Sundance interview: Jerry Rothwell, The Reason I Jump

Sundance interview: Jerry Rothwell, The Reason I Jump

Filmmaker Jerry Rothwell’s documentary The Reason I Jump is based on Naoki Higashida’s book about his experiences as a non-speaking autistic person, written when he was just 13.


But when he first read it, he was sceptical.


How could a book of such intrinsic value, insight and sensitivity have been written by a 13-year old kid? It is a work that plays as a latter day Rosetta Stone, opening up, in this case with beguiling lyricism, a world which was previously incomprehensible.


What’s more, Rothwell had read renowned novelist David Mitchell’s translation of the book. How much had changed in translation? How much of it was mere interpretation? To what extent had the book been informed by Mitchell the novelist’s sense of aesthetic? 


“But then when I met Naoki and it was very clear that he was obviously the author of these thoughts,” Rothwell stresses, and that Mitchell’s translation was very faithful to the original text.


“I think the book showed the massive gulf between appearance and reality, that we constantly underestimate people who don’t speak or who don’t use words in a conventional way. Humanity sees speech as a great arbiter of whether you are human or not…and yet the complexity of Naoki’s thoughts are so much more perceptive than most 13-year olds, perhaps because of his autism.”


The main challenge from Rothwell’s perspective was that Naoki did not want to appear in the film, and so he sought subjects (five in total, from India, the UK, the US and Sierra Leone) whose lives he could document. 


In the film we meet Amrit from India who always felt an intense anger inside, we are told, but who commicates through drawing, eventually creating marvellously expressive figures on canvas. 


For Joss (UK) the buzz of a ‘green box’ generator is like music, and water and light are at the root of his sensory world. 


Ben and Emma (US) communicate expressively using spell therapy, whereby they punch out their thoughts on a letters board. Emma spells out how, “there was once a time when I had nothing, now with the tribe I have everything.” 


And In Sierra Leone, a place where autistic people were often believed to be possessed, the parents of Jestina have single-handedly effected societal change by persuading the government to open a school for autistic kids.


Further illumination on the subject is provided with passages from the book, and contributions to camera by Mitchell, himself the father of an autistic child.


“In the end I think it makes a kind of more interesting film where you have the voice of the book sitting between you and the film, and it allows you to think about other peoples’ experiences through Naoki’s own experience.”


Naoki’s texts read both lyrically and with a satisfying profundity. “When a colour is vivid and a shape is striking, my heart drowns in it,” we hear. 


Or, “the problem with scattered memories is that sometimes they replay themselves in my head as if they have only taken place, and the emotions I felt originally come rushing back like a sudden storm.”


Rothwell dispels the notion of lines on the autism spectrum that denote degrees of severity. Rather he sees autism “much more like a constellation of stars, and you can sit anywhere within that, and in fact we all do.”


“It is quite an arty film but also quite accessible,” he avers, when asked what his hopes for his documentary are. “The Facebook group that we started just a week ago has already had 11,000 views, which is unbelievable, and there are all these sub-conversations going on, from autistic people and people who are relatives of autistic people, so there is clearly a big audience there.” 


“I guess what I would like the film to do is to enable us to rethink the way that non-speakers are seen – in the autism trade they call this ‘assuming confidence’, ie assuming that people understand you. If we do that, it potentially opens up many more opportunities for people in terms of education and employment. That would be my hope.”