March 5th in Toronto will see the first public viewing of Travels With My Brother, a short documentary by filmmakers Christine Alexiou and June Chua. The movie is about Christine's brother, Vas, who has autism.
Travels premiered in November at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (having won funding from the pitch prize at the festival the year before.) and follows the two siblings around their hometown, Toronto. Through conversation and stop animation, Travels illuminates Vas' thoughts on aging, death, family and life.
Christine said she made the movie to help dispel myths about her brother's autism; for example, that he must be either nonverbal or a savant.
"I always get these responses from people who haven't even met him - misconceptions and attitude," she said.
For her, Vas is simply a very unique person and she wanted to explore his outlook, which she describes as simplistic and profound.
"He has a very interesting take on life," she said.
The filmmakers chose to use stop animation in the film to help illustrate Vas' worldview and to bring in his sense of humor as well as his interests - which include a passion for history, celebrities and black and white photography
Vas' sense of fun is also present in a reoccurring series of mimed emotions, an element he spontaneously contributed during the shooting of the film, Christine said.
"One day he made a face and I said, ‘What is that?' and he said, ‘That is surprise!'" and she knew she had to use it in the movie.
Christine does not sugarcoat what life can be like for her brother (which, as a sibling of a person with autism myself, I really appreciated, even though, as she points out, it might make some people uncomfortable).
"When someone is a bit different or there is a disability people are so worried. They are afraid."
In one sequence, she shows Vas having one of what he calls his "thought attacks." He is upset and angry, stomping away from her yelling, and struggling with himself.
"It isn't easy for him to be in the world sometimes," she said.
I would say the same thing about my sister, Margaret. For Vas, for Margaret, and for many people with autism, some struggles will never entirely go away. That's just how it is. There is no easy resolution, no cure, and I think movies like this will help nudge our culture closer to comfort with the ambiguity and reality of life with autism.
Adult autism is another concern that Travels highlights, which is terribly important for the future of our brothers and sister and our culture. At present there is an overwhelming emphasis on autism in children and on finding a cure. Christine's movie is a reminder that time passes.
"We cannot forget that there are people who are autistic and this is it." They won't be cured, "and they are getting older."
Christine, who is 42, will eventually become the legal guardian of Vas, 31, and that was an issue she wanted to explore with the movie.
"How can I be someone's guardian without knowing what they want?"
In many ways this movie shows that Vas is just like everyone else.
"We all want the same things. We want to connect, we want to love and we want to contribute to society," Christine said.
Travels clearly captures a cross section of a life. The easy give and take between the two siblings is warm and funny throughout the film. The brief scenes with other family members - their parents, sister, niece and nephew - demonstrate the bonds of love and affection among the members of this family.
Travels with my Brother is spare, beautiful and full. In 15 minutes it manages to capture the love and hope of a family and to illuminate the engaging spirit of Vas Alexiou -a charming, funny and handsome man who has autism.
This film is a must-see for families of people with autism, and will help people unfamiliar with the disorder to better understand it and its lifelong impact.
The movie will be shown at Toronto's National Film Board Mediatheque on March 5th at 7 p.m.
It can also be purchased from the website.
Visit www.travelswithmybrother.com for more information and to view the trailer.