Friday, April 27, 2007

What's Up Doc-umentaries?

Tribeca Film Festival

(From the Tribeca Film Festival)
Sons of Sakhnin United, Autism: The Musical

My press pass to the festival has given me the benefit of attending preview screenings to movies and documentaries. I recently saw two documentaries I highly recommend.

Saw the documentary, "Sons of Sakhnin United," two days ago. I like documentaries where the filmmaker stays out of the story and just observes how everything unfolds. The tale of a predominantly Israeli-Arab soccer team struggling to stay in Israel's premier league has universal appeal despite its unique and volatile setting. Although there are poignant moments where the doc uses the story of the team to show the clash between Israeli and Arab cultures- most notably, when Arab player Abas Suan is booed mercilessly when he plays FOR the Israeli national team, and when a riot nearly breaks out in Jerusalem- the film is primarily a portrayal of a team on the brink, with a fan base as passionate and crazy as those in Europe and south america. One fan, for instance, won't leave his house for three days after a loss because he fears he might kill someone. He's serious. It's a documentary most sports fans can relate to, whether they're from New York or the Gaza strip.

Speaking of documentaries I can relate to, this morning I saw "Autism: The Musical." As my regular readers may know (all three of you), my sister Shari is autistic. So I was very interested in seeing the doc. I was a bit worried though. Oftentimes, publicized stories about autism tend to focus on high functioning autistic kids, or those with asperger's syndrome... and as a result, some ill-informed people tend to think autism is some sort of "idiot-savant" type of disease. More than a few times, after I tell people that my sister is autistic they ask, "So, she can like, play the piano really well?" That's not the case. With a title like "Autism: the Musical," I worried the doc would only depict that small slice of the autism community that has been given a gift along with the curse.

But my fears were allayed by the first minute of the documentary, where Elaine Hall tearfully talks about praying to God to get through one more bathtime with her adopted autistic son Neil, who often reacts with violent tantrums when faced with a bathtub. I saw a lot of similarities between Elaine's son Neil and my sister. Very limited speech, anti-social behavior, a sweet, kind demeanor prone to breaking out in random fits of violence, set off by the tiniest things.

The kids portrayed in Autism: The Musical come from all over the spectrum of the syndrome. While one can play the cello, others, like Elaine's son, are greatly challanged. Medical science has not been able to determine why one person with autism functions differently from another, and categorizing these kids is not something that can be done with any kind of certainty. There's a scene where a mother and father of a boy named Wyatt visit an advocate to find out about placing their son in a different school, and the advocate informs them (rather bluntly) that their son is "not high functioning." He's basing his analysis on an IQ test that claims to reveal what Wyatt can and cannot do. To me, and anybody else who watches Wyatt in this documentary, the advocate is clearly wrong.

To Elaine an IQ test does not accurately show what these kids are capable of. She believes they can accomplish more. Like a musical.

Elaine created a program, called The Miracle Project, in which Autistic children hit the stage to perform an original musical. They contribute to the script, sing, dance and act. The documentary follows Elaine and five sets of parents and their kids as they prepare for their night in the spotlight (including rocker Stephen Stills and his delightful dinosaur-obsessed autistic son, Henry).

The "miracle" of The Miracle Project is Elaine's ability to harness the unbridled, volatile energy of these kids and focus it into something productive and positive. All while dealing with sometimes misbehaving kids and their often stressed out parents.

Elaine spent four years raising Neil by herself after she and her husband divorced. There are countless points in the documentary that show the severe strain caring for an autistic child can put on a marriage. Luckily, my parents are the strongest people alive.

What I love about the documentary is, by the end of the film, everybody has found something. A strength they never knew they had, confidence, love. It's a movie that doesn't shy away from the more heartbreaking aspects of autism, but gives these kids and their amazingly dedicated parents the respect they deserve. These kids will always be different, but creating the musical helps them, and--perhaps even more importantly, their parents--realize that being different is okay. Joy and fulfillment are not exclusive to the unafflicted. It's an uplifting story and I suggest you check it out, whether you have an autistic child or not. If it doesn't help you understand what autism is, then nothing will.

For More About The Movie:

For More About Autism:


Pistol Pete said...

Good review. This certainly sounds like a movie worth checking out.

Adam said...

Thanks for commenting, Pete!

Hot Mama said...

Great review; I will try to see it next week...if I can still get a ticket.

Anonymous said...

i saw the sons of sakhnin film too and it was brilliantly done. ESPN are clever to be promoting this kind of work. makes me want to watch all that soccer they have bought

Anonymous said...

I am the director of Autism: The Musical, and I want to thank you for your carefully wrought and sensitive review. A lot of people call their films a labor of love, this one was a labor of devotion. I am overwhelmed at the positive responses we have gotten to this film, both from people whose lives are touched by autism, and people who have had absolutely no exposure before. I am not only deeply gratified, as a filmmaker, but extremely moved, as one who now loves 11 autistic kids: the cast of The Miracle Project. Keep an eye out for the film at the Newport Film Festival in June.

coache said...

Thank you for your review of Autism: The Musical. I am the mother of Neal, and the director of The Miracle Project. Your review truly captured the spirit of our program. Thank you.
I especially am grateful that you were able to see my son, Neal as having a sweet, kind demeanor in spite of his seemingly antisocial and volatile behaviors. Neal is truly an angel and a gift.
Thank you for your sensitivity to our kids and your insight into what we are doing at The Miracle Project.
fyi, Autism: The Musical will be screening at selected theaters in the next few months and will air on HBO in April 2008. Check in on our website, for updates.

Thank you, again.
wishng you many miracles,
Elaine Hall
The Miracle Project

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