Autism Through Cinema is a four-year project funded by Wellcome that explores how autism can transform the cinema and its reliance on normative codes of body language and social interaction. If film language has been built around a typical idea of human communication, what happens when we think beyond that into new realms of autistic experience?
Autism Through Cinema encourages to do just that. It also casts an eye towards the past to understand the role that film has played in normalizing a typical language of the body and a way of relating, tracing the connections between medical film and entertainment cinema at key moments in the twentieth century.
three project phases
Professor Janet Harbord and Research Fellow Dr Bonnie Evans are conducting film archaeology, working with a number of UK and international film archives to situate autism within a developing narrative of bodies and their intelligibility.
Their research involves gathering and identifying archive films that feature medical interest in gesture, communicability and body language. Selection focuses largely on the use of film in psychiatric contexts although some medical films of other types of treatment will be reviewed and may be relevant. These archive medical films are then being cross-referenced with selected entertainment films to draw out concepts of the communicative body.
Janet and Bonnie co-hosted the Film, Observation and the Body symposium in 2021 bringing together researchers in the field to reflect on how archival film has constructed imagery and ideology of the disabled body. The papers delivered can be viewed on our Film Archaeology page.
How did a definition of autism evolve from early twentieth-century medical film and how does this compare to entertainment film?
Workshops & Digital Collaboration
What insights can people who identify as autistic bring to representations of autism in film?
How can cinema be reconfigured through neurodivegent experience? What can the autistic perspective bring to our interpretation of film and cinema culture?
Our sequence of carefully structured workshops expand the findings of the archival research. Initial workshops run with autistic participants focused on social and screen ‘event boundaries’, turn-taking in dialogue exchanges, body proxemics and the fuzzy social rules of how close to stand to another person. We reverse-engineered eye-tracking software and remixed film audio to privilege atmosphere tracks over speech and loud music. Our autism-friendly sessions consider discourses of impairment, disability, discomfort and difference, as well as autism as a condition with benefits.
Since May 2021, we've hosted a popular and enthralling podcast. Each episode features autistic and non-autistic filmmakers and critics discussing a feature film in relation to the neurodivergent experience. Special autistic guest hosts have include linguist Dr Gemma Williams, voice artist Sumita Majumdar, film journalist Lillian Crawford and illustrator Ash Loydon. This ongoing exploration of the presence of autism in cinema is helping to forge a new canon of autism films that privileges neurodivergent experience and expression.
Filmmaker Steven Eastwood will collaborate with The Neuroculture Collective, a group of autistic individuals who will bring creative input and skills to the many aspects of the film production. Together they will produce a feature film, a multiscreen exhibition and VR artwork. Autism will be explored as a means to develop an alternative film language that is inclusive and derivative of the neurodiverse population.
Typically, cinema has depicted autistic characters from the outside, giving stereotypical and inaccurate descriptions, looking in with fascination at a high-functioning or magical character who throws out of joint the ‘neurotypical’ lives of those around them. Medical films have similarly treated the behaviour of autistic individuals as eccentric and obscure. A cinema opening onto neurodiverse experience is not common. This is because collaboration with the autistic community is rarely a part of the filmmaking process. Yet it has much to bring to our understandings of inner and outer life, ushering in novel ways of apprehending cognitive differences, suggesting new sensory and relational events on the screen. Is this a genre, films produced by psychiatrists, films about psychiatry?
A neuroculture collective made up of autistic individuals will bring creative input and skills to a film production.