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Autism and Cinema: An Exploration of Neurodiversity

Autism and Cinema:
An Exploration of Neurodiversity

Thu 16 – Tue 28 Sep 2021
www.barbican.org.uk   

Barbican Cinema and the Centre for Film and Ethics, Queen Mary University, London are pleased to present Autism and Cinema: An Exploration of Neurodiversity; a season that debates new ideas arising from the relationship between autism and cinema.

Taking place in September, the programme brings together a diverse selection of films, ranging from documentary to animation, and genre-twisting fiction to experimental filmmaking, from within the autistic community; it asks how the language of cinema can be challenged and changed by autistic perspectives.

Typically, cinema has depicted characters with autism from the outside, looking in with fascination at a high-functioning or magical character who throws out of joint the ‘neurotypical’ lives of those around them.

A cinema reflective of autism and the experience of neurodiversity is rare. Yet it has much to offer our understanding of inner and outer life, ushering in new sensory and relational ways of being in the world.

Autism and Cinema: An Exploration of Neurodiversity is supported by Wellcome and is presented in collaboration with the Centre for Film and Ethics at Queen Mary University of London.

The season opens with a free screening of Temple Grandin (US 2010, Dir Mick Jackson), a biopic of the accomplished autistic thinker and advocate who transformed the cattle farming industry.

The film attempts to visualise for the audience Temple’s inner world – one in which sights and sounds are accentuated, and thoughts run ‘like a VCR tape.’ The screening will be followed by an exclusive filmed interview with Temple Grandin, discussing the film and her experience of autism.

Further highlights include the documentary Life Animated (US 2016, Dir Roger Ross Williams), which examines the place of animation in the evolving mind map of a child, where the medium of film becomes a toolkit and a shared vocabulary; and the cult film Mulholland Drive (US 2001, Dir David Lynch), set in the winding roads and dark recesses of Hollywood, the curators suggest the film steps beyond neurotypical ways of comprehending (such as reading body language) and breaks convention by asking viewers to experience the story unbound by linear structure.

The programme also includes rarely screened titles such as Jigsaw (UK 2004, Dir Robina Rose), Scrapbook (Canada 2015, Dir Mike Hoolboom), the UK premiere of the new 2K restoration of Le Moindre geste (France 1971, Dirs Jean-Pierre Daniel & Fernand Deligny), and Project Art WorksIlluminating the Wilderness (UK 2018, Dirs Kate Adams & Tim Corrigan); these films reject psychiatric institutions and embrace progressive schools and rural settings, encountering their young subjects experimentally through movement and gesture as well as language.

The season closes with Keep the Change (US 2017, Dir Rachel Israel), an endearing New York based rom-com, which was heralded as a landmark film by The New York Times. By casting autistic actors to play the lead roles, this instils a layer of realism to its depiction of the budding romance between aspiring filmmaker David (Brandon Polansky) and Sarah (Samantha Elisofan).

All screenings are Relaxed Screenings, which means they have higher lighting levels and lower sound, as well as reduced seating capacity. Audiences are free to come and go as they please and there is also a chill out space - if needed. The screenings also include live introductions and post-screening discussions involving members of the autistic community, artists, activists, and academics. All events take place in Barbican Cinema 3, part of Barbican Beech Street cinemas and Café which was awarded the Autism Friendly Award by the National Autistic Society in 2020.

Janet Harbord, Professor of Film at Queen Mary, University of London, comments:

‘This programme explores the rich and multifaceted nature of an autistic apprehension of the world by looking with autism rather than at it. The autistic capacity for visual thinking, for a heightened attention to the object-world, and for bringing into the foreground what is often lost to the background, characterize this series of films, demonstrating an historical affinity between autism and cinema.’

Highlights from the season will screen in selected cinema venues across the UK later in the year.

Screenings

Temple Grandin (12A*) + ScreenTalk with Dr David Hartley & Dr Bonnie Evans
US 2010, Dir Mick Jackson, 107 min digital presentation
Thu 16 Sep, 6.30 pm, Barbican Cinema 3
Free screening

Drawn from the subject’s own memoirs, Temple Grandin details the life story of the incredible autistic thinker and advocate who transformed the cattle farming industry.

Diagnosed at a time when long-term institutional care was still common, Grandin overcame all odds to pursue her education.

The film attempts to visualise for the audience Temple’s inner world – one in which sights and sounds are accentuated, and thoughts run ‘like a VCR tape’. And it depicts her struggles as she uses her own sensory experiences to help develop new approaches to animal farming.

The screening will be introduced by Queen Mary academics Professor Janet Harbord and Dr Bonnie Evans, and will be followed by an exclusive filmed interview with Temple Grandin discussing the film and her experience of autism.

Le Moindre geste (PG*) & Scrapbook (short) & Lightsteps (short)
+ ScreenTalk with Professor Janet Harbord & Dr Damian Milton
France 1971 Dirs Jean-Pierre Daniel, Fernand Deligny, Josée Manenti
96 min digital presentation
Sat 18 Sep, 2.30 pm, Barbican Cinema 3   

First screened in the critics’ week at Cannes Film Festival in 1971, this one-of-its kind docu-drama arises from the work of anti-psychiatry guerrilla Fernand Deligny.

Deligny rejected the oppression of psychiatric institutions and lived with autistic children in experiments, or ‘tentatives’. Shot over two years, Le Moindre geste presents Yves, a young autistic man escaped from a psychiatric institution, and a teen from the local village, as they explore the Cevennes hills. When a situation becomes a crisis, Yves responds with anachronistic offerings that exhibit their own logic.

Scrapbook is a short film offering a twist on the idea of time travel, it overlays footage shot in 1967 in an Ohio residential centre for neurodiverse children with commentary, recorded 45 years later, by one of the women in it. This also screens with Lightsteps, a short by Project Art Works founder Kate Adams and continues the collective’s commitment to promote sustainable relations and connect people with complex needs into the heart of social, cultural life and visual art activity.

These will be introduced by Queen Mary academics Professor Janet Harbord & Dr Damian Milton.

Mulholland Drive (15) & The Mask + Introduction by Professor Steven Eastwood & Georgia Kumari Bradburn
US 2001, Dir David Lynch, 147 min digital presentation
Tue 21 Sep, 8.00 pm, Barbican Cinema 3 

Set in the winding roads and dark recesses of Hollywood, Lynch’s labyrinthine film has attracted much hypothesis.

What if we were to resist the compulsion to solve the film as though it were a puzzle, or infer coherent and intentional subjects from the bodies on screen? What if, instead, we were to experience the chambers and onscreen events as belonging to a cinema not bound by theories of mind, its characters ones who ‘fracture and recombine like flesh caught in a kaleidoscope’ (Roger Ebert).

Mulholland Drive screens with The Mask (UK 2017 Dir Sharif Peraud 4 min digital presentation), a remarkable first-person account of methods for autistic being-in-the-world, and a wry observation of personality as role play.

As he journeys along a coastal footpath, the writer-director describes what it means to have autism while all the time wearing his favourite celebrity mask.

Introduced by Queen Mary academics Steven Eastwood, and Georgia Kumari Bradburn, author of The Autistic Film Critic blog.

Jigsaw (PG*) & Illuminating the Wilderness (short) + Screentalk with Director Robina Rose & Artist/ Activist Kate Adams.
UK 2004, Dir Robina Rose 67 min digital presentation
Thu 23 Sep, 6 pm, Barbican Cinema 3

Produced in 2004 just before autism diagnoses began to rise, Jigsaw sought to depict a little-known condition in a new light.

Robina Rose’s film focuses on the preoccupations of a group of autistic children in a specialist school in London. Rose’s immersive style engages with the content of the children’s activities bringing the audience into contact with the structure and content of their thoughts and actions.

Experimental methods, such as detailed close-ups and drawn-out scenes, enable forms of viewer observation which encourage new reflections on meaning and content, in order to change our perspectives on neurodiversity.

It screens with Illuminating the Wilderness (2018, Dirs Kate Adams & Tim Corrigan), an exploratory film describing a unique trip to Glen Affric in the Scottish Highlands made by Project Art Works’ artists and makers. Documenting the exploration of the remote Glen, by people who are highly sensitive to the sensory stimuli of the world around them, the film adopts a participatory method and focuses on the pleasures and challenges of neurodivergent responses to wild landscapes, considering concepts of the sublime as operating outside of language frameworks. Moments of humour emerge, and the field trip reveals the micro-considerations all involved afford one another.

The project was led by Project Art Works’ artists Kate Adams and Tim Corrigan (along with filmmakers Ben Rivers and Margaret Salmon) and originally exhibited as a gallery installation. Project Art Works is shortlisted for the 2021 Turner Prize.

After both screenings, Jigsaw’s director Robina Rose is in conversation with Kate Adams, artist, activist and co-founder of Project Art Works. It is being introduced by Professor Janet Harbord.

Life, Animated (PG*) & A is for Autism (short) + ScreenTalk with Director Tim Webb
& Artist Carla MacKinnon

US 2016, Dir Roger Ross Williams 92 min digital presentation
Sat 25 Sep, 2.30 pm, Barbican Cinema 3   

Based on the book Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, this documentary examines the place of animation in the evolving mind map of a child. Constructed from home video footage, hand-drawn animation and scenes from Disney movies, the film explores the power of animated fable to transfer experience from one domain to another.

Following the passion of their son and engaging with the world of Disney, the circle of people around Owen come to understand film as a tool-kit, a strong attractor, a shared vocabulary. 

It screens here with the award-winning animated documentary A is for Autism (UK 1992 Dir Tim Webb 11 min, digital presentation).

Each design in the film is based on drawings by autistic contributors and the soundtrack combines their thoughts with piano and flute music performed by autistic performers.

Following the screening, the film’s director Tim Webb, will be in conversation with Carla MacKinnon, artist and founder of Rich Pickings.
It is being introduced by Professor Steven Eastwood and Alex Widdowson.

Keep the Change & Outside In (short) + ScreenTalk with Professor Steven Eastwood & the Neurocultures Collective
USA 2018, Dir Rachel Israel, 94 min
Tue 28 Sep, 6 pm, Barbican Cinema 3

An endearing Romcom, Keep the Change is notable for being cast from autistic performers. By casting autistic actors to play the lead roles, the film instils a layer of realism to its depiction of the budding romance between aspiring filmmaker David (Brandon Polansky) and Sarah (Samantha Elisofan). Set in New York, the film adopts the traits and expectations of a quirky urban, romantic comedy, but manages to infuse a deep poignancy in its honest engagements with a community rarely depicted in the cinema.

Writer/Director, Rachel Israel has drawn from the experiences of her close friend, Brandon Polansky, who plays the lead and together with Israel, developed a script constructed through hours of improvisation. Polansky’s experience of living with Autism informs the film, which captures his experiences of navigating the everyday.

Outside In is a short visual poem which seeks to understand the experiences of Neuro Divergent people navigating a Neuro Typical world.

These screenings will be introduced by Professor Steven Eastwood & the Neurocultures Collective.

Barbican Cinema has been supported by the Culture Recovery Fund for Independent Cinemas in England which is administered by the BFI, as part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund supporting arts and cultural organisations in England affected by the impact of COVID-19. #HereForCulture.

Box office: The Barbican believes in creating space for people and ideas to connect though its international arts programme, community events and learning activity. To keep its programme accessible to everyone, and to keep investing in the artists it works with, the Barbican needs to raise more than 60% of its income through ticket sales, commercial activities and fundraising every year.
Donations can be made here: barbican.org.uk/donate