Enlightening, touching and beautifully shot, this movie sheds light on the inner world of people with nonverbal autism.
Review by CHIN JIAN WEI
How does it feel to be able to see everything, hear everything, but be unable to express yourself? That is the central question behind the movie The Reason I Jump, which has been screening at Golden Screen Cinemas (GSC) in conjunctio with World Autism Month. One of the most important things in life that we take for granted is the ability to freely express ourselves. It is something innately human, it is the reason for the languages we speak and the art we create. But what would it feel like, if every time you opened your mouth to express yourself, the words just didn’t make it out?
The Reason I Jump is a documentary film based on the best-selling book written by Naoki Higashida, who is a person with nonspeaking or nonverbal autism. Throughout the movie, he serves as a narrator of sorts, sharing honestly about how he feels when he tries to communicate, the way he sees the world, and the challenges he goes through on a daily basis. His words also serve as a framework for the intimate stories of five young people around the world, all struggling with their own challenges with autism.
Nonspeaking autism is a subset of autism where a person is unable to speak clearly or without interference. Experts estimate that 25 to 30 percent of children are either minimally verbal (only able to say a certain few phrases) or they can’t speak at all. Amrit, the first person we meet, is a young woman from India who has nonspeaking autism, and she does not speak throughout the whole documentary. However, there can be no doubt that she is able to absorb and comprehend the things that she sees and hears. In lieu of expressing herself verbally, she draws the things that happen around her: the things she does, the food she eats, the people she sees. Her drawings are truly remarkable, full of personality and skill, and a testament to the power of art to communicate feelings.
The cinematography is breathtaking. The people are framed intimately with natural-looking light, befitting the highly personal nature of the stories. The landscapes that The Boy (a stand-in for Higashida the narrator) runs through are shot in a way that emphasizes their grandeur, as if we are looking out through the eyes of a child, experiencing pure wonder in the beauty of nature.
Unlike the book it is based on, the documentary is able to leverage the unique advantages of the medium of film to give us a deeper understanding of the world of someone with autism. For Higashida and possibly Amrit, they perceive objects in the world by their details first, before putting together the pieces to form the full picture. For example, they would see the veins in a leaf and the rough bark of the trunk before realising that they’re looking at a tree. The camera reflects this, often using extreme close-ups to focus on and linger on some minute detail that a neurotypical person might overlook. A tiny insect wriggling on a tree branch. The texture of a piece of fruit in a market. The beloved toy that brings comfort.
This emphasis on immersion also applies to the sound design. Joss is the second person featured in this documentary, a young man with a unique relationship with sound. Sometimes, he closes one or both of his ears, although it is unclear whether he does this to block out disliked sounds or simply because he is experimenting with how the world sounds when muffled. Regardless, the film’s audio also becomes muffled whenever he does this. Joss is also fixated on the green electricity distribution boxes that dot his town. More specifically, he loves the humming sound that they make, which most neurotypical people don’t even notice. The film amplifies the humming of the boxes in the way Joss must have heard them, demonstrating the film’s commitment to putting you in the shoes of its young subjects.
Joss’s perception of time and memories is also represented creatively in the film. To Joss, there is no distinction between a memory made this morning and a memory made a decade ago. All of them are equally vivid in his head. To illustrate this, the film uses quick cuts, jumping rapidly back and forth between the professionally-shot footage of Joss’s current life and low fidelity home videos Joss’s parents made in his early childhood. The Joss of today flickers and exchanges places with toddler-Joss as he rides in his parents’ car.
Perhaps the biggest revelation in this movie for me came from Emma and Ben’s story. Both are in their early 20s and are nonspeaking. This, coupled with their verbal tics and uncoordinated movements, may have led some to believe that they are less intelligent or slower compared to neurotypical people. This couldn’t be further from the truth. They are given alphabet touchpads which they can use to communicate. They do this by pointing to the letters on the pad sequentially to spell out the words they wish to say. And when they do this, they reveal a staggering level of eloquence and intelligence that seem completely at odds with their outward appearance and mannerisms. It is then that the audience fully realises the pain they must have gone through before the touchpads were introduced, to be trapped in a body that refuses their instructions to communicate.
The friendship between Emma and Ben is another highlight of the documentary. The pair have been friends since childhood, and despite the fact they are unable to speak with each other, their bond is incredibly strong, and the respect and love they have for each other are palpable. Their friendship is an encapsulation of one of the film’s messages: just because nothing is said, it does not mean that nothing is there.
The final life the documentary explores is that of Jestina’s. Living in Sierra Leone, she and her parents have faced prejudice and discrimination over the years. Jestina sometimes has episodes where she is unable to restrain herself from swinging her body wildly or shouting at the top of her lungs. Unfortunately, this has resulted in some people in her community labeling her as a witch, or “devil-possessed”. Another Sierra Leone woman who has an autistic child speaks about how people have pressured her to abandon her child because they think it is cursed. The plight of autistic people, not just in Sierra Leone but throughout the world, is plain to see. Heartbreakingly, Higashida’s narration reveals that he is most comfortable in nature, because only nature can fully accept him as he is without any judgment.
Thankfully, Jestina’s parents were at the forefront of spearheading proper education for autistic children and ensuring they get the care they need. Nowadays, Jestina and other youngsters like her are starting to be more accepted in the community and have a better support system. However, her story is a painful reminder of how people like her used to be treated in days gone by. At one point, the documentary plays audio clips of the horrible things people have said about autism and other mental disorders, such as Hitler’s calls to mass-murder people who are different, or the reprehensible eugenics movement that tried to use selective breeding to eliminate “undesirable traits” in people. In doing this, the film shows us how far we’ve progressed since then, while also reminding us that the only thing needed for evil men to get their way is for the masses to stay ignorant and uncaring. We owe it to our fellow human beings to have more empathy and understanding, and this film will hopefully go on to educate many more.
Ultimately, this is a film that also highlights the power and depth of love parents have for their children. Each of the autistic people featured is blessed with loving parents who do everything in their power to provide better lives for their children and love them unconditionally. There are many stirring scenes where human emotion in its rawest form is put on screen, and the camera remains focussed.
Come look through the window into the lives of these remarkable human beings, see their joys and sorrows, and hopefully come away with a better understanding and empathy for your fellow man.
In conjunction with World Autism Month, GSC is showing The Reason I Jump exclusively at its theatres from April 14 to May 1. Twenty-eight GSC cinemas nationwide are participating in this special screening. Please visit GSC’s website to learn more and see the full list of participating cinemas.