Rain Man Has Created a Simplified View of Autism That Should be Changed

22. 2. 2016

Author: Filip Šebek

“Such a strong movie has not been here for a long time – and at the same time it is also happy and full of hope,” Slovak media said about the newest documentary movie by Jaro Vojtek So far, so close, that is to be seen at One World festival. The piece supported by Institute of Documentary Film was being created for long 7 years, and it got awarded at One World in Bratislava last year. The jury there said that it is “a sensitive expounding of the world of autistic people and their families.“ The film also got the Slovak Igric award in the category of film and TV production for its screenplay and direction, and it was nominated for the European Film Award as the best Slovak documentary film in 2015. Needless to say it was totally by right. 

What has brought you to the topic of autism?
It was very prosaic. I was approached by the Autistic centre Andreas; they wanted a 20-minute educational film. Once I finished it, I found out that the topic and autistic people themselves left an impact on me. It seemed unfair to me to make just such a short movie as the topic of autism is very rich. So I started to work on a feature film.

Many documentaries and feature films have already been shot about autism. Were you not afraid of being just a next film in a row? Or more precisely, did you have a more specific idea about your film before you started working on it in terms of bringing something new into the topic? 
It is true that the topic has already been worked on many times but I do not consider it a reason for not starting working on it again if it impressed the author. Many films have also been shot about holocaust or love, and it always had a new perspective. I had a strong feeling it is important to shoot the movie as the Slovak society is very withdrawn not only from the topic of autism. Therefore, I wated to contribute to intensifying a discussion about autism, and in consequence to opening a general space for empathy and sensitivity to diversity. At the beginning I had no concept; I was groping in the dark trying to understand what autism actually is. While digging deeper into the topic I was getting caught up more and more.

You were working on the film for 7 long years. Could you describe the preparation phase and the shooting itself?
The long preparation definitely did not root in filling up the genre of timelapse documentary. It was in my head… I realized we cannot get into autistic thinking. They can't talk about the disease, can't explain it, or describe how they think and what they feel. So I started shooting them in the interaction with the environment, parents and people around. It meant there was a film about relationships being born – and that was exactly the right topic for me. I tried to view the relationships without the condition of autism, and so the particularity and difference from average relationships displayed itself; therefore, in that moment I could also add the topic of autism. At the same time I wanted to destroy the popular social myth about autistic people that says they are all brilliant. It is true some of them stand out but it is the same with healthy children: one in a thousand does. In contrast to healthy children it also means a lot of troubles. Private lives of the families virtually turn upside down. This also became a topic of the film. Parents and siblings of autistic children became my personal heroes; I wanted it to be obvious in the film.

Can a healthy person see something inspirational in the way autistic people see the world? Is there something that has enrichened you personally?
This was also one of the moments why I started shooting. In my opinion, each movie of mine is somehow a self-portrait hidden in the topic I'm working on. I always answer myself to my own questions. For example: “Could I do as much as parents of autistic children?” During the shooting I found out that the parental love knows no borders. As for the autistic children, I must say they are extremely pure souls. They do not hide anything; they speak or express their emotions sincerely and without thinking about consequences.

In contrast to other films about autism, it seemed to me you pay more attention to the parents and to the demands on taking care of autistic children. Weren't some of them afraid that the child would get irritated or stressed because of the shooting and new stimuli?
The times when I visited them without a camera, breathed in the atmosphere, got familiar with their rituals and daily routines helped me a lot with this. Thanks to that I also understood there are many unjust myths. Autistic people can be friend with strangers as well if you become a part of their lives or inspire them. I had a great experience with Petr who suffers from Asperger syndrome and unfortunately could not fit within the final version of the movie. He loves photography but is very taciturn and does not talk. Once we went out to take photos and I tried to make him speak. Without any success. So we were taking photos for two hours in silence. Then we showed our work to each other, and suddenly there was a powerful dialogue between us just thanks to the photos. People talk too much sometimes…

What was it like to work with autistic people? Did you have to overcome some fundamental barriers of mistrust or create rituals with everyone so that they could open to you?
The most crucial thing was to build a mutual trust with both children and parents. It would be impossible without the trust. The parents believed me that I just sincerely want to talk about autistic issues; I received the belief after visiting them without a camera for almost a year and talk to them about all kinds of things. To win the trust of autists I always had to be on time, and not to interfere with their programme but become a part of it. Therefore, the movie became our joint work, and we all wanted to say that autism is not just Rain Man.

Do you think that the movie Rain Man changed the public perception of autism in a positive way, or was it rather a simplifyng, almost idealizing portrait of the protagonist that made things even more complicated? 
One of the reasons for making a film was also this Hollywood myth. Rain Man was filmed when autism had not yet been diagnosed and not much was known about it. In this respect, the film contributed positively because autism started to be talked about at least. Many autistic people were locked up in mental hospitals with a totally different diagnose, which was of course very complicated for both autistic people and their hospital attendants who had no clue how to deal with such a psychic condition. The solution was sedatives and padded cells. At the same time, the film created a view somehow simplified that already needs to be broken.

What is the most dangerous myth in the society regarding autistic people?
It is a mistake to think that autistic people cannot keep relationships; that they live totally in their own world and cannot get closer to anyone. They have feelings, emotions and perceive what is going on around them but have a different way of communicating. First and foremost, there are no two autistic people with the same personality. Everyone has a specific shade of autism that probably originates in the nature of their soul. Everyone has to be approached individually. You can never build masses of them, with a unified opinion and thinking.

Whate were the reactions of your protagonists ti the finished film?  Which one did you find the most interesting?
It was a great relief when all parents were happy after the projection. This was extremely important for me. One of the greatest moments was when Milan's father admitted he did not even know what Milan conceals. At this moment I told myself the film has a purpose because it helped the parents comprehend the world of autism. It also seemed to me as if the parents gathered a fresh energy just as they saw they were not the only ones in the world.

Your work was supported by the Institute of Documentary Film and put on the East Silver Market. Did it help to the film?
I was very delighted someone noticed the film but there was no big tour around Europe. Which is slightly a pity but on the other hand, I got a text message from Milan's parents that I consider a great award: “Thanks to your film watched by Milan's doctor we received a support programme that had been long asked for. Thank you.”

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