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Film Review: ‘Normal Autistic Film’

A beautifully crafted, intimate, and revealing observational portrait of five youngsters with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Fans of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night” (both book and play) will embrace “Normal Autistic Film,” a beautifully crafted, intimate, and revealing observational portrait of five youngsters with Asperger’s Syndrome, helmed by talented Czech documentarist Miroslav Janek (“The Unseen”). Janek, who also does his own camerawork, shooting in extreme close-up with a small Canon 100, followed his gifted, articulate subjects over nearly two years, taking time to gain their trust. His method pays off, as the youths seem to offer possibilities, situations, and scenes to be shot. Documentary programmers and broadcasters should take a look at this project, which brims with both humor and heart.

In this first of its kind project for the Czech Republic, the featured youngsters were suggested by Michal Roskanuk, an independent consultant and lecturer on autism who himself has Asperger’s Syndrome. Roskanuk says children with Asperger’s Syndrome suffer from being neurodiverse in a world geared to the neurotypical. It’s fascinating to hear the subjects speak about how their brains are differently wired and how this affects them.

Erudite piano virtuoso Denis interprets a variety of difficult classical pieces (his renditions of Chopin, Vivaldi, Grieg, Beethoven and Dvorak feature on the soundtrack) and discusses his favorite book, “The Little Prince,” in which he finds different pieces of insight each time he reads it. Denis radiates calm concentration and curiosity, which Janek mirrors by shooting him motionless in beautiful nature.

In contrast, depressed Majda gives off a jagged, nervous energy expressed in her raps about hating her life, school and parents. Janek films the slim, pretty teen in near constant motion, whether pedaling her bike or riding on a train, climbing rails, edging through tunnels and exploring squatters’ room full of graffiti. Out of all the subjects, she seems the unhappiest. She discusses the fact that her diagnosis came quite late and that her family doesn’t seem to understand its implications.

Friendly, straightforward Lukas, who makes genre films with his non-Asperger’s pal, is perhaps the ideal subject. Talented with technology, he uses his iPad to create several possible poster designs for the film, one of which the filmmakers wind up using. He also meets with and more or less interviews some of the film’s other subjects.

The final two subjects, Marjamka and Ahmed, are brother and sister. They come from a large, rough-and-tumble family living in the countryside with lots of animals. Their mother appears very relaxed about her exceptional children, perhaps because of the fact that the part-Czech, part-Sudanese, part-Dagestani family is already different. With her pale skin, dark hair and big eyes, Marjamka looks far younger than her 12 years. It is almost eerie to hear her switch from Czech to flawless English, as she spins long, complicated stories. She is also a talented artist. Her younger brother Ahmed, has, as he repeats, only a mild case of Asperger’s and he is friendly and playful. In one of the most memorable scenes, Marjamka earnestly tells several Asperger’s jokes, the humor of which she is unable to appreciate.

Even though helmer Janek didn’t initiate the project (it was soundman Matej Nemec who proposed it to producer Jan Macola, and Macola approached Janek), his love and respect for his subjects is palpable. In an interview, he notes that every kid (apart from the sister and brother) was based in a different town and that he spent much of his time just hanging out with them, shooting perhaps one hour a day. The overall impact of the film owes much to the lyrical editing of the helmer’s wife, Tonicka Jankova.

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Film Review: 'Normal Autistic Film'

Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (competing), July 7, 2016. Running time: 90 MIN. (Original title: “Normální autistický film”)

Production: (Documentary — Czech Republic) A Pilot Film release of a Mimesis Film production, in co-production with Czech Television, Mat Film Resort. Produced by Jan Macola.  

Crew: Directed, written, camera (color, HD) by Miroslav Janek; editor, Tonička Jankova; sound, Matej Nemec, Daniel Nemec.

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