Interview: Lyubov Arkus
In her documentary Anton's Right Here, featured in this year's New Directors / New Films, Russian film critic Lyubov Arkus reflects upon the challenges of looking after an autistic boy. She spoke with FILM COMMENT about her subject's special connection with the camera and the impact of filming on the boy (and his father).
Each time we hear Anton say “Anton’s right here,” it’s in a very different context. What range of meanings did the line have for you, and how does it reflect the film’s overall project?
It’s a concrete expression of Anton’s that, in his own language, means “yes.” It also means that he agrees. It’s the sort of thing that we all keep repeating simply because it’s a part of our language, and we have linguistic habits or repeating certain combinations of words, like “you know,” those kind of things.
For me, there was an additional meaning: yes, he is near you. He is near you, you, you, and me; we are all surrounded by a lot of Antons, and we just need to look closely to find ourselves in them.
Midway through the film, one of the residents of the village where Anton stays for a while asks: “How can I feel someone else’s pain?” We get the sense throughout the film that you see cinema as a vehicle for empathy, a way of feeling other people’s pain better or more fully. To what extent do you think filming is capable of increasing our capacity for empathy?
It is not a new question. When I was working on the movie, which basically was only one year—all the rest of the time was spent just working through the material—I was asked many times why, out of all the disabilities, I picked autism. Not Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy, or something else. And in the same conversation, they would say: “OK, autism—but why Anton in particular? Why not somebody else? There are so many of them.”
Typically, given the amount of information every single human being gets today, there is so much for us to consume that sometimes we lose ourselves in our inability to comprehend how many people will require our empathy, our understanding, or our love. Sometimes, we can’t find it in ourselves to go that way, or that direction. When I was working on the movie and trying to build up that empathetic capacity, I was not looking into making the audience understand or feel empathy or feel deep concern for Anton. It was more of an attempt for them to understand themselves through what they see. They needed to feel empathy for themselves; they needed a capacity to feel their own pain as a result of seeing Anton. It was something like a mirror effect.
Do you think there’s anything about the movies in particular that makes them well-suited for that goal? As opposed to, say, literature or poetry?
No. Anton is a pleasure to film simply because he has very good features for filming. He does make it easy for the cinematographer. But if somebody talented enough decided to write a novel about him, it would probably be just as powerful. [The novel] Flowers for Algernon could be about Anton.
I ask because at the end of the film, you show Anton’s father watching the footage you’ve shot so far and, after some convincing, agreeing to take Anton back. There’s a sense in which his ability to see Anton directly, with fresh eyes, might have helped him.
Right now, I think cinema is in a deep crisis. For many people the cinema is more like a video game than art. The camera is not a secret machine any more. Everybody can shoot little clips with a cell phone. It is part of the mass media. I want to underline this sacred meaning of the camera, what it can actually do and what it has done for Anton.
At one point, cinematography was a miracle, and it was treated as such. These days, when it’s accessible to just about anybody, it’s not as mysterious and artful as it used to be. I wanted to bring that feeling back that the camera can make magic happen. When Anton looks into the camera, he sees some way of access, some way of going further than just this little machine. He is very sensitive to the fact that there is a message there; though he might not know the message. That’s why he always looks into it for so long.
And says “I’m flying!”
Yes. I am now filming another movie about autistic adults who have made tremendous progress. I think that they react to the camera the same way that Anton did. They like to be filmed. They don’t get tired; they want more and more. It’s much easier than directing actors. Even if they are not playing a role, if they know the specific goal of a particular task for a particular scene, they know how to make it happen, and do it successfully—more successfully than some professionals.
If you are not moving the camera, Anton’s eyes are on it at all times. It seemed that all the autism patients I filmed have this ability to look into a camera for a long time, as if they understood that they were sending a message into the future, where they will be understood better than they are now. When they talk, they see those future viewers in front of them. For them, the camera is the ultimate listener. It does not place any requirements or put any limitations on them. It’s just listening and looking, and it’s all for you.
What, if any, do you think are the limits of the camera? What is the camera not capable of doing?
In the whole movie, I only included one episode in which Anton is actually screaming out loud. I think that a good example of the limitations of the camera. There are certain things that you should not overdo. People will ask why there is so little of that, because it is the reality of their lives. But the camera can only do so much.
I just finished a little film about one of the autistic adults [who appear in Anton’s Right Here]. I was interviewing his mom, who, by the way, is an amazing lady, someone who made a non-verbal kid into a physics PhD student. When I was interviewing her, she began crying uncontrollably, intensely. This was a perfect shot from a cinematographic point of view. This very strong woman who was just smiling suddenly starting to cry, horribly, intensely, without even thinking that she was being filmed. When I was finishing the short, I decided not to show her crying: I show the smile, she starts to cry, and then the camera goes to the fireplace or something like that. The viewer understands the depth of her suffering, but I do not want to make them enjoy the suffering. These people cannot defend themselves. Not from the viewers, and not from the director. You have to protect them. They only trust.