Action! Celebrating Neurodivergent Filmmakers. Cut!

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On the 17th June Emma Robdale travelled to Crouch End’s Art House, London to see DYSPLA’s exhibition of Dyslexic and Neurodivergent filmmakers. Making her way down a quiet street she arrived at a cosy independent cinema and gallery. She discovered that the venue was owned by a dyslexic individual supporting the event! After rewarding herself with a cup of chocolate covered peanuts, she settled down in row C, ready to discover the inspiration behind a series of shorts…

Photo of the inside of a film venue

Lennie Varvarides and the panel of film directors talking at The Art House. Photo © DYSPLA

I was soon to discover that, as well as myself, many other members of the audience identified as Neurodivergent and had come to talk in a dyslexic-run dyslexic-managed space.

In Neurodivergent solidarity we awaited the first film; The Life and Death of an Autistic Man, written by Daniel Bendelman. It was a very audio focused piece.

Over the simple graphics of prescription tablets dissolving in swirling water pulsated a monotone voice. This voice spoke of worldwide statistics showing a heightened suicide rate in autistic individuals…

“A study in Sweden showed that suicide in autistic individuals is 7.5% higher because autistic individuals can have a predisposition to depression… An American study showed that on average autistic individuals live to age 36.”

The continuous dissolving tablets paired with monotone voice created an incredibly eerie effect. The simplicity of the visuals made the audience concentrate and listen to the monologue about autism, depression and suicide.

How would this film be followed? I hoped for something uplifting. I was entranced by the vibrant stop-frame animation, Ruby.

Emma Allen had created swirling face-paint art to represent life and death. Emma was at the screening and spoke about how she had spent a substantial portion of her childhood with her Aunt in Sri Lanka and felt particularly connected to the earth. But when her Aunt, Ruby, was in her 90s she became ill and it was apparent she would die.

Emma Allen said the film, “Fell out of me.” and that painting representations of birth, life and death on herself was a way to come to terms with her Aunt Ruby’s death.

“It’s about energy transferring from one form to the other.”

Portrait of film-maker Emma Allen with two stills from her film on either side of her.

Emma Allen with two scenes from ‘Ruby’

At one point Emma has an embryo on the side of her face, she blows her cheek up and down to create the effect of a heartbeat. She had painted a little red gem in the embryo to represent her Aunt. She then spoke about going down for dinner with her family in between a filming and feeling strange with the embryo still on her face!

The next award-winning film was strikingly different, The Game of God by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese. Shot in black and white it combined a mixture between acting and real crowd reaction. It starts with a man dragging a heavy coffin along the ground; he arrives at a dusty African town, where a real life crowd gather around him. He proclaims,

“Your God is Dead! He’s in the box. You are fighting and dying for a dead God.”

The crowd burst into murderous uproar and their comments are translated at the bottom of the screen, “The Blasphemer!”, “Lets beat him up!”. The man is saved only because, when the coffin is pried open, it is found to be full of money and the crowd spill forward as the man makes his escape. An extremely brave and incredibly political production where I had the feeling the production team could have been very badly hurt!

This was chased by the lively, Fight, a boxing themed montage using pixelating red and black photographs pulsating to music. The producer, D-Fuse, spoke on the panel about how he makes audio-visual productions, splicing sound and image together to create film that works as art.

The very last to show was Saturday by Mike Forshaw. As emotional as it was political, it is based around the reactions of a Liverpudlian family first hearing of the Hillsborough disaster. At the panel Mike spoke about what had lead him to create the piece; a very personal childhood memory. When he was eight he came back home after playing football with friends to find his older cousin crying in the living room.

“It was the first time I had ever seen a man cry.”

His cousin had a ticket to the infamous Hillsborough football match but had given his ticket to a friend at the last minute. His friend never returned. This strong memory and Mike’s Liverpudlian roots are what inspired him with the help of his brother to co-write ‘Saturday’. The film was meant to come out for Hillsborough’s 25th anniversary in 2014 but was prohibited in the UK until 2016 due to the ongoing inquest.

At the panel discussion Mike spoke about what it meant to him to be a film-maker,

“I view filmmaking as a contract. When audience members buy a ticket, they expect to be entertained. Every time there is unrealistic dialogue or action they are disappointed, drawn out of their bubble. I want to keep people in the bubble as long as possible. Make them feel and really understand the human elements within my films.”

Photo of four white people sitting in a row on a panel discussion

Lennie Varvarides, Mike Forshaw, Emma Allen, and D-Fuse talking at the Panel, Photo Emma Robdale

Lennie Varvarides, co-organiser of DYSPLA, described the type of memory Mike had as an episodic memory,

“Neurodivergent individuals have very strong emotive episodic memories, allowing them to combine fact and fiction with vivid dreams helping them create new innovative work.”

She believes that dyslexic individuals are more likely to have intense and emotive memories because of the way they make sense of the world through more visual concepts.

Mike spoke about having difficulties at school and how because of this he was drawn more to the arts. He started off drawing before going into photography and film.

The panel were asked about when they were first diagnosed with dyslexia. It came to light that all three of the speakers, Mike Forshaw, Emma Allen and D-fuse, were diagnosed as adults. Being dyslexic myself, but diagnosed as a child, I decided to voice a question to the panel,

“Do you think that your view of dyslexia would have been different had you been diagnosed younger?”

A discussion ensued about how, even though their dyslexia was not recognised, they always realized they were different. However, in my own experience being diagnosed young meant I attributed many of my failings to dyslexia. I thought that perhaps being diagnosed as an adult could have helped the film-makers attribute more positives towards their dyslexia? But it was voiced that early diagnosis may have given them Neurodivergent solidarity, and more access to facilities.

Hopefully, with the help of organisations such as DYSPLA people’s general attitude towards dyslexia is changing.  So the experience that I had with diagnosis will hopefully one day be a thing of the past. At one-point Lennie said: “At the moment Dyslexia is very political.”

The last question posed was not to the directors but to the audience, “Do you think the films had anything in common?”

And one woman towards the back commented: “I noticed that all the films focused strongly on audio, the sound was as powerful as the visuals.”

A student towards the front added: “The films had a sort of non-linearity to them. As a neurodivergent individual this is how I experience life. They all drew me in to have an emotional reaction.”

Dyslexic individuals are producing quality films at the top of their industry. The event was run by DYSPLA, an arts group that celebrates Dyslexia and neurodivergence. The organisers Lennie Varvarides and Kazimir Bielecki want to show the world that dyslexic filmmakers are not disadvantaged in the filmmaking industry, but possibly superior:

 “Tall people are better at putting things on high shelves, and dyslexics are better at storytelling, it’s just how their brain works.”

The two have dedicated themselves to proving just that!