Alison O'Daniel, The Tuba Thieves, 2023 (still). Courtesy of the artist.

Awakening the senses through storytelling with Alison O’Daniel

What does it mean to be brave as an artist? Filmmaker and CCA faculty member Alison O’Daniel dives deep into her creative process, pursuits outside of teaching, pushing the boundaries in film, and more.

Photo of Alison O'Daniel.

Portrait of Alison O'Daniel.

Alison O’Daniel is a d/Deaf visual artist and filmmaker working across sound, moving image, sculpture, installation, and performance. She builds a visual, aural, and haptic vocabulary that reveals a politics of sound that exceeds the auditory. At CCA, O’Daniel teaches as an associate professor in the Film Program.

Get to know more about O’Daniel’s life as an artist and filmmaker who is transforming how we experience film.

What is your creative process when working on a new project?

I shift into this space of listening. When I dive into a new project, I really tune in to the people involved and the core concept. For instance, a recent group show in Germany wanted an installation for an entryway with windows. Those windows caught my eye, and I asked the curator to snap a photo. What struck me was her perspective, the angle she chose and the way she captured it. It reminded me of the game telephone, where messages twist and turn as they’re passed along. Being hard of hearing, I can relate to that constant effort to catch up. It’s like my creative process mirrors that game and ideas transform through communication and collaboration.

When you’re not teaching at CCA, what are you doing professionally or recreationally?

My primary focus outside of CCA revolves around a film project called The Tuba Thieves, which took me 12 years to make. It all began in 2011 when I heard about tubas being stolen from high schools, and then I wrote a feature length script in a process kind of like the game of telephone. I produced 10 short films from the script between 2013 and 2018 as bigger and bigger grants came in. The pandemic helped amplify fundraising efforts, and by 2021, we secured the remaining funds and conducted a four-week shoot. Post-production editing spanned two years, and I finished the film in January 2023.

It first premiered at Sundance Film Festival and over the past year, we’ve toured the festival circuit worldwide. Our theatrical premiere begins on March 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, followed by screenings in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Chicago, and concluding at the Roxie in San Francisco on May 5.

What is something you would like people to take away from watching The Tuba Thieves?

There’s a handful of things. I have slightly different things for different audiences. For deaf and hard of hearing audiences, it’s really incredible to be the director of a film about deafness because we haven’t really had that. We have seen representations of ourselves, but not necessarily crafted by ourselves, and that has driven me nuts. So I just watch films about deaf people or hard of hearing people, and it always feels a little wrong. Sometimes it’s so focused on overcoming disability, which to me is just so deeply offensive and I just don’t even want to see that kind of stuff.

Deaf people are so resilient and come up with strategies all the time to overcome those communication barriers and are always doing that work. Through the film, I want deaf people to feel very seen. It’s just like, I see you, I feel you, and I’m one of you. This is for me, this is for us.

Then for filmmakers and filmgoers, I want to really, really push the language of film and because I just think there’s so many things that can be done, and there’s unfortunately so many rules that everybody really believes in the film world. There’s a million ways something can be done. Lastly, I really want people to leave the film feeling very attuned and sensitive to sensory stimuli: hearing and sensing and feeling in a more kind of awake way.

“I want deaf people to feel very seen. It’s just like, I see you, I feel you, and I’m one of you. This is for me, this is for us.”

— Alison O'Daniel

How do you encourage your students to think critically about storytelling and art, and what are some key lessons you hope they take away from your courses?

I’ve been talking a lot with my students about understanding the language of film and its various dialects. We delve into the intricacies of cinematic language and explore what it means to be literate or fluent in these visual and moving image languages. Whether it’s the language of TikTok videos, horror films, or advertising, we analyze how these languages work and how they impact us as viewers.

I often challenge my students to consider the intention behind their work: Is it like a credit card commercial? Or are they engaging in a more profound form of storytelling? This leads to a deeper critical engagement with their own creations and knowing how the thing is working on you, and then knowing how you can embed yourself in or when you’re very openly tearing something apart or into another form or transforming it. That’s something I find really, really fun in the classroom.

How does art and film contribute to fostering a deeper understanding of individuals with different sensory perceptions or abilities?

Film especially serves as a language with many senses and modalities. It has music, poetry, movement, and the passage of time. When you watch a film, you undergo a transformative experience; you age during it and come out a different person. You evolve as the story unfolds. This process mirrors the inherent changes of aging and disability, as everyone will inevitably become disabled in old age. It’s similar to the process of disability. Reconciling your changing body or a perception of the world that doesn’t align with norms.

For me, film is about exploring new perspectives and experiencing life in different ways. It goes beyond just cognitive understanding—we’re physically experiencing it. While I appreciate script-heavy dialogue, I’m more drawn to the physicality of the medium. By encompassing sound, movement, and sensory experiences, film inherently acknowledges the body’s presence, even if not overtly.

For aspiring filmmakers, artists, and storytellers, what advice would you offer for pushing boundaries within film?

I want people to believe that they can do anything and feel free to push boundaries within filmmaking. I believe it’s about embracing a sense of freedom in every aspect of creation. I often encounter individuals surprised by what’s possible in filmmaking, but the truth is, you can truly do anything.

I encourage aspiring artists to think deeply about what it means to be free in life, in relationships, in institutions, in creativity, in communication, in film language, and in any art making language. I mean, it’s a lifelong, very deep practice. It is something that I think a lot of artists do and what we have to offer the world. And I say that with zero self-consciousness. I believe it more and more intensely every day, and I’m working on it too. There are plenty of moments when I’m not free, but as far as being an artist, the act of being creatively brave, free and unencumbered in making is the reason we’re here.

“As far as being an artist, the act of being creatively brave, free and unencumbered in making is the reason we’re here.”

— Alison O'Daniel

As a d/Deaf filmmaker and visual artist who has made an impressive impact in terms of accessibility and representation in the arts, are there specific challenges you’ve faced or victories you’ve celebrated?

Connecting with more deaf individuals has been incredibly fulfilling and meaningful. Contributing to the dialogue on accessibility, particularly in filmmaking, is extremely important. Sometimes I’m shocked that accessibility is still an ongoing conversation. The solution seems simple: make films more accessible. Everyday ableism is deeply frustrating and even though there’s growing openness to discussing these issues, accessibility challenges persist on a daily basis.

Despite significant strides, such as the impact of films like Crip Camp, the journey is far from over. The statistics on representation for disabled artists and filmmakers are stark, with only a small percentage being recognized and supported. Whether it’s educating others or facing systemic barriers, the battle for accessibility continues.

At the same time, I’m thrilled and blown away that people are watching my film and are excited about it. The fact that it’s been in all these festivals and been written about and people who have no relationship to deafness at all are also interested in it. I feel kind of overwhelmed and weirded out and amazed all at once.

What are you excited about right now? Anything recent that comes to mind?

There’s so much to be excited about! Recently, two incredible disability-focused films have caught my attention: Is There Anybody Out There? by Ella Bee Glendining and I Didn’t See You There by Reid Davenport. Both of these films have garnered significant recognition and have been making waves in the industry. It’s heartening to see these talented filmmakers who are disabled receive the recognition they deserve for their outstanding work. I’m so excited to witness their continued success and to celebrate their achievements in the industry.

Published on March 28, 2024