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Episode Summary


In this episode of all about kids, Zach talks with Jerry Rothwell, a documentary filmmaker who has made films like Town of Runners, How To Change the World, Heavy Load, and most recently, The Reason I Jump, inspired by the writings of a young non-speaking autistic boy. The film centers around the central question of the author, Naoki Higashida, ‘could you imagine how your life would be if you couldn’t say what you wanted?’  Through groundbreaking visual and audio techniques, Rothwell brings to light beautiful stories of those often overlooked and invisible in a way that leaves the viewer profoundly changed. In this episode, Jerry and Zach get into the challenges of making a film centered around non-speaking people, the unique way the audio was recorded, Jerry’s journey as a filmmaker and more. 


Episode Notes


  • Jerry’s approach to unscripted documentary filmmaking:
    • 4:22 – “I need to see the shape of a film to take it on, to have a sense of where the turning points are, how it might unfold but be willing to sort of change depending on what we find.”
    • 5:28 – “Start with a question rather than a message; something about a story which is why it grabs you, the complex bit of it that you want to unfold and uncover.”


  • On creating The Reason I Jump
    • 6:48 “What was striking about the book was trying to convey this really sensory experience in which images and sound and vibrant colors, patterns and oscillations were things as he described, he became immersed into the exclusion of everything around it and I wondered how true that was for other non-speaking autistic… The question for me was, how could you make something that was the cinematic equivalent of the book, taking you into a very different experience and reality.”
    • 9:40 – “Think of how I process reality and how we all do it with different kinds of biases and in different ways and how interesting that is in terms of the way we communicate with each other.” 
    • 10:15 – “We live in a very verbal world where if you don’t speak people assume that you are stupid and don’t think… we judge people by their exterior and what they say”


  • Challenges and surprises as a filmmaker working with non-speaking individuals
    • 13:09 – “I learned so much about filmmaking during this film because I had to be less reliant upon plots or words or on expectations. It was very much the show don’t tell approach.”
    • 13:40 – “I don’t think film can get you into someone else’s head completely, there isn’t a simulation.” 


  • Rain Scene – Conveying Sensory experiences 
    • 17:29 – “The effect of that on an audience where you’re hearing something that is not quite what you’re seeing but is triggering associations. Maybe it puts people into a place where they are seeing something not just in the neurotypical way we filter it.”
    • 19:05 “At times it’s phenomenally beautiful and at times it’s so overwhelming that it’s hard to listen to.”


  • How did the film come together – the visual approach
    • 22:52 – “The tension in the film is about this gradual unfolding of and realizing how these different people are experiencing the world and that requires you to spend time with each of them.” 
    • 25:50 – “Trying to create intimacy – we went with a really small crew … to spend time with people and to get those moments. The film is made up of those little, small moments.”


  • Nature and the mechanical nature of the body
    • 28:20 – “Naoki describes nature for him as a place where there are no expectations of him, no human demands to be a certain way or communicate a certain way.”
    • 29:24 – “For many autistic people and especially for Naoki, feeling as though his body is a faulty robot that never does what he wants it to do.”


  • Scenes using a Letterboard, spelling things out
    • 40:00 – “I’m always struck by the complexity of language they are using.”


  • Discussing the shared human experience and reality
    • 46:10 –“I think all of these states are fundamental human states, they’re not confined to autistic people.. we all visit these states, the difference with being autistic is that you live there.”


  • The most impactful moment in the film – powerful scene discussing civil rights
    • 48:50 – “In that moment you are really aware of how you have judged people in the past and how you have interpreted lack of speech as lack of thought. It’s a moment that is a turning point for the audience and makes you question how you’ve looked at people”
    • 50:55 “Historically non-speaking autistic people, on the whole, have been banished, made to live invisible lives in institutions so it is heartening that there is a whole movement now to make sure that voice is heard and the way society responds to non-speaking autistics. I hope the film draws people into that and makes people listen to that movement more.” 


  • On the meaning of life and how Rothwell was impacted by making this film
    • 57:20 – “the writing of non-speaking autistic people really changes the way I look at the world. I’m much more aware of my own take on the world and that it is a particular one.. none of us have the exact same sensory experience… we all see the world in slightly different ways and that makes you think a lot about the judgments you make about other people, the ways you communicate with them and the way they communicate with you.”



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Autism and the Edges of the Known World by Olga Bogdashina:

More on Jerry Rothwell

Jerry Rothwell is a filmmaker whose work includes the award-winning feature documentaries: The Reason I Jump, based on the bestselling book by Naoki Higashida; How To Change The World, about the founders of Greenpeace; Sour Grapes (co-directed with Reuben Atlas) a film about a wine counterfeiter Town of Runners, about two girls in an Ethiopian village who aspire to be athletes; Donor Unknown, about a sperm donor and his many offspring; School In The Cloud, about radical educationalist, Sugata Mitra; Heavy Load, about a group of people with learning disabilities who form a punk band, and Deep Water (co-directed with Louise Osmond), about Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated voyage in the 1968 round the world yacht race. His work has won numerous accolades including two Grierson Awards, a Sundance Special Jury Prize, an RTS Award, the IDA Pare Lorentz Award and a BAFTA nomination.

At Met Film Production, he has exec produced and worked as an editor on numerous feature docs including Dylan Williams’ Men Who Swim (now a fiction feature starring Rob Brydon), Sarah Gavron’s The Village At The End Of The World and Giovanni Buccomino’s forthcoming After A Revolution.