Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 05, 2021 5:51 pm 
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A glimpse for neurotypicals at what autism is really like

Does a mother in India really need a book by a 13-year-old Japanese boy to understand her autistic daughter? Is the information on autism so sadly lacking as this? The book was by Naoki Higashida, and this film also is based on it. The subject is severe autism, of being unable to speak. We're not talking about Greta Thunberg's brothers and sisters, the Asperger's family. Young Higashida's book has been translated into English by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell, Mitchell, the brilliant author of Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, and other novels, who appears here briefly in Jerry Rothwell's imaginative semi-documentary. Mitchell, who has a Japanese wife and has lived in Japan, is the parent of an autistic child.

It's clear from the film that nonspeaking autistic struggle to be part of the world, to perceive even a rain storm - which to them comes first as a collection of unrelated, unrelatable perceptions - and to express themselves - searching out memories of similar experiences and finding words for them to put together. We get this message and we see a sequence of shots of young autistic people to see how often they cry out in frustration and despair, or in reaction to frequently unbidden, unpleasant flashback memories.

A useful review of the original book summarizes part of it as: "Naoki tells us we are barking up the wrong tree by treating emotional needs as sensory needs, compulsive behavior as willfulness, a nonsensical answer for a lack of understanding." Disobeying is a compulsion for them, but not exactly a compulsion. It's sudden urge that gives them a shot of pleasure. And they have joy, which perhaps we, those around the autistic, need to learn to join in on.

The Indian daughter, Amrit, is an artist. She doesn't speak. Her mother hugs and kisses her. We see preparations for a large exhibition of her framed drawings. There is no further explanation. Then we jump to Joss, son of Jeremy Dear, an English boy, now a tallish teenager, who speaks, but it doesn't always make sense. Jeremy and he - they have a very warm relationship; we see home footage of his happy childhood, loving water) are seen walking to a snack shop for an ice cream treat. Jeremy says in voiceover he'd like to get inside Joss's head to see how he sees the world. Other voiceovers come from someone speaking lines from Naoki's book, and we see David Mitchell talking about how he and his wife translated it into English to show to the people who "work with" their son.

Naoki says for him, "Time is a continuous field with no clear boundaries." Joss, we learn from his mother's voiceover, can remember things he saw in their old house when he was three or five, vividly. His sensory perceptions are acute. He can hear "green boxes" (electirc power panels) from a very long way off, and likes the sound. Sometimes Joss seems a happy, attractive, overgrown child. But they had to take him from his special school to a more special one when his aggression became much more severe and uncontrollable.

In Virginia, we see a program of autistic adults suited up to play ice hockey. Here comes the words from Naoki about how jumping makes him feel the tension let go, and we see Joss and others on trampolines.

With Ben, a grown African American, and his friend Emma, and the letter boards, we learn that nonverbal autistic people are not devoid of language or the ability to speak. We also realize autistic people don't "just want to be left alone." They want company, like other humans. So one by one a lot of preconceptions are falling by the wayside. Ben and Emma show what can be done with "non-verbal" autistic people. Emma's mother gives them a class, where they answer using letter boards. Before in "school" Emma says they just wasted their time, and Ben says they denied them their civil rights.

On to Jesstina, in Sierra Leone. Here, we see the prejudice of the crowd. People here think autistic kids are possesed by the devil and should be abandoned in the forest. But Jesstina's parents, who like the other parents here, are both caring and well off, are part of a successful effort to establish a school for autistic kids and turn around public attitudes so much that the local community knows the kids' names and greets them in a friendly way. But this visit to Sierra Leone is a reminder of long prejudice and ignorance that extends into the last century as well and to so-called "authorities" who quite commonly declared autism to be retardation of psychosis.

Now, it doesn't even seem a disability, because we hear Naoki declare that even if he could be made "normal," he would choose to remain as he is because the way he is, is for him, normal.

This is quite a trip, a fresh and innovative and economical documentary. What we see is enlightening and pushes away old misconceptions. There is a lot more there than we thought. But the way this little book stands as a beacon shows much, much more needs to be done.

The Reason I Jump,, 82 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, winning an audience award; it has shown in eight other festivals including London and DOC NYC, with other awards. US release Jan. 8, 2020, and French release Mar. 31, 2020. Metascore: 83%.

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