A Documentary with Dignity
By Tamer Abouras
The late actress Shelley Winters probably summed it up best when she spoke of “the best sound a player (or actor) can hear,” describing it as “… the sound of a wonderful, deep silence that means you've hit them where they live.”
While the full quote references being on a stage, explicitly stating that movie and television performers are incapable of achieving quite the same feeling, the latter portion of her quote is what’s relevant: very often, there’s an emphasis in visual productions on making the play, movie, or TV show resonant and (hopefully) relatable — something that hits viewers “where they live.”
When it comes to the portrayal of developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) on screen, the results have been mixed. While What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Rain Man and Forest Gump all received positive, even glowing, reviews (as well as award nominations), the public at-large has a natural problem with seeing patients and the spectrum itself in something more than the abstract if they aren’t personally affected by it.
That part of the challenge of hitting people where they live is inherent and unavoidable, because not everyone lives (or has a loved one who lives) with those circumstances, but the second part is more about presentation. The average person has seen the ASD ribbons on the backs of cars, possibly participated in a five kilometer charity run for it, and can quote lines from some (maybe all) of these fictional characters. Regardless of how positive a given portrayal may be, there’s a more pertinent question to be raised: how accurate is it?
SEE ALSO: Social Anxiety & ASD
Documentaries almost by definition rely on their ability to arrest attention. Whether or not the viewer began with a capacity to relate to the central issue, a successful documentary will have drawn them in and helped them to be able to understand and/or empathize by the time the credits roll.
Lifehouse, an agency based in California’s Bay Area that assists over 200 individuals with developmental disabilities through life-skills training, community integration, advocacy, referrals and community information, has released a new film bearing its name that coincides with the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It walks viewers through what it means to have a developmental disability, while also debunking myths and misconceptions about developmental disabilities and the people living with them in our respective communities.
“Lifehouse,” a 25-minute film which was produced by the Lifehouse agency in conjunction with independent film producer, PotentialSF, has already received the critical acclaim of singer/songwriter and ASD advocate Huey Lewis, who calls it "a powerful film about lives that matter and the incredible people who work every day to raise the quality of those lives."
The agency, obviously, is no stranger to ASD, as they report that 40% of their new referrals are for adults with autism. For a misunderstood and sometimes misrepresented — at least in film — disability, “Lifehouse” succinctly but powerfully offers viewers a snapshot of what life is like for these patients and what the patient care process involves for the caregivers, doctors, and therapists who treat them.
Those interested would do well to take 25 minutes — about the length of a TV episode on Netflix — and watch the documentary at lifehouseagency.org. There’s a pretty good chance it’ll hit you where you live.