Director Piotr Stasik tells how his Altered States of Consciousness was inspired by the writings of Daniel Tammet, the celebrated savant. Stasik was fascinated, he says, by how Tammet associates numbers with colours and geometric shapes, and how individual integers can have their own unique and essentially non-numerical characteristics.
He was determined therefore to make his own investigation into the subject, to try and understand the complexities of the autistic mind, and to record his efforts in the process. (Stasik never had a personal or familial connection with autism, he underlines, although he suspected he might register on the autistic spectrum. After he took a test, it transpired he didn’t.)
One is very much reminded of Naoki Higashadi’s book ‘The Reason I Jump’ (written by the young autist, then in his early teens, and adapted for a feature-length documentary by Jerry Rothwell which world-premiered at Sundance 2020). That book poses a series of questions about autistic behaviour which the author attempts to answer.
Stasik does something similar within his 55-minute film, asking questions to a broad range of kids and eliciting a vast panoply of smart, inspired and surprising answers.
When asked what is autism, one subject replies how it is “a state of mind that can make one mentally retarded, or significantly improved.” When asked how they perceive themselves, one child answers “confused in a positive way,” while another underlines his multi-tasking credentials by answering how he has complex “47-track thinking”. Sometimes the kids answer as one would expect. What is most important in life? “That you listen,” answers one girl (which also serves as a rebuke to non-autists), while another answers, “to obey grown-ups.”
“They are like experimental people, they are like artists, they are like children, and not just the young autistic people, even older people,” comments Stasik. “Like children, but not childish. They are always open for something new, without fear. They don’t have a connection with society, so they are new-born, clean.”
That said, Stasik concedes that his initial 5 months of research proved difficult. “It was very tough for me to be with them, to understand what they want. But I used my intuition and then it was very easy, and now for me every time it is like a journey. Instead of changing autistic people to [adapt to] our society, I think we have to change in order to communicate with them.”
The film is a feast for the eyes and ears, with its gently muted tones and expressive electronic soundspace. Stasik filmed with a hand-held lens, used independently of the camera, which enabled him to shoot with a high degree of intimacy.
“This is my private way to shoot. I hold the lens in my hand so I can focus just on a small part and eliminate all the elements which are not necessary in the frame by putting them out of focus,” he underlines. “I was the DOP, so the director/cameraman was a very easy collaboration.”
“And when I am with [the kids] they forget about me after one minute, so I could be very close, and they are very spontaneous, so it was easy to shoot them,” he adds.
An instructive association/metaphor in the film derives from a child playing spontaneous improvisations on the piano, reminding us that discordant notes can drive, enhance or enrich any musical composition. They add both poignancy and complexity, which is the essence of Stasik’s thesis within his excellent essay on autism.