Portraits of Emotion: The Story of an Autistic Savant
Portraits of Emotion is a feature length documentary film that follows over the course of four years the life of 14-year-old Jonathan Lerman, an artistic prodigy who is diagnosed with autism, a lifelong developmental disability that affects learning, communication and social interaction. While capable of drawing astonishing portraits that capture the nuances of human emotion, Jonathan is unable to effectively verbally communicate his feelings. By giving the audience an in-depth look inside Jonathan's life, Portraits of Emotion builds awareness about the effects that autism has on a family over time. By answering questions about why people with autism act the way they do, this film will make viewers more comfortable with people who are "different," and will help ameliorate society's attitudes toward the disabled. Sometimes heart-wrenching, at other times comedic, Jonathan's story encourages people to reevaluate their assumptions about intelligence, talent and disability.
Although he struggles to connect with others verbally, Jonathan is able to process his world visually. He draws compulsively, his sure strokes caricaturing people he knows, faces from magazines, or popular rock and roll bands. Of particular interest to those who follow the world of "outsider art," over one hundred of Jonathan's portraits have been sold to collectors and admirers for prices of up to $2,000.
While the popularity of Jonathan's drawings has drawn considerable media attention, Portraits of Emotion goes beyond the sensationalist news reports. It does not glorify Jonathan's life by portraying him solely as a prodigious artist, nor is its purpose to lament the pain and emotional distress that autism can cause the disabled and their families. Instead, the film gives the audience a far more complex and moving portrait of Jonathan. It portrays him as a teenager whose developmental disability, which has prevented him from attaining emotional closeness with those around him through verbal communication, has given him a powerful artistic ability that enables him to express his feelings and to reveal the feelings of others. The result is a powerful, intimate portrait of life with autism for Jon and his family.
Because his work would be considered extraordinary even if he were not disabled, Jonathan is considered a prodigious savant. Generally divided into two categories, an ordinary savant is someone who, though mentally handicapped, can competently accomplish one particular skill. A prodigious savant, while his other intellectual abilities and social skills are severely limited, has a talent that would be extraordinary even if he were of normal intelligence. Prodigious savants are rare - it is estimated that Jonathan is one of only one hundred now alive.
Jonathan's astonishing work is defined by the facial expressions in his portraits that communicate complex perceptions of human emotion. This is especially notable because most autistic artists don't show faces. In fact, it has been postulated that autistic children, because of their difficulty with object permanence, don't "see faces." Jonathan's drawings reject this notion by not only depicting faces, but by capturing the intense feelings the faces express.
To what extent Jonathan understands the success of his art is not clear. While displaying prodigious ability with charcoal and paper, he struggles socially. Although his room is plastered with rock posters and baseball memorabilia, making him appear on the surface like any other teen, Jonathan's life is a world away from that of his peers. Because daily routines help Jonathan deal with the sensory integration problems that are characteristic of autism, he follows a closely proscribed regimen, including meticulous details from the time of his departure for school to the toppings on his cheeseburger. While his hands are capable of drawing precise lines, he lacks the motor coordination to hit a baseball. His parents patiently help him remain calm as he copes with new situations.
Jonathan's father, Alan, hopes that his son may make a great contribution to the whole population of disabled people, explaining, "My view is that Jonathan may achieve some celebrity, and now kids who tease him will say, 'this is a famous artist.' They will want to know him, and that positivity will be extrapolated to other handicapped children." It is with a similar goal in mind that Portraits of Emotion allows viewers to intimately glimpse the complexities of this autistic prodigy's life.
Taking an autistic individual out into the community can be a source of stress for parents. People may stare, make comments or fail to understand any mishaps or behaviors that may occur. As a result of these potential experiences, families often become uncomfortable and, feeling like they cannot socialize or relate to others, may experience a sense of isolation from their friends, relatives and community.
By painting a deeply humanizing portrait of Jonathan as at once both incredibly gifted and impaired, the film will encourage viewers to become more familiar with disabled people in their communities.