by Leoni Horton
As individuals, we are profoundly limited by the extent to which we can perceive the world around us. What aids our ability to empathise, learn and connect with the rest of the population, be that our family and friends or complete strangers, is our ability to communicate with one another and express ourselves through the medium of language— chiefly our unique ability to tell stories. Unfortunately, the majority of the neurotypical population never fully consider the power of language and absentmindedly take for granted our ability to use our voices as a means of expression. Throughout history, we have selfishly accepted normalised methods of communication and made minimal effort to listen to those around us who are unable to verbalise their understanding of the world via the form of spoken word.
Eye-opening then, is Jerry Rothwell’s The Reason I Jump, a documentary based on the best-selling book of the same name by Naoki Higashida, which asserts that an inability to talk doesn’t mean a person has nothing to say. ‘The Reason I Jump’, written by Higashida at the age of thirteen, attempts to describe a world without speech to confront the stigma surrounding autism. In writing the book and allowing neurotypical minds access into a neurodiverse brain, Higashida dispelled the idea that non-verbal autistic people – who are typically thought to be on the ‘low functioning’ end of the autistic spectrum – do not have theory of mind. However, around the world, the stigma surrounding nonverbal autism still prevails, with cultures and communities worldwide choosing to ostracize, victimise, dismiss and deny autistic people the education and quality of life they deserve. So, to expand on Higashida’s work to eradicate misplaced misconceptions surrounding autism, The Reason I Jump leans into the endless possibilities of cinema. The film uses sound, colour, music, cinematography, story and art to create an experimental and utterly immersive experience that allows us to journey through the vistas of a neurodiverse mind.
The body of the documentary is made up of a collection of intimate portraits; journeying across continents, we meet five astounding, autistic young men and women who each have faced significant barriers when attempting to communicate their individual experiences of the world. Yet, in meeting them and listening to their stories, we can see past the limitations of language and attempt to construct a new perception of the sensory world around us. For example, living in India, there’s Amrit, a talented artist who transfers the sensory overload of her culture into drawings, paintings and sculptures; Joss, who can access memories from infancy and hear symphonies in what we perceive to be the silent hum of technology; Dan and Emma, a pair of best friends who can transfer the fine motor skill of speaking into the gross motor skill of pointing at letters, thus accessing a world of education once thought inaccessible to them; and finally, Jestina, who’s family is working to end the stigma surrounding autism in Sierra Leone, a place where autism is considered demonic.
Tethering each story together is a voice-over narrator, reading passages from Higashida’s book. Their words are accompanied by visuals of a young boy exploring the intricacies of nature and the intensities of manufactured structures in the changing landscape surrounding him. In these passages, Higashida eloquently describes the experience of autism: seeing details of an object before the object itself, the intensity and beauty of sight and sound, the non-linear experience of memory and emotion, the comfort of water, light and repetition, and the anxiety of not knowing what the next moment will bring. As a result, Higashida’s words infiltrate each subject’s secluded perspective of the world, validate their experiences, and exhibit just how much society needs to change so that every person can live a peaceful, dignified and happy life.
The documentary is a stunning exploration of what filmmakers can achieve when they approach their project with a desire to speak to and challenge their audience’s perspectives through the power film. Rothwell and his team go to extraordinary lengths to build the precise worldview of each of their subjects: we encounter painstakingly detailed cinematography presented from a plethora of unique vantage points and overwhelming 360° soundscapes from which we experience a cacophony of sound as equally awe-inspiring as it is distressing. This, alongside experiments in the presentation of light and colour, allows us to encounter – as close as we understand it to be – the sensory experiences of a neurodiverse mind.
The experience is similar to that of Florian Zeller’s debut feature film, The Father, in which he experimented with cinema’s narrative structure to channel his audience into the perspective of a mind experiencing dementia. The film incorporated the bewildering experiences of the disease into the film, having us grapple with the perplexing nature of changing faces, conflicting information and shifting locations. In doing so, Zeller allowed us to feel the physical reality of a decaying memory and expanded our limited perception of a previously unknowable experience. Although it’s subtler and a touch more suggestive, The Reason I Jump takes a similar route through the human mind, illuminating a before undiscovered means to relate to those around us.
Rothwell forms his film around an alternative understanding of shape, colour and sound; although this differs from our usual cinematic experience, his narrative is entirely lucid and accessible. However, his biggest triumph is in presenting these stories without appearing condescending or pandering; he includes the voices of his subjects, their families, and their cultures, and the result is a pivotal step in making the world a more ‘autism friendly’ environment.
The Reason I Jump is an essential and deeply emotive piece of film that contains the power to change the perception of every viewer.
The Reason I Jump is out in cinemas now.