Monday, March 14, 2011

Impressions of the 13th DOCFEST: Neurotypical and Autisten

I watched the two films back to back and now I wonder if they were scheduled in succession by design or by chance. Be that as it may, it worked: One film counterbalances the other and supplies a much needed “other” viewpoint.

The main theme of both films is autism, or it seems to be thus initially. A concept so battered and bruised, as many others which we have a hard time defining and understanding. The word started its life as a clinical term, then spent years in darkness as a word – taboo (or a curse word) and now gradually is becoming a patch of honor for parents whose children may be suffering of an array of things – or nothing. The main theme of the films is autism, but indirectly. The direct, living “here and now” of both documentaries are the people. Parents and children, “diagnosed” and not, “committed” or “free”, they all talk to the camera and tell us their version of what is happening to them – but also of what is happening to us.

Neurotypical, by Adam Larsen ( seems to present people closer to what we are used to in “normal” life. “Autistics” who make us wonder “what? He’s autistic?!” and “could I be too?” Larsen topples our preconceptions, avoids clinical labels, dances around the borders of normalcy and informs us that “tragically, as many as 149 out of every 150 people might be neurotypical”. It would be easy to stop there, content with the playfulness of the movie, happy with Violet’s sweetness, Nicholas’ almost “typical” teenage angst, Paula’s exciting new-found identity. We could leave the theatre full of certainties and fuzzy warm feelings. Larsen does not allow us to. Gently he hammers us right from the beginning. The words of Taylor’s mother haunt us throughout the film, along with Violet’s dad’s eerie music. The protagonists themselves lay out their difficulties and do not allow us our happy ending of “they lived happily ever after”. We remain grounded in reality – it is a documentary after all – and in the end “we have good days and we have bad days”.

The film affords us the rare opportunity to hear people describe what they are experiencing, in neurotypical terms। Wolf, Michael (who I hope will forgive me if I remember his name incorrectly), John, people of high intelligence, but even more importantly thinkers, philosophers, wordsmiths and autistics। Michael, with his misleadingly cheerful disposition describes for us how hard relationships are, without attacking us, without hurting us. John (hyper)analyzes the game of “tag” and teaches lessons about life – “our” life, not “autistic” life. Wolf, finally, without “biting our head off” slams us with hard questions. For us, Mowgli leaves the jungle for a better world. To him, the jungle is his home, a home more beautiful, functional and in the end a home that makes sense; wherein he makes sense. Finally, we are warned against “new eugenics”: If we “cure” autism, would we be diminished in genius, in creativity and ultimately – humanity?

Intermission, coffee, cigarettes, buy tickets for the next show – “should we stay or should we go? It’s 11 o’ clock”. The lights dim and Wolfram Seeger’s “Autisten” begins (

This film seems to be the opposite of Larsen’s. Seeger’s people are “diagnosed” and live in a “home”, Haus Bucken ( Visually it seems to be an assault to the senses. Human beings in the bathroom, eating, getting dressed. Human beings in crisis, exhibiting odd behavior, not communicating. Human beings, finally, who have to wear a helmet and be strapped to a bed in order to avoid injury. Despite the beauty of the surrounding landscape, it was obvious from the faces of the audience what was going through our heads. Shock, inmates, incarcerated, hell on earth, sadness, pity, horror. Rituals of undoing: Keep it all away from us.

Seeger’s film is as bitter as Larsen’s is sweet। If we can see past the exterior, which means if we can break our own chains, chains of preconceptions, of puritanical pseudo-indignation, our own fear of dis-ease, a new world will unfold before our eyes. Granted, a hard world, a world that does give one answer to Larsen’s “eugenics or not”. A world that reminds us that for every “high functioning” autistic there exist ten (a hundred?), who do not function as well. Reminds us that we may not even be talking about the same phenomenon – let’s not forget that we “diagnose” people by a rough yardstick of what is manifest and not by causality. Reminds us how little we know about the human brain.

What is amazing in “Autisten” has nothing to do with any clinical reality. It is the people who are amazing and their constant challenge of what we take for granted. The people of Haus Bucken, even though they seem to be enclosed by its walls, trapped in a body that malfunctions, communicate freely! They perceive Seeger and the camera, hold a dialogue with both – not always verbally – and in the end tell their story through play, allegory, a sui generis symbolism and body language.

This is easiest to observe in Christian, a child both five and eighty years old, who loves Duplo and his mother’s head। It gets somewhat harder with Marlen, a girl who constantly plays with a pink flamingo and utters strange things like “does it bite? It doesn’t bite” and “it’s alive! It lives”. If we allow ourselves a small, arbitrary shift and look at the flamingo as a representation of Marlen herself, all the strange things suddenly make sense. She is there, shouting at the top of her voice “I live! I am here!” She tells us, that she’s not dangerous, she doesn’t bite even though sometimes she gets the urge to – who doesn’t? She exhibits amazing insight and frank intelligence when she movingly holds her flamingo and exclaims “she’s been hurt, her wing is injured”.

It gets harder. Lars hardly speaks at all. Without speech how do you approach someone? Well, it’s Lars who does the approaching – and the receding. He looks mischievously at the camera, he poses “menacingly” with his hatchet (which he uses to sculpt wood and not hurt people, but he just had to challenge our perception of the “crazy axe murderer”), he shows us snippets of his day to day life, his love of coffee – cappuccino please! – and in the end, when he’s said his piece, he covers his face with his shirt – “I’m done talking, I’ve given you all I care to”.

What about Hannes? Not only does he not speak, but he comes as close to the popularized इमागे of the “autistic”, the “retarded” person as can be। He moans, rocks back and forth, has trouble eating, needs help in the bathroom. He certainly motivates the audience – “we are invading his privacy!” What we mean is that he is invading our peace of mind, the lens brings him way closer than we want him to be, it’s better to believe that such people do not exist. And then we see Hannes approaching and tilting his head, resting it on the music therapist’s shoulder, listening to him play a beautiful, perhaps slightly sad motif, circular, repetitive, safe and exciting. In the next scene Hannes is lying on his bed and seems to be moving his fingers and toes in a wavy manner, he seems to be moaning. No. He’s playing music and singing to us.

Finally we’ve reached the bottom though. It is impossible that Jörg understands anything, that he communicates. He sleeps tied to his bed, he hits, bites, screams. Do not show him! The image is harsh, desperate. If only we could see Jörg through a prism, through a filter, something to ameliorate the shock, just as we would do with a solar eclipse; use a piece of glass to shield our eyes, our souls. The filter is none other than the personnel of Haus Bucken and if you will, all people who work with the Jörgs of the world. In their eyes we do see disappointment sometimes, we see how hard it is to communicate, but we do not see despair, pity, resignation. They restrain his hands so Jörg can get a haircut, but for the most part they let him be. In his own way. When he bites his caretakers make it clear, that this specific way of communicating does not conform to our neurotypical world. We see Jörg reach out to strike, but he chooses not to – or he chooses to hit himself. His choice.

I am having trouble telling the films apart, remembering which character appears where and who says what. Perhaps it is the late hour, the torpor of the night. Or perhaps that is in itself significant. We are not all the same and individuality is tough. “It’s a handful, but not a burden”. We are parts of the same whole, we have the same needs and we all communicate. Autism challenges us to understand it, to understand an alien language, spoken by only one person, in symbols none of us have ever seen before. A world where it is we who are alien, strange, uncanny.

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