We recently tried an informal film discussion group for several weeks, which was immensely instructive and enjoyable. We watched and talked about a range of films specifically identified as “autism” films, either because a principal character is explicitly identified as autistic or because public opinion recognises at least one character as autistic. We also spent one night talking about a range of “autism” television series. (You can find many lists online, or my collection of mini-reviews here http://gallery.stuartneilson.com/index.php?album=Autism-films/Autism-feature-films).
The range and diversity of opinion on film and television is immense, even in a small group. It is refreshing to hear a whole new take on films that I had thought I was familiar with. It can also be bruising to hear negative perspectives on a cherished film depiction, but equally valuable in reassessing my own position.
To prepare for each session, we collected the textual description from the Internet Movie Database, further information about the film from Wikipedia and whatever knowledge the participants bring about the directors, actors, budget and box office. This can be useful to describe the popularity of the film and identify actors, directors, screenwriters and other questions that arise. IMDB is a fabulous resource listing the cast and crew of almost every film and television episode ever made, cross-linked in so many ways that you can see what else each actor has starred in, who else played the same character in other films, what else is in the same genre and a list of films liked by people who liked a title. A printout of the essentials beforehand can keep discussion face-to-face while answering the critical questions.
We also used subtitles as a reference to the exact words used in dialogue – I am often surprised at the difference between what I recall a character saying and the actual dialogue. You can download subtitles in a range of languages for most popular films from Open Subtitles, a fan-made collection of subtitles that vary in quality and accuracy, but usually have good subtitles for widely viewed films. The English subtitles for the Danish language Superbror, for example, can be found at http://www.opensubtitles.org/en/subtitles/3696631/superbror-en. A description of the film is available from IMDb at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1285313/.
I highly recommend switching subtitles on when watching a film because I catch a lot more of the dialogue that way. Television and streaming services also have good subtitles on most series. Subtitles compensate for the many accents and background ambience in Breaking and Entering, but I find them equally useful in quieter films like X+Y.
Any discussion group, just as with book groups, needs to have some objectives to be effective, although each individual member will bring their own objectives to the group. These are bound to change over the course of the meetings, but an initial set of discussion points and an initial selection of films will keep things on track and productive.
Some starter points are the basics revealed on IMDb and Wikipedia – the specific “autism” label or diagnosis used in the film, how this is revealed to the audience, the popularity (box office) of the film and links to other films. Follow-on points might be accuracy of the autistic behaviours, how the film has been received publicly and whether the portrayal is “good” or “bad”, whatever that means in the group and outside. Some bad films are just as enjoyable, instructive and worthy of discussion as good films.
Why watch “autism” films?
In my own mini-reviews of films I have tried to identify the specific label applied to characters, as well as their age, gender and plot premise. My own objectives in selecting and autism in film was to identify examples of good and bad portrayal, in order to endorse the good and challenge the bad – autism fiction is, after all, one of the primary sources of public knowledge about autism. I see this as an act of advocacy towards greater understanding and acceptance of autistic people.
I don’t believe that film or television currently provides a good insight into the lives and experiences of autistic people, and fictional portrayals are not created by autistic people. The actors, writers and directors who portray autism are not doing so from first-hand experience. Autism is too often used as a plot device, to portray a family burden, to add quirky interest or to celebrate extremely unlikely autistic brilliance. The imagery is written by and for a primarily non-autistic audience and has become a chic accessory for too many unrepresentative characters.
At its worst, fiction is misleading and needs to be contested. At its best, fiction can illuminate the real life experiences of autism. Autistic people are increasingly able to claim fiction they identify with and promote it to amplify their own voices. There are characters and scenes that speak for me, in ways that I find difficult to speak, but sharing my identification with a film is a means of sharing my unspoken experience.