Film portrays family’s struggle with autism
Joshua Amar calls filmmaking his sandbox, a way to live out childhood fantasies and play in worlds that don’t exist.
The American Film Institute graduate used the practice to explore his relationship with his older brother, who has Asperger’s.
The result is Steady Eddie, which will screen at the Bermuda International Film Festival next month.
Set in 1960s America with the Vietnam War looming, 12-year-old Jesse struggles with accepting that his autistic brother might die fighting, and escapes into the wilderness with him.
“Jesse is a character that feels the weight of the world on his shoulders,” Mr Amar said.
“He has to be the father of the household because no one else can. It’s almost like an anti-coming of age.
“With a lot of coming-of-age films you have a child learning to become an adult, but when you see him he’s cleaning up, fixing the mess.”
His own brother was “at times very violent” when they were growing up, the filmmaker said.
Especially because the family didn’t talk about mental health, it made being around him “a little bit scary”.
“I grew up thinking that he was a bully and that he was doing mean things because he liked to be mean sometimes.
“I didn’t really have a complete understanding as to where he was coming from because I just didn’t know.”
He said it’s easy to label a person as “bad” or “mentally ill” without understanding the diagnosis.
“People with autism or Asperger’s are not mentally ill; they have a completely different world view,” he explained.
Two years ago, he made I Hope You Die, a short film where he drew from his personal recordings for dialogue, again using his relationship with his brother for fuel.
As he sought to refine the character, he uncovered a lot more about himself. It became the impetus for pursuing the project with writer and collaborator Matt Pancer.
“The words that I used were, ‘If a person is born evil should they still be considered evil?’, he said. “It was the wrong way to look at it because, as I made Steady Eddie, I really found there was this heart behind the character and that everyone acts out of love.
“I really wanted to make a movie that is about that experience — from hating to loving and also learning to accept.
“We look at the other and say they need to change, but the more mature and difficult thing to do is to look at yourself and say, ‘How can I change to make the situation better to help that person?’.”
It is implied, but not said that the movie’s 18-year-old Ed is on the spectrum.
“We never say, because the characters don’t know,” Mr Amar said.
Autism wasn’t discovered until the next decade; Asperger’s was being discussed in the Nineties.
“It was very far off from our characters in 1969, but very close to my experience,” Mr Amar said. “I didn’t really know, my mom didn’t really know, my dad didn’t really know, my other brother didn’t really know — we just had to feel it out.”
He believes that movies play an important role in education and empathy.
“Making that movie was really hard for me,” he said of I Hope You Die.
“I’d never really talked about the subject publicly and I had to talk about it and show it to the entirety of AFI.
“It was really cathartic. I felt myself becoming more open to different emotions.”
He said the work has improved his relationship with his brother and how he connects with him.
“I knew that when he was angry, he was angry because he was not being heard, and that was our fault.
“I would talk to him and he would eventually calm down and I thought, I do have a bearing on this.
“He even gave me money to help support this movie. It’s not the first time that he’s given me something.
“He often equates love with gifts. That was the first time I really felt something, there was a change in the dynamic because I understood more.”
He and Mr Pancer met seven years ago in Toronto and joined the AFI programme on the strength of another film they had collaborated on.
Steady Eddie is produced by fellow graduate Ryan Scaringe, of Kinogo Pictures.
“It’s important for me to make movies so I can feel the things that I was not allowed to feel and express the demons that I’m too afraid to share because I think they’re ironically making me a healthier human being by airing them out,” Mr Amar said.
“As Canadians, we’re typically very repressed and polite people, so I have a lot of that to work out,” he laughed.
“You see it play out beautifully. It’s got an Of-Mice-and-Men, Stand-By-Me vibe. He’s almost parenting this 18-year-old man-child.
“That really was a lot of my relationship with my brother. I remember staying up until 2am doing his high school homework with my mom because he was unable to and she really wanted him to get his high school diploma.
“There were a lot of extra responsibilities that I felt were unfair at the time. If I only knew.”
• Watch Steady Eddie at the Speciality Cinema on March 20 at 12.30pm. Learn more at steadyeddiefilm.com