Jerry Rothwell's documentary on Naoki Higashida's ground-breaking memoir is an extraordinary insight into how those with ASD perceive the world.
As this film’s subject is very close to home, I would like to begin by sharing something: when I was three years old, I was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or as we all commonly know as autism. It’s a lifelong developmental disability that affects how myself and fellow others communicate with people, and how we interact with our surroundings. Because it’s a spectrum, it can affect people in numerous ways with some who are more sensory to their surroundings whilst others have more trouble with social interactions. I state this because when watching films that deal with autism, it’s always been a personal struggle to see fiction/non-fiction filmmakers attempt to whittle it down to a few notable traits (emotionless facial expressions, strict routines, etc), thereby somewhat ignoring the ‘spectrum’ aspect of it. Which leads to The Reason I Jump, director Jerry Rothwell’s immersive documentary that aims to explore how people with ASD perceive the world as well as challenge any preconceptions about it. It’s an extraordinary achievement because not only does it succeed in that, but it’s the closest that I’ve come to see the experiences of autism, and myself being represented onscreen.
Based on Naoki Higashida’s 2007 memoir and winner of the Audience Award at Sundance in January, Rothwell documents the experiences of five young people from around the world who are nonspeaking autistic, providing an intimate portrait of their daily lives and using interviews from their parents to unveil the challenges of their diagnosis. In India, we meet Amrit who communicates through her artistry skills to show pictures of her daily routines and surroundings. In England, there’s teenager Joss who is more verbal but struggles to converse with others due to his inability to separate the past from the present and his overwhelming senses, especially of green boxes. In the U.S., best friends Emma and Ben have built a long-lasting friendship without spoken word through attending school together, articulating their thoughts via letterboards, and taking regular walks in their local area for company. Finally, we travel to Sierra Leone where Jestina, the youngest and least able of the five, lives with her parents, Mary and Roland, who have fought against outdated misconceptions of ASD as ‘witchcraft’ and ‘devil’s work’ in order to build the country’s first dedicated school for fellow children like her.
In between these remarkable stories, we witness some surreal footage of a young Japanese boy in a red coat with autism (Jim Fujiwara) traveling across a vast landscape of stormy plains, eerie forests, and towering pylons. It’s through this framing device where Rothwell invites the audience to bathe in a bombardment of startling closeup imagery and swashes of vivid colours, whilst excerpts from the book (voiced by Jordan O’Donegan) are narrated over to showcase how beautiful and distressing the world can be for nonspeaking people on the spectrum. The sound design by Nick Ryan and recorded by Sara De Oliveira Lima is an incredible rush of ambient music, and the amplification of the tiniest of sounds in order to enrich the feeling of a sensory overload which will employ goosebumps and expressions of amazement.
Combining all of these elements together, Rothwell has managed to take Higashida’s writing and create a documentary that respects and goes beyond the source material, as well as being deeply empathetic in a manner that is neither forced nor awkward. “They have denied our civil rights”, Ben brilliantly articulates when observing how his previous school treated him, a stark reminder that autism is still looked down upon as a disadvantage in parts of today’s society. Likewise, Ben makes the crucial point in that without having people with autism participating in the conversation about the condition, it’s not a conversation.
But what’s so astonishing about The Reason I Jump is something much simpler: it made me produce a huge sigh of relief. Here’s a documentary where it not only gives justice to the autistic spectrum but also smashes down assumptions about autism that have been held for far too long. There’s a moment where Higashida says, ‘I can’t believe anyone would want to be lonely’, a simple quote that sounds obvious but placed within the misconception that most autistic people prefer to be alone, it becomes a powerful statement. Whether it’s through Ben and Emma’s letterboards or Amrit’s artwork which eventually is put on as an exhibition at a local gallery, the film rightfully treats ASD people on an equal measure to anyone else and proving that we can live and thrive in society like any other disability.
Throughout its 82mins length, The Reason I Jump is a visceral, powerful, and uplifting plunge into the autistic experience. Although its emphasis is on nonspeaking autistic people, it can still be used as an insight to anyone who is on the spectrum, as well as for anyone whose life has been touched by autism. To put it succinctly, this is the first film that speaks to my disability and my own struggles, and that is a sentence I thought would never be ushered.
The Reason I Jump, directed by Jerry Rothwell, is distributed in the UK via Picturehouse Entertainment, certificate TBA, and was playing at the BFI London Film Festival. It will be released in early 2021.