Films have to ability to take us into unknown worlds—maybe through science fiction, or a setting in a different culture or time period. When I’m in a theater (ah, those were the days!) and the lights go down I feel a bit of excitement about where we will travel to today. The Reason I Jump, a documentary by Jerry Rothwell, tries to take us inside the world of autism. It’s probably an impossible goal to fully achieve, but it succeeds in giving us some understanding of what that world is like.
The film is based on book of the same title written by Naoki Higashida, when he was thirteen years old to try to explain what it was like for him to live with autism. Part of what makes this so impressive is that Naoki does not speak, yet he has written an amazingly elegant book to describe his life. Naoki does not appear in the film. He wanted his words to be enough.
The film uses his words to give us his insights—his way of experiencing the world that is so different from our own. It mixes these perceptions with glimpses into the lives of five people with autism, in India, the UK, the US, and Sierra Leone. Each of them is non-speaking. Yet we learn that they are not without thoughts and feelings. Between these glimpse Rothwell also includes shots of a young Japanese boy wandering various landscapes full of visual diversity.
The result is at times poetic (both verbally and visually) as well is eye-opening. We discover that as strange and challenging as the world of autism may seem to us, our world is just as strange and challenging to the people we meet. Early on, we hear Naoki’s words as he describes the difference in how he imagines we see things (first noticing the whole of an object and then the details), and how he experiences all the details and then must interpret that into the overall object. The film does a wonderful job of visualizing that difference.
For some people with autism who do not speak, it may be because they have so many words and thoughts in their mind that they have a hard time bringing order to them. For others it is just something that stands in the way of the words and the speaking. But all those we meet have words and ideas that they find ways of bringing forth—perhaps through art or by using an alphabet board to point letter by letter to form the words they cannot speak.
The film also touches a bit on the stigma that often accompanies autism. This is especially true when we meet the young woman in Sierra Leone. There (and elsewhere through the ages) people with autism were treated as possessed, witches, or sub-human. They have been locked away in institutions and even killed because of their differentness. The Reason I Jump helps us to understand autism as a very different understanding of reality that these people live in. And it allows us to hear what they cannot say.
The Reason I Jump is available on virtual cinema through local arthouses.
Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber.