For the record, ye mistrustful, I'm not just shilling. I have developed a rule for this fest that I won't write about films I don't honestly like. I have tried one screener for a film that I loved the premise of, but that left me wanting in its execution (it just didn't have enough control of its material, was making it too challenging to find the through line) - but I won't even mention what it is! (A fellow film writer picked it as one of his top 10 movies at the TIFF, so there is always the possibility that it might just be me). Rather than struggling to be nice to a film I didn't think merited viewing (and thus doing a possible disservice to my readers) or possibly crapping on films unfairly (and thus doing a possible disservice to the film), I'm following a rule here to only write about films I'm enthusiastic about. I am very enthusiastic about all three of these Canadian-made documentaries and heartily recommend them to anyone looking for an entertaining film this VIFF - with the first being pretty much a Canadian must-watch...
(The ASD Band, L to R: Rawan - Spenser - Jackson - Ron)
Being on the autism spectrum may not mean what you think it means. As this highly enlightening article
explains - catching your present author in a misunderstanding in which I, too, long partook - people are typically prone to thinking of the autism spectrum as a gradient,
which it isn't. People who are "high functioning" in some aspects may be low-functioning in others, without that making them more or less autistic than each other - just like, on a spectrum, there is no reason to think of red as a shade of blue. The neurodiverse are not just different from the neurotypical, they are also different from each other, with differing strengths and weakness, different challenges and capabilities. They're people. People are quirky. People are individuals. People are all different, whether they have Autism Spectrum Disorder or not.
I have no particularly good segue to the next paragraph, but OKAY! (The ASD Band Film)
certainly does present us with a collection of unique individuals, making music together in the ASD Band, which first came together at Jake's House,
an Ontario community centre run by Irene and David Bodanis, the parents of two adult children on the austism spectrum, whom we meet in the doc. The Bodanises wanted to offer people with Autism Spectrum Disorder a place to hang out and work on their social skills, initially figuring that they would "teach individuals one at a time," Jake's House co-founder David Bodanis explains, but it turns out that people on the spectrum, brought together by a common love (of music, for example), can accomplish a lot just working together. "If you start to look at what ASD Band is," Bodanis says, "It is an idea that was just dying to find itself."
The film focuses on the members of the band as they get ready for recording their first EP, Fireflies,
which you can find on Soundcloud
, and their first live show (two dates get mentioned but it appears to have taken place of February 15th this year at the Opera House in Toronto). Jackson - the Elvis-loving guitarist, who likens having autism to performing in a play on opening night, but without having a copy of the script, which theme then resurfaces in his song "Masquerade" - seems the most overtly ambitious member of the group, saying in the run-up to recording their first album that the ASD Band are going to be "forging brilliance together." I think most non-autistic people, speaking thus of their own bands, would coat those words in a protective shield of irony; as articlate as Jackson is - he is very lucid at figuring out what people who are not on the spectrum need to know to understand his condition, and becomes the film's de facto "voice of autism" - I am not sure that protective shields of irony come very naturally to anyone with his condition (but who knows?). He further reveals hopes to play the Hollywood Bowl, in the context of a "dream venue" conversation (he also may well understand that this is not going to happen anytime soon); and we see him baldly (and charmingly) jockeying for centre-spot in a group photo, explaining that this will approximate how the band appears onstage, which rationalization quickly backfires: Spenser, the group's drummer - who also plays with a neurotypical punk band and surrounds himself with the iconography for the Descendents, NOFX, and Lagwagon - explains that if approximating the stage setup was the goal, as drummer, he would actually be in the centre, and so they have to switch places, which looks like it miffs Jackson a bit.
This is called "getting busted," Jackson, and we've all been there.
Jackson shares lead vocals in the band with Rawan, who, we learn, had a childhood propensity for screaming, and now has a terrific singing voice; she seems a bit shyer in larger social settings than Jackson, determined to not look in the camera for said group shot, looking off to the side for both iterations of it, though again, it is hard to know what to conclude from that: maybe she was just trying to strike a modest pose, as during rehearsals and in more intimate interviews, alone or with friends, one wouldn't necessarily think she was affected by ASD at all (also true of Spenser). Rawan - also the group fashionista - gets a little less speaking time in the film than Jackson, with her most insightful words taking the form of lyrics and most potent moments coming when she is singing, but one gets the feeling of abundant resources within her that she has yet to tap (the band seems a great start, since she seems nowhere more vibrant or expressive than when she's up there on the stage).
Ron, the pianist, goes along easily throughout, though we do see people encouraging him not to be shy, so we get the feeling he might be; his mother voices concerns about his dependency on the family. He is the only member of the band who displays savant-like abilities, with the rest of the group at one point quizzing him to attach days of the week to random dates (Jackson gives him a random day in 2063, looking at his phone for the answer, and Ron shoots back, "Tuesday," which it is/ It's fun to see that his bandmates are as blown away with this ability as we are). He also is a prodigy on the piano, though you get more of a sense of that when you see footage of him playing classical music than in a band context, where he keeps things pop-appropriate. One of many amusing moments in the film comes when the group's bassist (a neurotypical bassist from Jake's House who I believe is filmmaker Mark Bone) suggests to Ron he warm up - "play some Chopin" - and Ron sets to playing music of exquisite complexity with apparent ease. No obvious simile comes to mind but it's akin, say, to watching someone warm up for their morning jog by running a marathon.
Presumably Ron does have to work to do that, but he seems a very humble man. It must be quite a challenge to house such extremes - to barely able to tell a knock-knock joke and yet to breeze along on the piano with such deftness.
There are occasional embarrassing moments, where you might feel bad about chuckling at revealed human frailties (cf. miffed Jackson, above, or said knock-knock jokes) or feel awkward for the unfiltered emotions you sometimes see on members' faces (the film is reasonably gentle about this, not sharing anything that makes people look too vulnerable - it's no Spinal Tap wince-fest - but Rawan does still seem to be crushed, at one point, at feedback she receives about coming in at different points during takes of a song she wrote, a minor correction that she seems to take to heart). You might also feel awkward at detecting what might seem condescension on the part of people in the film who do not have autism, or maybe find your own misunderstandings and condescensions embarrassingly dragged into the light. Bone, if anything, is more protective of the band than he is exploitive, but what IS the appropriate reaction when people at a disadvantage say or do something unintentionally funny, or embarrassing, or reveal a vulnerability without necessarily knowing they've done so?
Thankfully, any such considerations are rendered moot by the fact that the ASD Band are actually pretty great at what they do, which is the key to making this film a real treat to behold. Who doesn't love a good success story? The individual members are all talented musicians; they have clear musical chemistry; and it's really fun getting a behind-the-scenes peek into their processes. The apparent core songwriters in the group, Rawan and Jackson, are both shown bringing lyric ideas to group practices, as they approach recording their first EP, working them up from vague ideas to full blown, genuinely enjoyable songs ("Fireflies" ends up the earworm - you'll walk away from the film humming, "We're different but not less" to yourself). I had lots more fun watching the ASD Band work up these two songs, both explicitly about being on the spectrum, than I did struggling through that deadly dull Godard film where the Rolling Stones compose "Sympathy for the Devil." And I'd much rather watch a documentary about the challenges of being in the ASD Band than, for instance, the challenges of being in Metallica, for instance - "normal" people, I guess, but who really wants to hang out with them?
Still, I almost always have quibbles with films, and OKAY! is not exception. There are times when Bone, perhaps wanting to keep a zippy pace, makes choices that I would not have made, as when Ron seems to respond instantaneously about that random date in 2063: it was important to the film not introduce an edit between question and answer, so we can see this feat performed in real time - which it may be, but the quick cut (perhaps even a change of camera) allows to wonder if Ron took a few minutes working things out, allows the audience to maybe mistrust both his gift and the film, when a single sustained take would have allowed for no such possibility.
Another quibble: it is irritating to me that I had to look up Spenser's non-autistic punk band's name, Lime Ricky,
also given as Lime Rickey, since it isn't mentioned in the film that I noticed (or mentioned so briefly that I managed to miss it, even though I was interested). I'm pretty sure that's Spenser pissing in the bathtub
in their video. Did Bone not think people might not care? The other members of Lime Ricky don't get interviewed about working with Spenser, either, for reasons not explained, though we do briefly hear some of their music. Maybe his punk bandmates are the people who Spenser's family later talk about taking advantage of Spenser (this is left unclear), or maybe they just didn't want their band name to be in there, perhaps because they're not keen to be overshadowed by the autists? If the latter, sorry to break it to ya, fellas, but your drummer is now your star!
There is one other feature of the film that might leave viewers unsure if they are annoyed or impressed, perhaps depending on how quickly the band sets out on a cross-Canada tour, because the movie seriously leaves you wanting more.
We do get some performance footage of the ASD Band's first gig, but it looks to be less than one entire song. You only get to really know two of their songs in the film, "Masquerade
" and "Fireflies
." If that's a contrivance to leave film audiences hungry to actually get the full-meal-deal of seeing the band in concert, bravo! But audiences who have invested their hopes in the lead-up to the concert might have enjoyed seeing a bit more of the show. I sure would have.
But overall, this film was a delight to watch - positive, funny, and more like the feeling of watching other "young people band movies" (Linda Linda Linda,
say, which, note, is not about the Linda Lindas, though fans of the latter should definitely check it out) than watching a film about musicians with mental health issues (like the docs on Roky Erickson or Daniel Johnston, for instance).
Hey, Spenser, if you're reading this, I have a free idea for you: you know the Big Boys? (The original punk/ funk hybrid band, from the early 80's Austin scene, along with the Dicks and MDC; I gather the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when they got started, were known dismissively by some as the "Little Big Boys," which sort of says something about the Big Boys' rep). They had a song, "Apolitical
" - one of their more hardcore tunes - that I always thought could be re-written by someone on the spectrum as "Aneurotypical." Yours if you want it, though you'd no doubt have to substantially re-work the verses and clear it with the surviving Big Boys (And maybe don't tell Jackson that the two comps of their songs were issued as The Skinny Elvis,
for their early years, and The Fat Elvis
? Unless you think he'd be amused. I like my Elvis skinny, note, but I much prefer the Big Boys fat...).
Oh, and you might want to look at Youtube vids of Christophe Szpadel
, a heavy metal band logo designer, the Lord of the Logos, who himself is on the spectrum. Oh, and you might get a kick out of Dayglo Abortions drummer Blind Marc's side project, Mutated Earthlings
, with bassist No Thumbs Dave (more on that in an upcoming Murray Acton interview.
Now where can I buy that ASD Band EP...?
Living in a foreign country for any length of time, you discover things that a casual tourist might miss. It took me weeks to figure out, for instance, when I lived in Japan, that the dial for my stovetop element was not set up like the ones in Canada, where the first setting on the right is invariably "high" and the last setting, going around clockwise, is "low." In Japan, they do it the opposite way, thinking (I guess) of heat like we think of radio settings, where to get to high, you have to twist it all the way around (or just go to the first setting to the left, if you are turning the dial counter-clockwise; I'm not even sure which paradigm applies). It took me weeks of setting my element on low to figure out that it wasn't just that I had a crap element ("it barely gets warm!"), but that there was in fact a basic cultural difference at work. You also discover differences in valuation: it was fascinating to discover that all the Japanese bands I knew, for example - who I thought of as relatively successful overseas exports, like the Boredoms or Shonen Knife or Melt-Banana - were regarded by most Japanese as weirdos and misfits, minor bands playing to tiny houses, while the artists that were filling stadiums when I was over there, like Glay, were unknown in North America and sounded pretty crap to western ears.
Neither of those experiences have direct bearing on Kristoffer Hegnsvad's very entertaining documentary, Soviet Bus Stops, but they did come to mind in the course of watching the film, which is in part about a Canadian photographer and architecture enthusiast, Christopher Herwig, trying to make sense of something strange and delightful that he has encountered abroad. At some point in is travels through the former Soviet Union, Herwig stumbled across a really weirdly creative bus stop, given the Soviet propensity for architectural brutalism and standardization. I don't recall the details of his first encounter, or how the questions raised by this atypical shelter grew into an obsession, but soon he found himself on a mission to visit and photograph any and all of these non-normative rest areas, the locations of which are undocumented and tend to be rural and remote. He's shown approaching strangers on the street to ask them if there are any interesting bus stops near by, and the film is structured around his attempts to access a singularly remote one, after his car gets stuck in the snow (spoiler: a friendly snowplow driver helps him out).
And while some locals remain entirely nonplussed by Herwig's quest - one shopowner even seems hostile to having his stand, built around one such stop, documented - some of these stops have extremely funky, odd, and colourful designs. It's not hard at all to understand why Herwig is enthusiastic about them ("in Canada, all our bus stops are boring," he explains to one puzzled passerby), though also not hard at all to understand why locals might associate them with less free times, and/or take them for granted. The film does include interviews with some of the designers of said bus stops, and shows dozens of Herwig's photographs, including photographs of stops that have since been destroyed. But the film raises more questions than it has definitive answers for. How did these bus stops, funky and fun in the land of grey totalitarianism, come to be in the first place? Did they serve some sort of propaganda function, convincing the credulous that freedom and creativity could in fact flourish in a totalitarian state? (This strategy works, if so, though the most overtly propagandistic bus stops are not very subtle in this regard; a bus stop that looks like a bird giving shelter with its wings does not seem to have any propaganda value at all). Or did they somehow slip through the cracks of the Soviet system, proof of the resilience of human creativity under oppressive circumstances, the designers quietly competing with each other, having fun, and making unique, individualistic (bourgeois?) bus stops because bus stops were too "minor" to attract much scrutiny from the authorities?
In any case, the fact that they these magical feats of minor architecture are not appreciated (and that no central registry of their locations exists) lends an unusual urgency to the filmmaker's quest, since these stops can get torn down at any time. To some, they may be a painful reminder of a past they want to forget, but to an outsider, they're a real treat. Anyone with a passion for architecture and/or travel, anyone who has pursued knowledge of an obscure art, and any students of the way human creativity can flourish under oppressive conditions, will find the film fascinating and delightful. And while the score of the film seems to be mostly Soviet electrop - kind of Kraftwerk-y, which should please some people I know - ultimately, I was left with the title of a lesser Sonic Youth song swimming in my mind (it may come from somewhere else, but I haven't checked where): "Small Flowers Crack Concrete" - though in this case these "flowers," the bus stops, are themselves sometimes made of concrete, which is even more impressive: to spin an old Marxist (Gramscian?) saw on it's side, you may not be able to take down the master's house with the master's tools, but you can build one hell of a bus stop with them.
You don't always have to travel to another country to find landscapes that are radically, startlingly unfamiliar. You don't even need to travel in time - though as the film Anyox
shows, that can help. Shot in Northern BC, in an area that can only be accessed by air or boat (unless, maybe, you're a bear), Anyox
investigates both the past of a long-abandoned copper mine and smelter, and the present, where the waste products from the copper days (giant mountains of slag, which presents as rock dust) are mined for roofing materials. I am hoping to do much more on this film in a subsequent post, but I went in expecting a very standard urban exploration documentary - my friend Dan Kibke, who is a Brittania mines habitue and urban explorer in his own right,
pointed me to the Viceland Abandoned series
and the "Exploring Abandoned Mines" Youtube Channel,
which both have Anyox installments, and I expected more of the same. What I got was far more artful and intriguing, so that the names I came away referencing were Baichwal/ Burtynsky, Mettlier, Bill Patterson, John Gianvito, and James Benning (though different segments of the film remind me of different filmmakers, and the most striking footage - the archival stuff, which is a real treasure trove - had me thinking of Fritz Lang). More to come on that, I hope.
In other news, documentary enthusiasts take note that I have now received the screener for De Humani Corporis Fabrica,
which I mentioned in a previous VIFF blogpost
. I am equally excited to see it, and terrified. Haven't I had enough surgery this last year? Maybe more to come on that, too.