Films From Autism Spec­trum gala

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BILL BROWN­STEIN bbrown­stein@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/ bill­brown­stein

He’s all of eight years old and he’s help­ing a 12-year-old gui­tarist lay down tracks on a mu­sic video for a stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion project — which is way be­yond my pay grade.

Oth­ers are fid­dling with vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets and dig­i­tal movie gear. Oth­ers still are sketch­ing car­toon se­quences on iPads or edit­ing films on com­put­ers.

It’s non-stop ac­tion seven days a week at Spec­trum Pro­duc­tions, housed in a retro­fit­ted fac­tory space in Mile End, where par­tic­i­pants rang­ing in age from eight to 35 hone their film­mak­ing skills. Par­tic­i­pants come from all walks, but what they do have in com­mon is that they are all on the autism spec­trum.

“For too long, those on the autism spec­trum were viewed as peo­ple hav­ing lim­i­ta­tions rather than spe­cial­ized skill sets,” says Dan Ten Veen, co-founder and di­rec­tor of Spec­trum Pro­duc­tions. “We fo­cus on abil­i­ties, not dis­abil­i­ties.”

This is a pro­duc­tion house un­like any in this coun­try. And apart from one in Los An­ge­les, Ten Veen doesn’t know of any oth­ers. Since open­ing in 2009, hun­dreds of par­tic­i­pants — al­most 500 last month alone — from around the city have not just dropped in to learn about the craft, but have also cre­ated more than 1,000 videos and films, rang­ing from car­toons to doc­u­men­taries to dra­mas. Some have be­come so adept that they are be­ing hired to make pub­lic-ser­vice com­mer­cials for a host of in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing McGill Univer­sity and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

But out­siders have to see to be­lieve. On that note, Spec­trum Pro­duc­tions pre­sents its eighth an­nual Screen­ing Gala: Films From the Autism Spec­trum, on Sun­day at the Rialto The­atre. More than 50 shorts — fea­tur­ing a wide range of an­i­ma­tion, docs, live ac­tion and ex­per­i­men­tal fare — will be pre­sented.

There is so much ma­te­rial, in fact, that Spec­trum Pro­duc­tions is planning to launch a week­long Autism Film Fes­ti­val in April.

The Rialto event also serves a fundraiser for Spec­trum Pro­duc­tions, which op­er­ates on a shoe­string bud­get of $300,000 a year. Last year’s screen­ing net­ted $55,000.

Spec­trum Pro­duc­tions is op­er­ated by five full-time and seven part-time em­ploy­ees — sev­eral of whom are for­mer par­tic­i­pants — as well as a host of vol­un­teers.

While fund­ing is spotty from var­i­ous lev­els of gov­ern­ment and pri­vate sources, the long-range hope is that in-house pro­duc­tions, staffed in large part by those on the autism spec­trum, will even­tu­ally cover the stu­dio’s costs.

“One of the most grat­i­fy­ing sit­u­a­tions for us is that we are get­ting more and more pro­duc­tion con­tracts,” Ten Veen says. “This year, we’ve had more than 30, which has been re­spon­si­ble for one-quar­ter of our rev­enues. The so­cial-enterprise piece of our op­er­a­tion is re­ally ex­pand­ing. In 2016, we paid 27 per cent of our wages to in­di­vid­u­als on the spec­trum. And this year, it will be much more — we just haven’t had the time to add it all up.”

In ad­di­tion to its other ac­tiv­i­ties at the stu­dio, Spec­trum Pro­duc­tions also op­er­ates a sum­mer camp here. Plus, word of its work has spread to Toronto, where the group has also set up a two-week sum­mer camp and a screen­ing.

“Now we’re try­ing to con­nect with broad­cast­ers and set up new part­ner­ships around the world as a re­sult of our win­ning a schol­ar­ship to at­tend last June’s Banff World Me­dia Fes­ti­val,” Ten Veen says. “A lot of folks are re­ally in­ter­ested in the tal­ent pool that we’re de­vel­op­ing here. We take a lot of pride from the fact this was some­thing started in Mon­treal and it’s about to re­ally ex­pand out from here.”

Ten Veen and co-founder Liam O’Rourke had pre­vi­ously worked with young men and women on the autism spec­trum within the city’s special-ed school sys­tem at Gi­ant Steps. They were quick to dis­cover the tal­ents and tech­ni­cal ap­ti­tudes of autis­tic stu­dents and to con­clude that me­dia pro­duc­tion would be a per­fect out­let for them. So they de­cided to pur­sue this course of ac­tion on a full-time ba­sis.

“I didn’t re­al­ize then the skill level that was pos­si­ble,” Ten Veen says. “I had this idea that this would be a way to ad­vo­cate for cre­ativ­ity, but I had no idea the ex­tent to how tal­ented and cre­ative these peo­ple are.”

What was ini­tially seen as a de­mand and a need for a ser­vice to give peo­ple on the autism spec­trum a voice has since evolved to an­other level.

“These re­ally unique tal­ents are now be­ing put to ap­pli­ca­tion within the work­force and cre­ative mar­ket­place. These film­mak­ers have this abil­ity to see things from a new and dif­fer­ent an­gle, which is a real as­set these days. And to see them ex­plore these path­ways on their own terms is so re­ward­ing. It’s re­ally been so en­cour­ag­ing to see per­ceived stigmas be­ing bro­ken down as they are now.

“It’s so pos­i­tive see­ing peo­ple go­ing from their school years into adult­hood by en­ter­ing those cre­ative in­dus­tries and see­ing how em­ploy­ers have be­come so much more open to that. Eight years ago, that wasn’t even an op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue.”

One of the most grat­i­fy­ing sit­u­a­tions for us is that we are get­ting more and more pro­duc­tion con­tracts.


Dan Ten Veen, with ac­tor Kieran, An­thony on au­dio and Leo man­ning the cam­era for the short film, In­ter­ro­ga­tion. “For too long, those on the autism spec­trum were viewed as peo­ple hav­ing lim­i­ta­tions rather than spe­cial­ized skill sets,” Ten Veen says. “We fo­cus on abil­i­ties, not dis­abil­i­ties.”

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