When a producer approached Miroslav Janek, the Czech director of the documentary Normal Autistic Film, and suggested he make a documentary about autism, a subject about which he knew very little, he wasn’t interested.
“It sounded too general for me. And there are so many films already,” he said. But when he learned that there were no films on autism made in the Czech Republic, he decided to look into it.
The resulting film is one of several movies in the Czech Film Week in Israel, which runs until early September at the cinematheques in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Herzliya and Holon. Producer Jan Macola, who made Normal Autistic Film, as well a several other films in the festival, is a guest of the film week.
This program features the best of contemporary Czech cinema, as well as a tribute to the classic cinema of Karel Zeman, a master of imaginative movies from the Sixties and a pioneer in the use of special effects.
After he met with the producer, Janek began researching autism and spent time with many children and teens.
“I was actually very positively surprised and intrigued by the way they talk and behave, it’s slightly mysterious, very clever and very inspiring... I knew if I select the right people to focus on, it’s a good way to make a film.”
All of the subjects were on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and they ranged from Magda, a depressed teen who was diagnosed at the late age of 13; Denis, a gifted pianist who enjoys reading philosophical books such as The Little Prince; Lukas, an intense film buff and aspiring director; and the lively and inquisitive twins Ahmed and Marjamka.
Janek had made a number of films about children before, including Nespatrene, about blind children, as well as movies about children in foster care and a gypsy girl singer. But he nevertheless felt he was in uncharted territory.
“Every film is different, every subject is different, every character is different, and you are different and the storytelling style is different,” he said. Even so, he was not prepared for “how different it would be.”
For a period of 10 months, he spoke to and spent time with a group of children, ending up with the five who appear in the final film. Still, he worried that the rapport that had developed between him and the children would disappear once shooting began. To his surprise and delight, “I discovered they don’t care about the camera, they don’t change their behavior, it was fantastic because they didn’t change at all, they were always themselves. It made filming easy and enjoyable.”
He simply filmed them in their everyday activities, hanging out with them just as he had when he first met them, and didn’t feel the need to make any suggestions about what to do except occasionally asking them to go for a walk.
“They just seemed to go with the feeling,” he said. “To a certain degree they enjoyed the attention... I was surprised every day of shooting, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Every shooting day I was in some degree of amazement.”
When the subjects saw the film, they liked it – mostly.
“The depressive girl had a very interesting problem, she said I should cut out all her scenes but one, because she was concerned that she kept repeating things.”
They were able to work out a compromise in which he did cut some of what she said.
Audience reaction at festivals around the world has been very positive.
“There is a minimum one hour of discussion afterwards, it is like a double feature.”
Asked why he chose not to include any lower-functioning people with autism, especially since he chose to give the film such a generic title, Janek said, “You know, you cannot show everything in one film.” His intention was to present a portrait of several individuals with autism, not to make a comprehensive documentary on the issue.
He said he hoped people would find his young subjects as compelling as he did.
“Every day I learned something from them, a new way of thinking or looking.”
The Czech Center Tel Aviv, the Embassy of the Czech Republic, the Karel Zeman Museum, Little Prague and Prague Airport are among the organizations that made this film week possible.For more info on Czech Film Week visit www.jer-cin.org.il.