Civil rights and social justice have been an abiding theme in the work of longtime Pasadena resident Bill Brummel, a Peabody- and International Documentary Award-winning and Emmy-nominated filmmaker whose subjects have included blood diamonds, genocide in Rwanda and Auschwitz, and the Ku Klux Klan. His newest documentary, “Can You Hear My Voice?,” follows a choir’s preparations for a sold-out concert at London’s historic Tabernacle Theatre.
The Shout at Cancer choir is not just any singing group; all its members are laryngectomees who require a voice prosthesis. “Can You Hear My Voice?” is the first film made by Brummel, a 23-year tonsil cancer survivor, since his own laryngectomy in 2016, the result of long-term damage from radiation treatment.
The human voice is a uniquely intimate muscle, one that facilitates our daily communications and significantly defines us as we interact with the world. As choir member Sara Bowden-Evans confides during a particularly vulnerable moment in the film, “I thought I’d never be me again because they would have taken part of my personality, which was me, my voice. Then when I came around [from surgery], I couldn’t call for help, and that was so frightening.”
Post-laryngectomy, profound ancillary changes impact swallowing, eating, and the ability to laugh. Daily routines must be adjusted to allow 15 minutes or so to clean the stoma and voice prosthesis. Internalized anger, grief and self-doubt often lead to serious depression. Losing the voice is like an amputation that is invisible to others — until it is necessary to speak.
Our voice is part of our identity, and that inevitably complicates recovery.
“It’s a treacherous process to try and gain that back,” Brummel observes, “and it doesn’t happen overnight.” His own physical recovery required him to not speak for three months, partly because of radiation damage. “It was just dreadful not being able to say a word and during that time my son graduated from USC … I could write a card, but I couldn’t give a speech or tell him how proud I was of him.”
His “holistic” recovery process included stretching and deep breathing exercises, support group meetings, changing to a healthier diet, and a daily walking regimen that eventually led to daily four- and five-mile hikes. “Slowly,” he says, “I began to regain some confidence and realized my life was not over. It was just changed.”
About a year later, his physician, Dr. Uttam Sinha at Keck Medicine of USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology, encouraged him to “make a documentary about the psycho-social aspects of recovering from a laryngectomy,” Brummel recalls. “I thought that was actually a good idea, but it was a topic, not a story. So I went in search of a story. I went home and got on the computer.”
Within an hour, he discovered the nonprofit Shout at Cancer choir in London, which helps laryngectomees with breath control, vocal pitch and strength — and thus their self-image. “We’re very limited in what we can do vocally,” Brummel says. “But there’s a window of range where laryngectomees can, with practice, improve our pitch and range. I think that’s one of the genius aspects of Dr. Thomas Moors, the founder of Shout at Cancer, was to use these singing techniques to help us improve our speaking voice.”
Making the film became part of Brummel’s own process of healing. Onscreen, laryngectomees are empathetically coached by opera singer LaVerne Williams, and accompanied by a Belgian saxophone quartet and the Peter Edwards Jazz trio as they practice and arrange the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World,” Nina Simone’s medley of “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life,” and Tears for Fears’ “Shout.” The choir members’ lack of previous performance experience heightens the impact of the amiable Pug Halliday’s nostalgic poem “Epiphany,” and Bowden-Evans’ delivery of “Can You Hear My Silence?,” which shares her darkest fears and lessons over Edwards’ graceful piano melody. Following a particularly arduous recovery, she sounds like a three-pack-a-day smoker; other laryngectomees sound wheezy or robotically processed.
A testament to the physical and spiritual benefits of communal singing and social connection, the film affirms Williams’ “eclectic sense” of music: “It comes from the soul … that’s what people really hear.” Unexpectedly humorous interviews with relatives provide uplift, as do a support group session and concert interludes. In other scenes, choir members speak frankly about adjusting to life with a stoma, the hole in the neck through which they breathe, and how the choir helped them recover their courage. “The concept is something new; it’s almost a defiance,” Andrew Beaumont says. “Which is what people need — is to be defiant.”
Brummel, an avid fan of singer-songwriters such as Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, John Prine, and Leonard Cohen, likens the sound of laryngectomees’ voices to the gravelly timbre of Cohen or Tom Waits. “Invariably,” he notes, “the crowds attending Shout at Cancer concerts salute the performers with standing ovations, a recognition of [their] refusal to be defeated by the very real obstacles they face daily.”
A film screening initially scheduled for late March at USC was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic; Brummel says it will be rescheduled once conditions are safe enough to do so. For now, he is researching international and streaming distribution options, and entering film festivals.
Brummel frames his personal experience as a laryngectomee as a portal of insight into the life struggles of others. That fits with the theme of resilience pulsing through “Can You Hear My Voice?” Despite the challenges and scary adjustments, it is possible to live a “fulfilling and productive life without a voicebox,” he asserts; the quality of his life now is “more resonant” than it was before his surgery.
“I hope this film helps people get to the point where they value what we have to say, no matter how slow we speak or how hard it is to understand us. That’s true not only of people who’ve had laryngectomy; it’s probably true of disabled folks in general,” he observes. “I no longer hate this mechanical-sounding voice. I view this disability as a battle scar, an invisible and audible sign of where I can go and what I was able to overcome.
“My struggle is different from somebody else, but even if it’s not visible, I’ll walk down the street and point to somebody and you can bet that that person has a struggle — physical, emotional, psychological — that they’re dealing with. The insight I’ve gained is that I’m much more attuned, and much more respectful, and have much more empathy for the struggles of everyone.”
To learn more about “Can You Hear My Voice?” visit facebook.com/CanYouHearMyVoice1. To learn more about “Can You Hear My Voice?” visit facebook.com/CanYouHearMyVoice1.