25 February 2011

A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism

Recently, I sat down and watched Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's documentary A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism (Sólskinsdregurinn, a.k.a. The Sunshine Boy, 2009). Although Friðriksson began his filmmaking career in the '80s with a series of documentaries, A Mother's Courage makes his first return to the format in almost 25 years. Of his early documentaries, the best-known (and the only one I have actually seen) is Rokk í Reykjavík (Rock in Reykjavik, 1982).

However, A Mother's Courage also places itself among some of Friðriksson's more recent feature films in its focus on mental illness. In 2000, he made Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins), a film adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by the author Einar Guðmundsson (who also wrote the film's script). The novel and book are both based on the life of Einar's schizophrenic brother Pálmi (renamed Páll in the book and film). Also, following on the heels of A Mother's Courage is Friðriksson's 2010 film Mamma Gógó (2010), another semi-autobiographical work in which his mother struggles with Alzheimer's disease.

A more realistic touch
I had seen both Angels of the Universe and Mamma Gógó before watching A Mother's Courage, so I was curious about how he would handle the subject of autism in this film. The two feature films were rife with Friðriksson's style of surrealism that delicately challenges our notion of reality. For example, there is a scene in Angels of the Universe where Páll appears to be hovering above his bed. Then, the camera rotates and we realize that the bed is propped against the wall and Páll is standing next to it. Likewise, in Mamma Gógó, we are present for various delusional scenes in with Gógó, in her confusion, believes that she sees her dead husband. In one scene, we hear running water. The dead husband wakes her up. And she steps out of bed into a large puddle of rising water that is slowly flooding the room. We wonder, at first, "Is this part of the delusion as well? Or is this real and she has accidentally left the water running?"

However, given that A Mother's Courage is a documentary and not a feature, he never played with our sense of reality like that. I can understand why. Documentaries are, by definition, more "real" than features. Still, part of me hopes that he would've found a way to sneak a few scenes in here and there that began to bend our understanding of just what is "real." In his two features, these scenes give us a glimpse into the reality of its subjects. It gives us a clearer understanding of what life must be like to them. I felt like he never fully attained this in A Mother's Courage. Perhaps the closest is a scene where we watch Keli (the "Sunshine Boy" and son of the "Mother") struggle to walk down a flight of stairs. The narrator explains to us that Keli's visual senses becoming easily overloaded, and as such he largely uses hearing and touch to navigate his world. However, when he is in a new environment and needs the visual cues to help him navigate, he becomes easily lost and confused. The stairs in question look oddly isolated in this shot, and his facial expressions help to give us a small window into his mind.

Overall, the cinematography is as starkly real as in Rokk í Reykjavík.

I think I found the use of music the most interesting in this film. Much of the soundtrack is composed of songs by Sigur Rós, though Björk provides the track "Human behavior" as well. Although the music primarily serves to add to the overseas market (Björk and Sigur Rós are the most well-known Icelandic musicians internationally), I found the choice of music also had some interesting cultural significance as well.

If I remember correctly, the film begins with the Sigur Rós song "Svefn-g-englar," the music video for which featured autistic theatre performers. Overall, Sigur Rós is perhaps one of Iceland's most introverted band. They are notorious for their awkward interviews, in which they squirrel around and dodge questions. I suppose this may have changed a bit lately, but they can still be a bit eccentric in their interactions with the media.

At any rate, their cultural presence and musical style often evokes a certain introverted, almost "autistic" feeling that blends well with the subject of the film. Björk, who is certainly eccentric but hardly introverted, fits in well due to the lyrics of the song. "Human behavior" begins with these words:
If you ever get close to a human
And human behavior
Be ready to get confused
There's definitely no logic
To human behavior
It also describes the illogical nature of human emotions, saying, "They get terribly moody / Then all of a sudden turn happy."

At any rate, all the music ends up coming full circle during the film's final scene, in which Keli is finally able to communicate through the help of his teacher in order to tell his mother that he wants to learn to play the piano, as he has songs inside his head that he wants to let out.

Final conclusion
The film is certainly interesting and worth watching, though it also falls a bit into a niche market of those specifically interested in mental disorders and autism. The American release's change in title definitely gears itself more towards to this niche market. I find The Sunshine Boy a much more intriguing title, though I suppose it's less specifically descriptive for a market that is far less familiar with Friðriksson's name. However I think it shifts attention from Keli himself and his attempts to express himself and onto the mother's attempts to understand him.

Of course, they may have also renamed it to avoid any possible conflict with the 1975 film The Sunshine Boys.

1 comment:

  1. Also saw the film and your comments on the music were helpful. The soundtrack is very subtle, but adds a lot to what are often understated feelings. I was taken with how rational the mother's approach was and had expected more emotion. But perhaps one dealing daily with a child like Keli can 't afford the luxury of being too emotional.