Director: Jerry Rothwell
With the inclusion of the LFF Expanded series designed to create immersive visual and audio experiences, the digital programme of this year’s London Film Festival is one of the most inventive in years. Jerry Rothwell’s new documentary, in the main feature section, is based on Naoki Higashida’s book The Reason I Jump using film techniques to explore the experience of autism.
Written by Higashida when he was just 13 years old and translated by author David Mitchell, this new film is not a straightforward page to screen adaptation. Instead, Rothwell utilises quotations from the book to frame the stories of five different families around the world each with their own distinct experience of living with and caring for a child with autism.
What makes Rothwell’s approach so interesting is the way the filmmaker heightens peripheral sounds such as the swirl of ceiling fans or the electrical hum of green box generators that fascinate Joss from Broadstairs. Similarly, the visual experience of autism is suggested in a focus on flashing lights from faulty strip lights, the turning beam from a lighthouse or sunlight flickering against the wall interrupted by the fast turning blades of a desk fan.
While most of the insight comes from parents interviewed by Rothwell, the internal monologue of the protagonists is explored through first-person quotations from Higashida’s book overlaying footage of Amrit, Joss, Ben, Emma and Jestina. The effect makes them the protagonists of their own stories and while their mothers primarily provide much of the context, Rothwell makes the film from their point of view, particularly when Emma uses her letterboard to describe the importance of her 20-year friendship with Ben from Virginia, a connection that has drawn the respective families together since their children were in nursery school.
There is pain too, particularly as Joss’s mother breaks down as she describes the very sudden extremes of behaviour and unmanageable aggression that has resulted in a residential school, although their son comes home all the time. Higashida’s words explain the inability to separate and categorise memories, this scattershot structure can be “emotionally taxing” Mitchell explains and shots of Joss fretting about the arrival of a pizza show him anxious about the uncertainty of events to come.
Similarly, Jestina’s mother talks about the negative reactions of others in Sierra Leone, where community fears about being possessed by the devil create a stigma experienced by other families. Jestina’s mother has tried to counter this misinformation with public speaking, a new school and working with other families facing the same prejudice. These international perspectives add a fascinating cultural and historical angle that starkly reveal how differently autism is understood around the world.
The Reason I Jump with its emphasis on the pleasures of learning subjects as diverse as Eva Peron, heritage sites and civil rights really puts its subjects at the heart of the film using and expanding on Higashida’s book to show its ‘neurotypical’ viewers a version of the world we are missing out on.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October