The amazing directors behind ‘The Specials’

All the actors playing autistic people in The Specials really do have autism, except for one character who causes himself significant harm by head banging.

BENJAMIN LESIEUR (left) and Vincent Cassel in ‘The Specials.’ (photo credit: CAROLE BETHUEL/COURTESY OF LEV CINEMAS)
BENJAMIN LESIEUR (left) and Vincent Cassel in ‘The Specials.’
Most directors strive for authenticity in their films, but Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, who made the powerful new film The Specials, which opens throughout the country on February 13, have taken it one step further.
The Specials, which is based on a true story, is about Bruno (Vincent Cassel), an Orthodox Jew who runs a home and a day program for the most severely autistic children and young people in Paris, in tandem with Malik (Reda Kateb), a Muslim who trains young people from poor neighborhoods to work as caregivers.
Nakache and Toledano have collaborated on a number of films, including The Intouchables, one of the most popular French films in history, and they took the carte blanche they received from producers because of that success and spent two years working with and getting to know young people with autism in a dance and theater workshop.
All the actors playing autistic people in The Specials really do have autism, except for one character who causes himself significant harm by head banging.
“For him, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to use someone with autism,” said Nakache. The two, who are frequent visitors to Israel, were interviewed, in a mix of Hebrew, French and English, in December just before The Specials was the opening-night film at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the capital’s Cinematheque. “We hired this actor, Marco Locatelli, and we found out he has a brother with autism, a severe case, and because of that, he said he could understand who his character is, and he said he could also learn to love his brother better.”
The resulting film, which was the closing film at the Cannes Film Festival and which was screened for French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, is so authentic and so moving, it proves that every moment the directors invested in the workshop was worthwhile. These characters, as embodied by the actors who play them, are not Rain Man-type geniuses, nor are they out of control all the time or totally out of it. They are funny, frustrated, affectionate and exasperating, just like real people with autism. I should say at this point that I am the mother of a young man with autism who is very similar to those depicted in the film. Having spent more time with people on the autism spectrum than with those who are “normal” over the last two decades, it was a revelation to see autistic people as quirky as my son captured on film.
Benjamin Lesieur, who has a substantial part in the film, plays Joseph, the first autistic child with whom Bruno worked, now a young man who is obsessed with washing machines.
“We developed a relationship with him,” said Toledano. “We told him, ‘If you don’t want to act, it’s okay.’ You have to roll with them.”
The filmmaking experience turned out to be therapeutic for the actors. “Benjamin’s mother said that he would never wear a belt before, and he did for the film. And his parents said, ‘Take him for a long time!’”
The plot line involving Joseph epitomizes the contradictions of autism and the difficulties in working with those on the spectrum. Joseph is intelligent enough to cross Paris on the Métro to go to work, but is obsessed with pulling the alarm on the train, causing huge rush-hour delays.
He knows enough to fix appliances, but he can’t manage to abide by workplace norms and inappropriately rests his head on the shoulders of a pretty coworker to whom he is attracted, something he does with everyone. He has a devoted mother, compellingly played by Hélène Vincent, who has had to quit work to care for him, since because of his infrequent but violent meltdowns, he has been thrown out of every school, and the isolation drives her to despair at times, as does the fact that she can’t help him as much as she would like to.
Nakache said Lesieur was an unbelievable actor. “During the shoot, we asked Benjamin, ‘Do that again, get back into place, go back to the beginning, come on, we’re going to do another take,’ and he was perfect, just like all the other professional actors. Talking with the doctors, we realized that the cinema uses a very autistic-like process of repetition: supervised and repetitive...  He sometimes put his head on a technician’s shoulder. We were ourselves experiencing exactly what we were talking about in the film.”
The filmmakers, who have been working together for more than 20 years and are both French Jews from North African Mizrahi backgrounds, seem like the ideal people to take on the difficult task of teaching people with autism to express themselves on film. Although they are among the most high-powered filmmakers in Europe, they are soft spoken and calm, finishing each other’s sentences gently. They seem like those guys who were always clowning around in high school, but somehow you knew they were actually the smartest people in the class.
They got to know Stéphane Benhamou, the model for the character of Bruno, when they were working at a summer camp in the 90s, and Benhamou later worked with Toledano’s autistic cousin. Benhamou’s work with autistic people in an organization sponsored by Chabad called Le Silence des Justes (The Silence of the Righteous) inspired them to make the film, and they also included the story of Benhamou’s real-life Muslim colleague, Daoud Tatou, who works with youth from underprivileged communities. Just as the film shows, they said, Benhamou and Tatou’s work brings together Jews and Muslims, who collaborate harmoniously to help those with special needs and other problems.
“Our movies always talk about implausible encounters. This one had a particular theme: how people who communicate little, or not at all, and are considered abnormal, but still manage to make so-called ‘normal’ people who in our society no longer communicate, communicate. There is in these associations a harmony and blend of cultures, religions, identities and unusual pasts which should inspire many people,” said Toledano.
The comedy around Bruno’s single status is one of the highlights of the film, as his Chabad coworkers never give up on trying to fix him up.
“Now, after the film came out [in France], everyone at all the news outlets knows what ‘shidduch’ means,” said Nakache.
The comedy in the film highlights what is perhaps its greatest achievement: not only its accurate depiction of more severely afflicted autistic people, but that it finds hope in their stories without being stupidly or unrealistically upbeat.
“I think enough directors talk about bad things,” said Toledano. “We want to talk about hope.”
When they met Woody Allen, one of their idols, he told them that he had enjoyed The Intouchables, and said, “I’m a pessimistic Ashkenazi, you’re optimistic Mizrahim,” recalled Nakache,
For many parents of children with autism, who have never before seen our struggles depicted accurately on the big screen, the film is a revelation. If only the bureaucrats and public officials in charge of setting policies for people with autism knew half as much about their daily lives as Nakache and Toledano do.
Their loving portrait of Benhamou reminded me and my friends of the teachers who have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of our children, for little money and even less prestige and recognition. The title of this film, The Specials, could just as easily refer to the specialness of these generous professionals as to people with special needs, as well as to these outstanding directors who have illuminated these stories so affectingly.