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OC Deaf Filmmaker Finally Hears His Soundtracks

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Austin Chapman figured his short films must be pretty good because they've been sweeping major awards on the independent film festival circuit the past couple of years.

He was never quite sure about the soundtracks, however, because Chapman, who is deaf, could never really hear them.

Or any other music.

Then, a month ago he popped a brand new pair of bright orange, state-of-the art hearing aids into his ears and his world was changed forever. He cranked up Mozart's "Lacrimosa" and suddenly tears of joy streamed spontaneously down his face. He turned on Radiohead and Devo and an epiphany occurred.

After years of scratching his head as friends around him snapped their fingers to the beat of Rolling Stones songs or got up and moved to the wave of electronic dance music created by DJ Moonboots, Chapman suddenly understood what this human fascination with sound was all about.

The 23-year-old filmmaker, whose life has largely been visual until now, still struggles to adequately explain the rush of new sounds echoing through his head. He compares them at one point to seeing a high-resolution photograph for the first time. Later, he describes the sensation as being exposed to a color you've never seen before.

Finally, with a broad smile on his face he offers this analogy: "It's like the first time you kiss a girl. It's like that."

The experience came as he cruised around his Orange County, Calif., neighborhood with friends soon after getting the new hearing aids. He had always wanted to really hear Mozart, so his friends put on "Lacrimosa," the brooding work the composer completed on his death bed in 1791.

"I was in the car and it was quite an experience," recalls Kyle Sinnott, Chapman's best friend since high school. "He was nodding his head and moving his fingers. He cried at one point, and the same goes for everybody in the car. Everybody let out a tear."

Soon Chapman was playing "Brain Damage" from Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," and humming along to the ethereal "wooh oooh" guitar part that surfaces eerily throughout the song.

Music was in his brain and he couldn't get it out.

Not that he's embraced every new sound he's been hearing since getting his new, improved Phonak hearing aids.

To his dismay, he can suddenly make out the sounds of other people's conversations that he'd never heard before. Rather than enjoy his new eavesdropping skills, he finds them annoying.

"When I hear the talking, I want to say, 'QUIET! SILENCE!' he says with a laugh as he sits in a downtown deli on a recent afternoon, trying to ignore the conversation at a nearby table.

The sound of a baby cooing does please him.

"I've never heard a baby talk before," he says, smiling in wonder. "Their voices are too high."

Born profoundly deaf, Chapman's condition was diagnosed when he was about a year old when his mother noticed he didn't flinch when a door was slammed behind him. Neither his parents nor his sister have a hearing impairment, and he says doctors don't really know why he was afflicted.

Although he had worn his old hearing aids for only four years, they had already become outmoded. All he could make out with them were low sounds like those made by a bass guitar. Sometimes a mid-range tone would break through, but high tones didn't exist in Chapman's world.

It was the same when it came to listening to a conversation. He could hear someone speaking directly to him in a clear voice, especially if it was someone with a deep voice and someone he knew and the sound of whose voice he had come to recognize. But he struggled to hear people talking in higher tones, something he said led him to avoid striking up conversations with strangers. He's less reluctant to do so now.

He and others have been the beneficiaries of a remarkable breakthrough in digital technology in recent years that has made small hearing aids far more powerful, particularly in picking up higher pitched sounds, says Gisele Ragusa, a University of Southern California professor and expert in deaf education.

She's watched as children were suddenly able to hear music for the first time and noticed they were often frightened until they got used to the new sounds. She's not entirely surprised that an adult would react differently, particularly after years of seeing friends enjoy something he could only hear fragments of, which she notes must have been annoying.

"He would probably feel elated and excited, and also have some sense of confusion at first, until he got used to recognizing what he was hearing," she said.

Chapman quickly posted word of his audio breakthrough on the social network, asking others what he should listen to next. To his amazement, within days he had more than 14,000 suggestions, everything from Beethoven to the Beatles.

He's holding out on that latter suggestion, at least for now, although he says he will eventually obtain every album the Beatles ever recorded and sit down and listen to them all.

"I'm waiting until I have a really good sound system," he says with a chuckle. "I want to sit down, and when I hear the Beatles for the first time, I want to really hear the Beatles."

In the meantime, he's rewatching his short films, listening to the soundtracks others created and looking forward to someday doing his own.

His first work, "At the Altar," was made when he was a student at Pepperdine University and won the award for best cinematography at the Reelstories Film Festival in 2010.

"Eleven Eleven," a hauntingly beautiful film about a young deaf man who finds his soul mate, only to lose her to death after one day, was honored with the festival's grand prize and audience choice awards last year. Also that year, his documentary "City of Widows" was honored for its story about the fate of young women in India who are banished to a life of poverty after their husbands' deaths.

Since graduating last year, Chapman has worked as a freelance filmmaker. He also runs the website His ambition is to eventually make a feature film.

Before music entered his life Chapman says he never gave much thought to what his lack of hearing might be causing him to miss. After all, he can read lips, communicate in American sign language and he speaks fluently, though with the pronounced accent of someone who is profoundly deaf and who for most of his life could never clearly hear himself speak.

"I was a really happy person," he says. "I was really happy all the time."

Then, after a moment's thought, he adds with a smile, "Now I'm even happier."

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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