Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Scraping the burnt part off the toast

So, apparently it's Autism Awareness Month? Well I guess I'll contribute then.

*ahem* Hey guys! Autism exists!

Are you aware now?

Sorry, that was snarky of me, but what does "awareness month" even mean? Knowing that autism exists? I'm pretty sure most people do, even if they aren't informed as to the particulars. Looking at puzzle piece ribbons? Uh, thanks, that's really helpful. Telling everyone about how they Totally Understand Autism (Because My Friend's Cousin's Niece Is Autistic?) Please god, no. 

I was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder when I was eight; I wasn't told about this until I was sixteen, because my parents decided that I would be better off if I didn't know I was "different." Here's the thing about this mindset, and the midset surrounding people with autism in general: the idea that we don't know we're somehow "different" is just plain wrong. We know. We might not know why, but when people edge away from us or lower their voices when we're around or whisper that something's . . . different about us, we notice. Autism does not mean being wrapped in cotton, walking through the world with no awareness of what's going on around us. Understanding and awareness are not the same thing.

Point the second: there isn't a cure. And even if there is, I wouldn't want one.

A lot of high-profile autism organizations like Autism Speaks put the focus of their "awareness" campaigns on the need for a "cure." They walk low-spectrum kids across the camera's line of vision and tell everyone how these children have been "kidnapped" by autism, how there really is a "normal" kid in there if only they could dig deep enough to find it. Their mission statement is to wipe autism off the face of the earth so that no parent ever has to deal with having an autistic child. Often they have the parents saying this while standing in front of the kids. (x) This kind of rhetoric isn't just damaging to people with autism (see what I said above about knowing that we're being treated differently) but it's just factually incorrect. A "cure" for autism isn't going to magically reveal the person underneath, because that person is fundamentally tied to their autism. It's part of us in the same way that our hair or fingernails are. I can paint my nails and dye my hair, and I can pretend to act "normal" in a crowd, but the fact is, my hair is brown and my nails are pink. And I have autism.

What people who advocate for a "cure" for autism really want is a way for their autistic child/relative to act and communicate "normally-" i.e. like a neurotypical person. They want the autistic person to stop stimming or repeating themselves, or hyperfocusing. They want to be able to communicate with the autistic person like a "normal" child instead of having to decipher echolalic thought or repeating themselves. They want an assurance that their child will grow up and have a life like they expected them to- going to college, holding down a job, maybe getting married and having kids. The thing is though, a disability- or discinclination- to doing these things isn't unique to autism. Lots of people either aren't capable to or just don't WANT to go down those particular paths. It doesn't make them deficent; it makes them individuals, same as autistic people.

I may sound like I'm knocking parents of people with autism. Believe me, I'm not. I grew up with autism; I know that it got hard for my parents at times, especially when I couldn't force myself to eat more than five foods (sensory issues are also associated with autism, and I have them to his day- restaurant outings are difficult for me, especially when people ask why I'm not eating) or throwing tantrums, or sobbing inconsolably because one shoe felt tighter than the other. I can't imagine they enjoyed my endless monologues on whatever TV show I was obsessed with that year (I can trace much of my early development to what show I was watching. "Oh, I was into Relic Hunter, so I was twelve then- The X-Files, so that's when I was fourteen . . .") or the struggle to get my teachers to understand that I needed extra time and patience. But there's two things I want to point out:

  1. Plenty of people without autism have these problems,
  2. The solution is to offer support, not try to force the autistic person into a broken mold
It's no secret to anyone with a learning disability that the school system is pretty damn broken when it comes to neuroatypical kids. That's not to say that there aren't good educators out there; I have some absolute heroes in my school career, without whom I would never have finished high school, and the only reason I'm not naming them here is because I don't know if they'd be comfortable having their names on the internet. But overall, there's a binarism that faces kids with learning disorders- AND people with autism- that makes getting through to teachers and other students a struggle. My mother told me a story about me being in tenth grade, and discussing my performance with one of my teachers. My diagnosis wasn't in my student files, and when she mentioned it to this teacher, his whole demeanour changed: "Ohhhh, she's IDENTIFIED? I didn't know that." Being Identified turned me from a student who wanted to learn into an object of pity- no need for her to try and keep up with the others, she's IDENTIFIED. (Of course, I ended up graduating as an honour student, so I think we can safely say that that teacher didn't know what he was talking about.) But I did graduate. I graduated because the special ed teachers were willing to put in the time to work with me and my teachers (well, some of them) were willing to recognize me as a person and not a dignosis. So if you want to be supportive of autistic people, here's what you do:
  • stop penalizing any behaviour that deviates from the social norm. If they're actively HURTING themselves (i.e. banging their heads against a wall) that's one thing, but stimming and echolalia never hurt anyone. 
  • work to understand US instead of making us struggle to understand YOU. See above re: fitting us into a broken mold
  • start including us in conversations about autism instead of assuming we have nothing to say. Even those of us who have trouble with verbal communication still have minds.
  • support programs intended for autistic adults. You would not BELIEVE how difficult finding assistance is for autistic people over the age of eighteen. You're not a kid anymore? Sucks to be you, you're on your own! But autism doesn't vanish upon legal adulthood, and the needs involved don't either.
  • don't assume that anyone with a specific set of behaviours is autistic and anyone without that set isn't. Autism is a VAST spectrum, and one autistic person is just that- one autistic person. No one of us represents the whole spectrum. We can't.
  • instead of talking about "curing" us of our autism, start embracing it as part of who we are.
See, that's the thing about autism- it's not like a cancerous growth you can cut out, or a burnt part you can scrape off a piece of toast. I wouldn't be the person I am right now if I didn't have autism. I wouldn't be the person I am, period, if I didn't have autism. And, unlike toast, we're not made to order. "Curing" autism doesn't mean eradicating a disease; it means wiping us out. And I don't think that sounds nearly as appealing.

Further reading:

Friday, 5 April 2013

How hating a movie sent me to film school

I follow Film Crit Hulk on twitter, and if you're at all interested in film, you probably should too. Hulk is hilarious, erudite (well you kind of have to be, on twitter) and almost always on point, even when I disagre with him. Earlier today, Hulk tweeted an article he had written for Badass Digest, entitled "Never Hate A Movie." I have to admit, when I saw the title, my eyebrows went up- never hate a movie? Even the offensive ones? Even the ones that hurt me deeply in my feminist soul? But when I actually read it, I found that I agreed with a lot of what Hulk had to say. But not quite all of it.

We say "oh, I hate X" fairly frequently, and not always with a lot of venom behind it- "I hate snow!" "I hate cats!" "I hate broccoli!" Often, it's shorthand for "I don't like this very much," but the thing we say we hate doesn't consume us unless we're brought into contact with it. Thus is it for me with most movies; even if I spend the entire time in the theatre groaning and rolling my eyes, like I did with Ghost Rider, I rarely think about them after the credits roll. Like Hulk says, it's not really worth the emotional effort. I have so many movies I LOVE, why would I want to waste time hating one? I can only think of one film I ever watched that stuck in my head like a burr for weeks afterward, itching and rubbing at me whenever I tried to sleep. And as it turns out, that film may have been the instrument that got me to apply to film school.

I love movies. I always have. I'm one of those weirdos who insists on arriving to the theatre at least ten minutes early so I don't miss seeing the trailers. I dissect movies after I've seen them on Livejournal and Tumblr. It's not just something I do for fun- it's practically a reflex for me. As a writer, storytelling is something that inherently fascinates me. Why did the filmmakers chose to write it that way? What was the purpose behind that word choice? And as an actor- not anymore, but almost all the time in my child and teenhood- the way the casting process and the acting craft functions fascinate me. Movies are a culmination of many, many things that fascinate me, so it's no surprise that they fascinate me as a whole.

In the fall semester of my third year of undergrad- this past fall- I had a chance to take a class called "Religion and Film" at my university. It was taught by Douglas Cowan, and if you haven't read his book Sacred Terror, what the hell are you doing wasting time on my blog? As the syllabus promised us, we were going to look at a variety of movies in a variety of genres, some of which you'd never think to associate with religion- our first two movies, War of the Worlds (the original, none of that Tom Cruise shit) and The Day the Earth Stood Still come to mind- but about midway through the course, he introduced us to a little film called Stigmata.

I had never seen this movie. I had never heard of it. I had only the vaguest ideas of what it was about. But sitting in class while the film rolled, I felt an emotion. A deep emotion. A powerful emotion. Watching this film play out on the projector, I felt very deeply, and that feeling was hate.

I fucking hated this movie. I hated everything about it. I hated the aesthetic. I hated the hammer-on-the-nail blue/orange colour contrast between the two main locations. I hated the direction. I hated the painful symbolism. I hated the weird habit of using voiceover to remind us of dialogue that had been spoken not five minutes earlier. I hated the ridiculous Da Vinci Code plot, which was actually written several years before DVC came out. At various points, I was actually grinding my teeth with rage. When the movie was over and the lights came up, Dr. Cowan turned to us and said "This director will never be accused of subtlety."

"He'll never be accused of talent, either!" I shouted. (This was the kind of class where we were actually encouraged to yell our opinions, which is probably part of why I enjoyed it so much.)

When I got home that night, I tweeted about this awful, stupid, rage-inducing film I'd just watched, and a friend of mine responded. "Oh my God, Stigmata? I love that movie!"

"WHAT" I said.

"I know, it's awful!" they said. "But it's so much fun! Watch it again and see!"

I agreed. I kind of had to; I had to write an essay on it. Alongside the class discussion, this was probably the part of the course that benefited me the most- writing an essay on the films we watched every week meant I had to hash through what I'd felt while watching it and come up with why it had affected me the way it did. The catch being, of course, that we couldn't just vomit inarticulate rage all over the paper; we needed to back up our conclusions and ideas. Also, it was based solely on our personal reactions, so we didn't need to do research or cite sources. If you've ever taken a university course, you'll know what a relief that was. And as I was raging my way through this essay ("EVOLUTION DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY!1!!" my notes screamed in all-caps) I came to realize something: I hated this movie so deeply and angrily because, had it taken maybe five steps to the left, it could have been a movie I loved.

The themes! The idea of God coming to an atheist and how the atheist would deal with this! The corruption of organized religion! The function of love as a way of growing closer to God! I might have set aside the voiceovers and the colour scheme and the symbolism- all of it- if the movie had just made a few choices differently and put the emotional focus on the character who should have been the lead- the stigmatic herself- and not the priest character, who should by rights have been the secondary lead, I would have walked out of class that day singing this movie's praises.

I did not, naturally, write any of this in my essay. Instead, I wrote about the idea that the budding romantic relationship between the two main characters was an expression of the idea that love was a better conduit to God than organized religion, slapped my name on it, and handed it in. I got a 17/20 on that paper, and I'm pretty sure the hard copy is still floating around my room somewhere. Boom, bang, done. Dust yout hands off and move on to the next movie. It's over.

BUT IT WOULD NOT LEAVE ME ALONE. Like a cut that you keep poking open, I went back to the movie again and watched the scenes that infuriated me the most. "Why does the film not address this?" I cried as a highly non-consensual attempted sex scene took place. "WHERE IS HER AGENCY?" I howled as the main female character lay unconscious in bed while the male characters ran around punching each other in the face and having spiritual debates. I went out to look for other exorcism-themed movies to see how they approached similar material, and ended up writing a whole blog post about it. I think at one point the friend who'd told me she loved the movie might have been concerned for my mental health. I know my tumblr followers were. But I'd discovered something, in all my movie-watching and hate-blogging: for all I despised this movie- and I did still despise it- this movie fascinated me. I wanted to take it apart piece by piece to see how they fitted together, and then polish the individual pieces and put them back together, better. What I wanted was to make a different movie. A better movie.

I'd written scripts before- I spent most of eleventh and twelfth grade writing a Robin Hood TV series that I was never able to sell because a) I was a sixteen-year-old with no credits to her name, and b) Canada has this thing called the CanCon, or Canadian content rule, which says that a certain amount of Canadian TV has to be set in Canada. A period drama about medieval England clearly didn't qualify, as every agent that replied to my queries told me, so I sighed sadly, put the script in a drawer, and went back to writing novels. My newfound fascination with a terrible horror movie wasn't going to change CanCon. But . . . that didn't mean I couldn't write something else, did it? I could try to write a horror movie, couldn't I? I'd seen just about every exorcism movie I could find. I knew how to write dialogue. I knew the tropes. I knew the themes. I knew what I wanted to write about. I opened Scrivener and started to write.

Writing wasn't the only thing that occurred to me in the wake of that movie. I'd been struggling for years to figure out what I was going to do post-graduation, with a vaguely-named Liberal Arts degree and no applicable skills I could offer to an employer. There were film schools in Canada, weren't there? And if I wanted to write- and maybe direct- movies, I should learn from the pros, right? I sat down and started researching film schools.

I'm still not finished my undergrad, so I can't end this story with a happy "and then I got into film school and graduated with honours and won a million Oscars!" But I can say that watching this terrible, terrible movie set me on a path I might not have realized I wanted to be on. I want to make movies. I adore movies. I want to spend my life working on movies. And whatever else this course and this film did for me, I'm glad I realized it.

The movie still blows, though.

And this is gonna get really awkward if I ever meet the
director at a film festival.