold tears, again a monumental achievement considering To My Father is only 20 minutes long. If there’s any fault of the film, it’s simply that it doesn’t last longer as coming away from the experience leaves one eager to dive deeper into the depths of Troy’s struggles, his aspirations to become an actor, how he navigates life as father himself now, and how his own father played such a significant role.
To My Father is the rare documentary experience that simultaneously tells an extremely singular story, while making it relevant and relatable to anyone in all walks of life. An immensely powerful short, To My Father offers such interesting commentary on growing up deaf and the role allied family members play in one’s journey. With archival footage mixed with filmed vignettes and Troy Kotsur’s poignant narration, the documentary short comes together in a way that is as powerful as it is insightful.