A helpful and generous correspondent asked me to watch A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism, and so I just checked it out on Netflix streaming.
The movie is about an Icelandic couple who have three sons, two of whom are typical, while the third and youngest, Keli, is diagnosed as “severely autistic.” The opening scene is extremely effective, as her son Keli, who looks to be about 10, smiles and plays next to other peers on a swing structure…looks to be waiting his turn…and then barely notices as all the kids leave. Nice filmmaking.
Early in the film, the mother/narrator says, “I feel I’ve done all I can for my son,” and now she wants to make this movie in the hopes that it will provide comfort to parents who are just beginning their journey…sort of like wifey and me. The film’s title couldn’t be righter: this mom is courageous, not only to engage her child’s autism every day, not only to make this film, but equally impressively to me, to admit on tape that she thinks she’s done all she can…only to be utterly upbraided in the second half of her own film. That’s courage.
The mother, Margret, sets the scene quite adroitly, as though explaining autism to aliens who’ve never heard of it. She says what it is, who has it, why (we don’t know), and how people are dealing with it. Not like I haven’t heard all this before, but there’s something comforting about a fully produced film, with tidily edited images and sound, including lines like: “It’s agonizing not knowing how to communicate with your child,” or “Sleep deprivation really destroys people; it’s no wonder that the divorce rate of couples with a child with autism range up to 80%.” (What does “up to” 80% mean?) Margret’s narrating voice was as comforting as an old blanket, and…almost as familiar?
Mostly I was following the story of Margret’s journey around America, her meetings with parents and experts (like Temple Grandin) discussing various therapies and schools, so I didn’t think overmuch about that maternal voice speaking in pitch-perfect BBC-broadcaster English. I barely considered how someone from Iceland could have mastered the Queen’s English down to the subtlest accent shift; I unconsciously decided that she must have been originally English, an immigrant into Iceland. At one point, her and her husband sat on a bench talking to the camera, and I realized I was looking forward to hearing from her husband, who must be a real Icelander. (I have always felt that one of the primary pleasures of foreign films is hearing the distinct timbre of foreign voices.) He started talking…in American English! I looked more closely at my TV. He and the mother/narrator were both dubbed! WTF? Only during the credits did I have my “aha” moment: the whole thing was narrated by Kate Winslet!
Now, who doesn’t love Kate Winslet? No one, that’s who. As we know that potato chips are salty and Best Buy shrink wrap is impossible to open without scissors, we also know that Kate Winslet is a great actress. Have you dreamed about her? Yes, you have. Was she nice to you in your dream? Yes, she was. Still, watching this film’s credits, I felt a chill down my spine. Netflix doesn’t name her in its link for the film (I can’t link you to it, because that will just take you to Netflix’s main site, that’s how they do), which is like not naming Morgan Freeman on your entry for March of the Penguins. That incredible empathy I was feeling with this lady…that was Winslet doing what she does, in this case showing she knows what it’s like to have a kid with autism…better than even a real parent would. Whoa. Never did the Great Kate say “Margret tries to…” oh nooooo. It was all in the first person. Now, I could put on my film professor hat and discuss white female coding – that is to say, would they have hired Viola Davis to narrate this Icelandic person’s story? Or would Winslet have been hired to first-person narrate an Indian woman’s true story? But let’s put those questions aside.
I linger on my titanic revelation because A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism is about talking, communicating, about living right next to someone for years and not speaking their language. There’s something almost too symbolic about Winslet pretending to be Icelandic. (Yes, I know she often pretends to be American, but not in documentaries.) Here’s Iceland, this small island in the middle of an ocean, much the way my autistic child is sometimes described. (The word for Iceland in Icelandic reads “Island,” which could also be appropriated for a metaphor of false cognates.) Here’s the filmmakers assuming that American/English audiences don’t want to hear Iceland-accented English (yes, the mother does speak English, as the film eventually makes clear), so they pull a magic trick to build a bridge to Iceland for us, which is about as realistic as the bridge to Iceland in the Risk board game. The rest of the film assiduously disabuses us of magical thinking when it comes to the autistic, but to me, this device reveals a hope for magic communication after all – a hope that the filmmakers aren’t even admitting to themselves.
It’s still a very strong film. I was haunted watching Keli bring a tree branch into session, because that’s just what Dar does…it even looked like Dar’s favorite type, from the pittosporum. The film really made me re-think our decision to agree with the BUSD and mainstream Dar. The film showed the principal of the ABC school in Sacramento insisting that mainstreaming helps some kids, but if they can’t imitate…they need a school that teaches them that exact skill, and after ABC teaches them that, they go on to great success in mainstreaming. Hoo boy, that’s Dar’s exact problem. The words “early intervention” are spoken many, many times by many characters (including Dr. Temple Grandin), for example just after Margret (well, Kate) narrates, again very courageously, “After seeing the [ABC] school, it was hard for me to think about how Keli might have been different if we’d gotten him into such a program earlier.” Dar can’t get these early years back. But…he has a 1-on-1 aide, and the BUSD isn’t going to pay for ABC school-like programs until they know theirs don’t work for him. Which choice will make us look back on this corner of the internet with less regret?
I don’t know. I do know that it’s hard to think about these things while listening to the falsetto croning and fractured, reverberated bowed guitar stylings of Sigur Rós. However, there may be an Icelandic law that you can’t have an Icelandic film without a soundtrack by Sigur Rós or Bjork. (A Mother’s Courage had both.) I mean, I guess when your country has 350,000 people…it would be like making a movie in Oakland (same population) and not calling Too $hort. Actually, I could relate to that as well; one of my co-filmmakers on Fish Chips and Mushy Peas strongly felt we needed more Sigur Rós-like music. The thing is, were we trying to be abstract? It’s not an Icelandic thing; lead singer Jónsi Birgisson is intentionally…oh, what the heck. My students aren’t allowed to do this, but I’m going to just appropriate from Wikipedia:
Vonlenska is the non-literal language that forms the unintelligible lyrics sung by the band on some songs, in particular by Jónsi. It is also commonly known by the English translation of its name, Hopelandic. It takes its name from “Von”, a song on Sigur Rós’s debut album Von where it was first used. However, not all Sigur Rós songs are in Hopelandic; many are sung in Icelandic.
Vonlenska has no fixed syntax and differs from constructed languages that can be used for communication. It focuses entirely on the sounds of language; it lacks grammar, meaning, and even distinct words. Instead, it consists of emotive non-lexical vocables and phonemes; in effect, Vonlenska uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language. In this way, it is similar to the use of scat singing in vocal jazz. The band’s website describes it as “a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music”; it is similar in concept to the ‘nonsense’ language often used by Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser in the 1980s and 1990s or by Icelandic singer Björk. Most of the syllable strings sung by Jónsi are repeated many times throughout each song, and in the case of ( ), throughout the whole album.
The film’s background music, with its Hopelandic vocals, might be, again, saying more than the filmmakers are admitting. Maybe the abstract is more “true,” somehow, than anodyne lyrics applied to the same music. And maybe some autistic kids’ real voice isn’t really in a language we can ever understand. Ummm…ugh?