This essay is the fourth and final post from Spooool.ie’s current “Writer in Residence” Stephen Totterdell. This is a series which sees us introduce a new writer to Spooool.ie’s readers with the contributor free to write about whatever they like once it’s loosely centred around cinema in some form. Read other pieces in the series here.
Having read some wonderful writing from the trans* community, I have noticed a distinct parallel between trans* issues and Asperger issues, particularly with regard to cinema. What we are seeing in 2014 is the breakdown of an ideological system that we all referred to as “human nature”. Not content to be “outsider voices”, trans* and Asperger activists have centred the debate on their own identities, rather than on cisgender or Neurotypical people. The old debates naturally placed cisgender and Neurotypical people as “normal”, and all of these other groups as “subcultures”, or “minority” groups. What I have tried to display over my previous three pieces is that the fragmented nature of identity means that there is no easy division between “normal” and “Asperger”, or any other identity.
And yet we still operate within an ideological framework that has remained largely unchanged for at least a century. We still know that our “values” are strength, honesty, compassion, and so on. When we advertise products we emphasise how many friends we’ll gain with said product, for example. This in turn leads to the assumption that Aspergic people without friends are sad and lonely. That is a value judgment. And that is why it is hard to make a film that reflects the Aspergic life without the emotional cues that accompany Neurotypical cinema. So, frequently, our introduction to the Aspergic character is one that is designed to appeal to Neurotypical audiences.
For example, Mozart and the Whale shows us Josh Hartnett’s Donald’s living space. It is a mess, a tip, full of pigeons and dust. Our reaction is “How can this intelligent man live like that?” But for Asperger people and those involved with Asperger people, this shouldn’t come as any surprise. What made Punch Drunk Love and Greenberg so effective, as I previously wrote, is that they attempted an exploration of this life from the inside out. Similarly, Adam is introduced to us as somebody who can’t grasp the values of his employer, and who lives alone. If a film were to be made from Adam’s perspective, rather than the Neurotypical character’s and audience’s, we might see a solitary lifestyle as something pleasant, even desirable; and we might view the employer as needlessly corrupt – to be fair, we don’t empathise with the employer, but the film could go further still. We are viewing Adam through a Neurotypical lens; focusing on the aspects of his personality that make him different from “us”.
So in 2014 there is a validation of a different ideological reality. The old values mean less. Asperger people don’t need as much social exposure as Neurotypical people, and this should be portrayed as normal rather than as a weird aberration. Many people with Asperger’s have no friends or few, and this is totally normal and they do not feel sad about it at all. So by making films that view these characters as objects of pity, we are forcing Neurotypical values onto the Asperger character. To put it in reverse, it would be as if we started making films that demonstrated pity for people who didn’t have obsessive interests or who weren’t engineers – and if they wanted to go to a party instead of take an exam they’d be portrayed as objects of pity. This is essentially what our cinema is doing to people with Asperger’s.
It’s a different value system. And it’s something cinema has to acknowledge. There’s a theory about national cinemas (French New Wave, New German Cinema, and so on) that asks how we measure the communities that make up a national cinema. If we look at Irish film, we are largely making films about lads with pints. If we look at German cinema, there’s a lot about recovering from a dark past. But by making these films we are refusing to acknowledge the hugely diverse social structures, value systems, and histories of all the different kinds of people in these areas. For example, we are seeing a new wave of German-Turkish filmmakers such as Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven is a wonderful film) – they are challenging the German-centric views of their experience that dominated cinema for decades, and now we are seeing the German-Turkish experience from the inside out. Is it true also that there is more to Ireland than lads with pints? Look at the excellent Pavee Lackeen for a totally different view of Dublin.
So Asperger cinema should not be seen as “Minority Cinema”. Current numbers for people on the autism spectrum stand at 1 in 68. That’s a significant number. They spend a long time learning Neurotypical values that don’t come naturally to them, and Neurotypical communities spend no time at all learning Asperger values.
To go back to Fatih Akin and his The Edge of Heaven (pictured above). He is an interesting filmmaker because he is the son of Turkish immigrants to Germany from the 1960s who, as I am sure many are aware, are similar to the Irish in America. They travelled to Germany with limited German language skills in order to build lives in Germany’s strong economy. While they have achieved quite a lot in the end, the experience is still rife with integration issues, racism on both ends, and other problems. Rainer Werner Fassbinder of the New German Cinema was one of the first German filmmakers to approach this with his 1974 film Fear Eats the Soul, which explored the plight of a Moroccan immigrant to Munich (much has been made of the lack of Turkish characters in a film ostensibly about the Turkish community). So far so familiar. We have a rather dour period of “problem films”, exploring the difficulties faced by immigrants to Germany.
Now, though, we have Fatih Akin. He is the son of two of these immigrants, and he is putting the German-Turkish narrative at the centre of The Edge of Heaven. He, along with other Turkish directors, are straying from the “problem film” formula – like that viral “Happy” video, not every minority has to be miserable. The “problem” genre emerged for a variety of reasons. For example, there was a sense of guilt in laughing about a serious issue, or there were funding bodies that were only interested in making these films to be consumed by white German audiences who wanted to be reminded of their cultural superiority over the Turkish community. So the Turkish experience would be portrayed as fraught with problems, while the characters attempted to integrate into the culturally superior white German community. Newer artists are more comfortable in their country, feel free to poke fun at the German authorities, and want to make films about other aspects of their community. The Afghan-German writer Sulaiman Masomi bases his stories off a flippancy and disrespect for the “culturally superior” German community that his parents’ generation – with all of their integration troubles – perhaps wouldn’t have felt so comfortable with.
The same can be said for a lot of so-called “minorities”. If Asperger cinema is to be truly successful, it has to cast off the shackles of Neurotypical value systems. We can already see the beginnings of this. With the rise of independent cinema we can see filmmakers like Alex Plank begin to validate their value systems. One common misconception is that an Aspergic person’s limited social life is an unhappy experience. If an Asperger person says they don’t have many friends, it is not a reason to pity them. It would be like pitying a Neurotypical person because they don’t like staying indoors working on technical projects. Asperger people often say that socialising is like taking an exam; that, in fact, many of them would rather take an exam than socialise. It is very difficult to get this idea across with any sort of persuasive authenticity, but if we encourage Aspergic filmmakers; and accept them for who they are; we can create a world that is comfortable for different kinds of people; where they do not feel like they have to pretend. As the psychologist Tony Attwood said “You don’t suffer from Asperger’s, you suffer from other people.”
We need also to look at film criticism itself. In the same way that much of the trans* discourse is currently rebelling against cisnormativity, we can rebel against Neurotypical Normativity (or NT-normativity). The rest of this article could be written several ways. So far I have been writing these articles with a Neurotypical readership in mind, because we live in a society that has normalised Neurotypical readers and marginalised Asperger readers. I could, alternatively, write this for Asperger readers and exclude the Neurotypical readers. In other words, I could write from an ASD-centric perspective rather than an NT-centric perspective. If I were to write the conclusion to this essay from an ASD-centric perspective, it could go like this:
The Asperger Cinema is well on the way to establishing itself and casting off Neurotypical values. Because of the breakdown of funding barriers and the democratic distribution of the internet, smaller filmmakers in the ASD community are feeling free to reject the NT narrative that has been placed upon them. There is no more time for the value dynamics of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, or even “Will & Grace”. Asperger people have their own culture, and will assert that culture beyond what NT filmmakers can impose on them. Asserting that Asperger people are “just like” Neurotypical people is not constructive; rather it solidifies a set of social norms that are oppressive to people who are different. The right to be different must come above all else.
If you’re interested in contributing to Spooool.ie’s Writer in Residence series get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org