Press Reviews / Audience Reactions
Region to get two film firsts
Spencer man's works track autistic Vestal artist, Polish Jews
By Monique Lewis
Press & Sun-Bulletin
April 13, 2007
SPENCER -- If Slawomir Grünberg can make the smallest difference in people's lives, then it's worth spending four to five years creating a documentary, he said.
Two of Grünberg's latest films will premiere this month in the region -- one film follows an autistic child prodigy from Vestal and the other recaptures the deportation of a Jewish couple to labor camps in the former Soviet Union.
Grünberg, 56, is an Emmy Award-winning documentary producer, director, cameraman and editor. He regularly turns out one to two films per year and has completed more than 40 television documentaries. Many of his films have been screened in theaters and film festivals worldwide.
Grünberg, of Spencer, said his projects are either something he discovers on his own or were introduced by people who ask him to bring to life a particular issue. The last local documentary he produced and directed was "Borderline: The People vs. Eunice Baker," which tells the story of a borderline mentally handicapped woman who was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison in the death of a young child in Owego. The murder conviction was later overturned.
His latest documentary, "Portraits of Emotion: The Story of an Autistic Savant," delves into the beauty and frustration of Jonathan Lerman of Vestal, an autistic child prodigy, now 19. The teenager captured worldwide attention as early as 11 years old and currently sells artwork in New York City's KS Art Gallery at $1,800 apiece, his mother Caren Haines said.
Autism is a developmental disability that results from a disorder of the human central nervous system, according to the World Health Organization. Autistic people have difficulty with communication and social interaction.
Grünberg's film follows Lerman and his family for a four-year period.
Lerman was diagnosed as autistic when he was 2 years and 10 months old, Haines said. When he was about 10 years old, his aide called Haines and told her that she had to come to the Jewish Community Center right away. Haines' first reaction was that her son had another tantrum or wasn't getting along with the other children.
But Haines was astonished to see a remarkable picture that her son had drawn with charcoal and pastel crayons.
"I think the catalyst might have been the death of my father Bert Markowitz," Haines said. "One of the first (artworks) he did was a boy with huge tears and a bruise on his face. I think he was trying to convey his feelings, which he does to this day with his art."
Lerman's first solo show was at the age of about 11, she said. Since then, he has appeared on Teen People, MTV True Life and The Today Show.
Haines said there is a tremendous joy in raising an autistic child.
"I think it's important that people see the realities of autism, not just what they hear or read," she said. "It's important to see what the family and kids go through. They are incredible kids with incredible talents. They don't have jealousy, envy ... and it's very refreshing."
Lerman's father, Allan Lerman, said he thought Grünberg captured his son's intelligence, talent, sense of humor and difficult moments.
"(The film) serves as a public service for the entire handicapped community -- more patience, respect and understanding," he said. "They don't want your pity, they want your acceptance and I think that's one of the major things that come (out of the film). When you have a handicapped child, you learn that everyone needs attention and human contact, even if they can't articulate that."
The film is not an answer to why autism affects children, but it tells the story of what it's like to have an autistic child in the family -- their skills, problems and achievements, Grünberg said.
Grünberg's interest in photography began at the age of 15. He produced his first film at age 24 and attended the Polish Film School in Lodz, Poland. He graduated at age 30, moved to the United States and taught film and television for eight years at various locations, including Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis and Ithaca College.
"For me, projects start very small and innocent, and they seem to be very low key," Grünberg said. "You see this small work which you do can make a difference. You can see how powerful the camera can be, and that for me is a really good indication of why I'm doing this."