I caught up with actress and writer Rachel Shenton to chat film, filmmaking, socially responsible cinema, issues the deaf face and her new, Oscar short-listed live action short film The Silent Child.

The Silent Child centres around a profoundly deaf four year old girl named Libby (Maisie Sly) who is born into a middle class family and lives in a world of silence until a caring social worker (Shenton) teaches her the gift of communication.

The Silent Child also stars Rachel Fielding, Anna Barry, Philip York, Annie Cusselle, and Sam Rees. Chris Overton directed.

The chemistry Sly and Shenton have in the film is absolutely undeniable and gives The Silent Child so much of its heart. Fundamentally, it is a look at what one determined and caring individual can do to help their fellow human beings.

Yet, there is so much more to this film as well. It does a brilliant job of shining a light on issues experienced by the deaf in the western society – especially the dichotomy of understanding as opposed to expressing one's self, as it is fundamentally cheaper for regular schools to put a larger impetus on things like reading comprehension versus expressing one's self in sign language.

These issues are very close to Shenton's heart – she has done charitable work with the deaf quite often in the past, for reasons explored in this interview. The importance of these issues to her are very prevalent in the passionate and well-executed short that The Silent Child is.

Hello Rachel! Welcome to The 405! I was wondering if we may be able to start with getting an idea of your history. What inspired you to get into film, both as an actress and a writer?

Hello, yes, well I suppose I'm an actress first. I'm also an advocate for raising deaf awareness and the subject is very close to my heart. The story was born from a continued frustration with the needless barriers that deaf children face and I believe it's a story that needed to be told.

I would certainly agree with that assessment, having seen what they have to go through myself. Favorite films, performances, and directors? Which have had the most profound effect as influences on you as an artist?

Probably too many to mention all of them but I was actually brought up watching '80s comedy which is a fair departure from The Silent Child but that introduced me to Julie Walters and Judi Dench who are such wonderful actresses and have been inspirational throughout my career. The first screenplay I ever read was Educating Rita by Willy Russell who I also love and was hugely influential. Right now I admire the work of Aaron Sorkin, Kay Mellor and Charles Randolph, who of course all have extremely unique ways of telling a story.

That they do: I highly enjoyed The Big Short, and still need to see Molly's Game. Greatest triumphs as a writer and actress? Greatest challenges?

I think I'd answer The Silent Child for both of those. I'm very proud of the story and it's honesty. As a writer the biggest challenge was knowing how much to put on the page and how much to keep back.

Libby (Maisie Sly) with her social worker Joanne (Rachel Shenton) in THE SILENT CHILD.

Balance is most certainly key to much of that and I'd say you nailed it on all fronts. What makes a great film?

I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer but in my opinion I think it's a blend of ingredients that come together and must all be measured and timed correctly.

Getting into The Silent Child more deeply, I suppose it would be appropriate to start with influences. What was the spark of inspiration for the project? What got you into doing all the charitable work you do for deaf awareness?

Yes, well as I said this subject is extremely close to my heart, my lovely dad lost his hearing very suddenly when I was twelve and lived that last two years of his life profoundly deaf. I saw first-hand the huge effects that had on a family and that gave me the impetus to learn sign language - I very quickly fell in love with the language and my involvement has grown since then. I believe film is the most powerful way to portray a message and as creatives I think it's our duty to write/create content that sparks conversation and educates.

It is an amazing, powerful and versatile medium that I think more and more is being used to spark conversation – likely with the rise of independent cinema – which is a great thing. Is The Silent Child based just off one true story? Or was it influenced by several stories?

I've drawn from a handful of different stories - all of them true but the main inspiration behind the film is one story in particular, which is that of a woman I used to live with in America. She was profoundly deaf from birth and born into a hearing family like Libby.

The SIlent Child doesn't sensationalise or exaggerate - Libby's story is far too common and happens to so many deaf children around the world.

Libby (Maisie Sly) at school in THE SILENT CHILD.

I think that's a mark of a great topical film – absence of hyperbole. The Silent Child certainly steers clear of that – I hope audiences know that fact.

I have to say, the film really touched me with its own power – but also in reminding me of a deaf pressman employed by my family business who I was very close to named Ray – everyone who worked there learned to sign because of our great respect for Ray. My cousin is also a social worker here in the United States, so there was that association to. Your performance as Joanne the social worker and Maisie Sly as Libby were very powerful – you two had incredible chemistry in it. What was the preparation like for the role?

Thank you, amazing to hear you all learned sign language so you could communicate with Ray, that's the kind of behaviour I hope The Silent Child will encourage.


Being the writer certainly gave me a head start with the role. I knew Joanne so well because I created her and that allowed me to focus on the relationship with Maisie (Libby) that was so important to me. The script required the audience to care about their relationship in under twenty minutes so it needed to be truthful. Myself and the director made trips to her home to spend time with her, go to the park with her and her siblings, it was paramount to us that she trusted us and felt comfortable and I'm very happy we did. Off screen Maisie and I have an incredible bond and we still Facetime almost every day.

Another mark of great film in my opinion – empathy and realism, which are so intertwined.

Libby encounters some profound difficulties in dealing with her family, and really a system that values being able to understand (through lip-reading) over being able to communicate (through signing), which is a horrible dichotomy, and one that I reckon wouldn't have to exist if the people around the deaf would merely take time to understand their difficulties and learn some sign language. Which leads to my question: what would you like audiences to take away from The Silent Child?

Yes it's a very interesting dichotomy. Ultimately I hope The Silent Child educates people. I hope it raises questions in people's minds about deafness and that it starts conversations. Most of the problems stem from a lack of education about the subject.


Last, where can our readers catch The Silent Child and what is next for you?

I'm currently developing the feature length version of The Silent Child - Which is exciting.

Libby (Maisie Sly) and Joanne (Rachel Shenton) under a tree during one of their excursions outside in THE SILENT CHILD.