Hot Docs 2020
Naoki Higashida is a 13-year-old boy with non-verbal autism who chronicled his life and thoughts in a fantastic novel, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism. Originally written in Japanese and later translated to English by David Mitchell (author of several books, including Cloud Atlas and Number9Dream), The Reason I Jump has now been adapted into a documentary, using the source material as a jumping-off point to explore non-verbal autism and the stigma surrounding it. The result is an eloquent portrayal of the inner thoughts of several children with autism, and the different ways parents have learned to communicate with and understand children thought to be “regrettable creatures” and “psychotic”. A powerful movie that sheds further light and serves as an addendum on its source material, The Reason I Jump is necessary viewing and a specific look at the importance of empathy.
There are a few different ways to come at a movie like this. For starters, for those like me who have read and enjoyed the book, The Reason I Jump serves as a great piece of supplemental material. It justifies being translated to a visual medium by tapping into abstract ideas from the book and portraying them. For example, there’s a moment when the concept of rain is being explored and the film shows it as hard lines rushing down the screen, meant to imitate the way Naoki describes his perception of rain. Then comes the sound of water crashing. The image of the hard lines now becomes clearer as rain. It’s a clever way of representing the way Naoki and others with autism perceive things, showing a granular look at detail before discovering the bigger picture.
Then there are those who have not read the book, which presumably will be most people. Director Jerry Rothwell takes excerpts from the book and places them intermittently between profiles of different children with autism. It also takes audiences around the world, not only looking at different people who have children with autism but also the difference in cultures and how that may affect these childrens’ upbringing: whether it’s watching Amrit in India as she struggles to communicate with her mother; or as Joss in England seems to be trapped in his memories; or Jestina in Sierra Leone being targeted as “possessed” and unwanted by the community around her. All of the subjects of the film are not just there to fill runtime. They actually illuminate different aspects of non-verbal autism and mostly on how their parents have adapted in communicating with them.
Of course, this is what brings in the third perspective: the doubters. Higashida’s book is considered controversial for many major reasons. Is it possible for someone with non-verbal autism to have the complex thoughts that Naoki seems to possess in his writing? Are the ideas pushed forward by Naoki simply the fabrication of another writer? Does the type of facilitated communication that Naoki used to express himself and have this book written work? All of these questions are valid concerns when reading a book. What makes Rothwell’s film even more important is, just like Naoki’s writings, it also sets out to debunk the myths surrounding autism and using video evidence refutes many of the claims made against the novel. The only misstep is that the movie doesn’t tackle both sides of the story equally. It’s a movie about empathy and understanding, but it doesn’t quite capture the arguments from the other side. Instead, it focuses on strengthening the arguments on the side of autism and facilitating communication.
Even separating the fact that the film heavily leans on one side of the argument, it’s still a fascinating encapsulation of what many have perceived to be a hopeless disorder – those who have it are doomed to be incapable of functioning in society. Imrit is one of the subjects in India, and watching her mother as she reflects on how she used to try to stop Imrit from doing something socially unacceptable is a fascinating opening to the film. As the movie explores tics and repetition as forms of comfort for those with autism, it becomes clear that there’s an understanding of why something is happening that is not being explored by many people when confronting those with the disorder. The importance of human empathy, especially when parenting, is a crucial component of finding out more about someone.
The struggle to communicate with someone with non-verbal autism is also a powerful tool that many just refuse to accept as possible. When the movie starts really diving into Ben and Emma’s side of the story, two children with non-verbal autism, is a potent reminder of how fruitful it can be to try and understand someone. Like learning another language so you can communicate more easily in foreign countries, devices such as the letter board that Ben and Emma use to single out letters and spell out their thoughts are just as important. Their specific story probably gets the most screen time in a movie that gives all the individual stories a fair shake. Each one comes at a different myth or idea about autism, and by the end there’s a firmer grasp on the point that’s being made.
The Reason I Jump could easily have been a collection of stories about different children with non-verbal autism that lacked any real purpose other than to highlight their existence. Many documentaries sometimes have subjects that just aren’t necessarily compelling or bring nothing to the overall themes of the film. It also could have just been a further analysis of Naoki, which would keep the novel in a suspicious light. Focusing on the only popular subject in autism circles is hardly a way of making a case for validity in the confrontations Naoki’s novel provides. Instead, Rothwell wisely structures the movie with multiple subjects each with their own unique perspective and varying support systems to communicate. A powerful novel already, The Reason I Jump is an emotionally poignant film looking at the ways we can fail each other by failing to understand others.
Editor’s Note: Hot Docs was among the film festivals postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Goomba Stomp is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.