An immersive documentary inspired by Naoki Higashida’s groundbreaking book of poetry, Jerry Rothwell’s The Reason I Jump places us in the mind of nonverbal autistic children, focusing on the ways in which they navigate the world. The result is a poetic and experimental documentary made for the big screen, and thankfully I had the rare opportunity to see it that way when it premiered last year at Sundance, presented in a version mixed for Dolby Atmos, the 360-degree sound system.

Now arriving in Virtual Cinemas around the country via Kino Marquee and ahead of a release in Rothwell’s native UK once cinemas reopen, we talked with the director about his experience adapting Higashida’s book and launching the film at a time when cinemas are largely closed.

The Film Stage: Thinking of your previous works exploring man in nature, how did you come to adapt Naomi Higashida’s The Reason I Jump?

Jerry Rothwell: The idea for the film originally came about from two producers Jeremy [Dear] and Stevie [Lee], who are the parents of Joss who we see in the film. They came across the book about ten years ago and it’s transformed their understanding of Joss and they optioned it. Over time they made contact with my producer Al Morrow. Autism is a subject matter–– if that’s the right word––that I’ve circled around in my filmmaking life. A long time ago I worked for an advocacy organization which used video as an advocacy tool for autistic individuals as community artists, and then I made a film called Heavy Load about a punk band whose members had learning disabilities.

Reading the book really shifted my understanding what was going on for Naoki and perhaps for other non-speaking autistic people. His incredibly poetic, fluid descriptions of how he sees the world differently than numero-typical adults is really fascinating. I had this idea that was about him, a young boy finding his voice as a writer and he said, “Great, do the film but I don’t want to be in it,” and that sent me down a different path. I think it was quite good for the film––made it a bit more adventurous.

The translation of the text is very interesting because you have multiple tracks in the film: one where you explore the text of the book but also spend time with Joss as well as in a more experimental mode as you navigate the internal experience of an unseen character. How did you decide to take that approach?

At the point when Naoki didn’t really want to be in the film, the question is how do you use those questions and words in the pieces of the writing as a way into other people’s experiences? This is a little problematic because you don’t want them to be illustrations of the book: Noaki talks about this and then we’re going to go with Joss for a moment. So it was about what’s the balance between how do you immerse yourself into someone’s everyday life experience through visuals and sound and using these words as a way of helping an audience through that. Helping the audience think about it differently and not just be a voyeur through that. 

We hired an autistic actor Jordan O’Donegan who voices the book and I came up with this idea of a young boy who is a kind of a cipher for Noaki journeying through these fairy abstract landscapes, we were very lucky to find this young non-speaking autistic boy Jim Fujiwara who was just great in terms of working with him and it’s incredibly good to see his responses to the landscape.

I think Noaki’s voice is critical to our understanding of the film. How did you go about making sure you got that right with your collaborators?

The book doesn’t have a narrative and has a voice––the voice of Noaki, but it doesn’t have characters so in some ways it’s not very promising to develop a film out of it. It’s made up of these 58 questions about autism which maybe neurotypical people ask when they think of autism. “Why are you like this?”, “Why do you do that?”, “What do you see think of that?”–– those kinds of questions. So I guess what we were drawn towards was trying to make a film equivalent of the book rather than adapt the book. There are also a few poems and short stories that we regarded but what we really went for was portraying his experience. What the book does is that it makes you see things through the eyes of this young 12-year-old and I wanted to film to have the same method to sit you alongside someone and let you see the world through their eyes.

Often when we see autism in documentary, it’s almost always a cinéma-vérité style film with a focus is largely on the parents’ journey to care for their child, here I think you’ve done something revolutionary by creating an immersive and technically complex film that is more experimental. I’d love to hear about your team and your process.

You’re right. There’s a lot of representation of autistic people in documentary and it’s basically telling the parents’ story and they have a story for sure, and it’s a powerful story but it inevitably tends to frame autism as a tragedy of some kind and that’s not the autistic person’s experience. They are themselves and they are who they are and that’s one of the gifts of the book with Naoki as an adolescent coming to celebrate who he is. 

So I guess we didn’t want to impose imagery like special effects on the words of Naoki’s book, so working with Ruben Woodin Dechamps, this young director of photography, most of his experience is music videos and shorts rather than docs, and that was a deliberate choice––how would he work in a situation when we’re trying to find imagery within someone else’s environment that represents their inner states. Because of Naoki’s writing––where he says he sees the detail of things before he sees the big picture––that was a kind of great clue for a visual style of the film. It could immerse you in the small details and gradually reveal the context and that’s a method of the cinematography. Similarly with sound, we made a decision fairly early on to work with 360-degree sound which would allow you to position sounds and shift an audiences focus on what’s happening there and make it dominant. We worked with sound artist Nick Ryan who himself is kinesthetic. Kinesthesia is quite common in non-speaking autistic people as well. We ran 16 tracks of audio in every location we shot in which was a huge burden for our sound recordist but gave us this wealth of immersive material to work with.

I’m curious what the reaction has been in terms of representation. I remember you telling the audience at Sundance that the festival was hosting a sensory-friendly screening of the film later that week.

We worked with a group of autistic people who were advisors on the film so there was always that kind of checking-in process. It’s had a really amazing response, but I’m slightly resistant to the idea the film is about autism. I say its about five autistic people and a writer who’s written about that experience. Beyond that people can extrapolate different ideas from it, but I wouldn’t calm it’s a definitive work about autism. 

I really had no idea what the response would be. We got into Sundance and that was amazing for me and people have had a really emotional reaction to the film and that’s kind of interesting. When people were allowed into cinemas we tried do what’s been pioneered in many countries, which is the idea of the relaxed screening where you throw away the written rules of watching a film: you have to sit in silence, and you can’t move around, and you can’t make noise. So we did a screening like and I think there’s lots of potential there. It’s also been done in theater where you look at a different way of setting up a performance to make it accessible to a wider range of people.

I do have to ask your thoughts on the film coming out now in virtual cinemas versus traditional cinemas. It’s such an immersive theatrical experience. What are you feelings on it potentially having a wide audience rather than playing in cinemas exclusively right now?

It’s funny because of all the films I’ve made it’s the one that I’ve most thought about what it’s going to feel like in a cinema. When you do 360-degree sound you have 28 positions you can position the sound and now it’s reduced to headphones and two positions. But we’ve created this binaural sound mix which starts to imitate the 360-degree sound experience. In the UK there’s thinking that we’re going to wait until cinemas reopen to launch the film. And I’m sure it’ll have a life. Kino Marquee is an interesting initiative, rather than launching on a streaming platform you’re launching with a community of cinemas. Half the revenue goes to your cinema and I’m hoping COVID doesn’t kill cinemas.

The Reason I Jump is now available in Virtual Cinemas.

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