“George is not going to be a film about autism, it’s going to be autism,” says filmmaker Henry Corra. It’s a documentary film in which the director, Corra, gives his son a camera, and together they make a film which explores human perspective and ideas of normalcy. At first George seems like a regular kid, adventurous and inspired by nature, but as the film slowly digs deeper into George’s world, you begin to notice quirks, such as his repetitive speech, his obsession with airplanes, and his jerky, swirling camera movements. The personal story that develops incidentally takes on larger societal issues of awareness when HBO drops their support for the project in the middle of shooting, saying that George “isn’t autistic enough.” Since this film came out in the late 1990s, there have been many studies and documentaries dedicated to autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, but few of them try to capture what George does. It’s more experiential than informative, and what you can’t understand is intentional. Hulu recently spoke with the director of the film, and George’s father, Henry Corra. The interview follows. — Lee Foley, Hulu Content Editor
Hulu: What motivated you to make a film about autism with your own son?
Corra: At that time I had been making documentary films for about 8 years, and I had made films about the artist Christo, and all kinds of crazy stuff. So my 12 year old son George, who had been diagnosed when he was 3 years old as high functioning autistic, he expressed the desire to learn how to make movies like daddy. In a lot of ways I’m not sure how to relate to him, but this is something, we can do something quite meaningful here. So we began the film with a simple plan that I give George a camera and teach him how to shoot, and then I film him and he films me, and we see where it takes us. So that’s how it all began. And at the same time I had been doing various projects with Sheila Nevins at HBO, and I mentioned that my son and I were doing this experiment, and she was like fascinated by the idea, and agreed to back the project. So suddenly, the whole thing started as a little home experiment for me as a filmmaker dad, to try to get to know my son better, to we were making a film for HBO. So I must say that Sheila really motivated me to take it so much farther than perhaps it would have gone.
From your perspective, what is autism?
Corra: Really what the film is trying to get at is, we’re really questioning the whole idea of perception, the fundamental nature of perception itself. … Kids are diagnosed as lacking in affect, having difficulty with abstract concepts, and they have very splintered intelligence, so that they can deal with facts really well, and they can process concrete information really well, but when it comes to the idea of making connections, or empathy, it’s a severe social impairment.
This film seems to be about more than autism. How does this method of filmmaking comment on human relationships and behavior?
Corra: It really is about what’s normal. George developed his own filming style really quickly. He would often film himself speaking directly to the camera. His camera movements were always quick and kind of fragmented and shaky. He had been kind of an elusive character to me in the past and it was hard for me to have deeper conversations with him, but suddenly when I began looking at his footage, I began seeing the subtle and intricate ways that he related to the world around him. I began to see someone who is actually quite emotional and sensitive. This filmmaking project actually gave us a tangible way to relate to each other.
Did you have any idea that George would enjoy filming as much as he did?
Corra: No, yeah you know he tends to be very obsessed, as you see in the film, with airplanes and other things. The actual self-documentation could have gone either way, and he went for it.
In your film, you continually ask the question, “How is George different from other children?” How do you think George is different from other children? How is he not different?
Corra: I wanted the viewer to go through the same transition that I was experiencing, so the first 30 minutes of the film are very deliberately disjunctive and kind of autistic, kind of afraid of eye contact, if you can call that a style of filming. We deliberately structured the first part of the film so that the viewer is unsure who is autistic and who’s normal. Some of his “autistic” classmates are presented alongside George’s normal friends, and we didn’t make the distinction between the two in the first part of the film, so that everybody started at kind of a base level. And then in the second and third act of the film, the pieces begin to come together.
In the film, there’s a conversation between you and your producers at HBO, and they threaten to kill the project. It’s disturbing because their reason is that “George doesn’t seem autistic enough.” Can you tell us more about that conflict?
Corra: When I showed HBO the first 30 minutes of the film, they were completely baffled by it. Because of this deliberate confusion of who is normal and who is not, the way that they received the first 30 minutes was that George isn’t autistic enough. And they also complained about it being confused and fragmented. I tried to explain to them that this was a work in progress, and that the film would go on to reveal more about George’s past and how he suffers from a very serious neurological handicap. … I was devastated. George was devastated. But I was more bound and determined than ever to finish this movie, because George and I were making great progress in our relationship, and I also realized that we were doing something quite new and different. The topic of autism and neurological impairments had been dealt with, but never quite in this way. So, I finished the project with my own money and it got picked up by the Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art. … It piqued HBO’s interest again, and Sheila Nevins, and my hat goes off to her, said she had re-looked at the film and that she was wrong and that it really was an important film about autism. She said she wanted to air it, and I was a little skeptical but also kind of thrilled. I was like, “You mean you want to air it as is, with the scene of HBO dropping it?” And I admire her to this day, because she said, “You’re the filmmaker, the film should be the way you want it to be.” And I told her that, well you must agree that it’s not just about criticizing HBO, it’s the idea that the film was dropped shows a kind of more universal cruelty that exists out there, in terms of the idea of who’s normal and who’s not. So, it was a very important scene for reasons much larger than just the politics of filmmaking.
From a wider perspective, do you notice a change in the general awareness of disorders like autism and even ideas of normalcy since you started making the film in 1995?
Corra: Oh my God, yes. When George was 12, I guess it was the mid 90’s. The United States’ awareness, acceptance and integration of learning disabilities has totally transformed in the 12 or so years since this film has been made.
Do you think George had anything to do with that?
Corra: You know, I really don’t know. I can’t think that way. As a filmmaker, I can’t anticipate on changing the world, I try to create a window into it.
What is George doing now?
Corra: George is 25 years old. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama. He has his own apartment, his own car. He’s got a job. His mom is from Birmingham, and the extended family is all down there. He’s got this great life — he’s extremely social. He’s looking for a girlfriend, just like the adult with autism in the film. You know, he’s become a little bit like Mark Ramoser, and Mark is an interesting character in the film, because not only is Mark the first autistic standup comedian, … but in the film, Mark’s role was so people could project forward and sort of see George where he is now. And he is that. He kind of has become Mark Ramoser. It’s very interesting. He’s doing well, though. [He has] a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress around social situations, a huge desire to be normal, which is really what he is fighting right now. He is learning to accept himself versus wanting to be normal, [which] is the root of a lot of his anxiety. Now, again, it’s just like the rest of us, but it’s sort of magnifies in his case. … Now he’s so smart and he’s so aware, that he’s kind of figured out all these situations. He won’t break the law, and he won’t drink and drive. He’s a very straight, law-abiding citizen, rule-bound. But, he has figured out that if he goes to bars late at night, you know, like to college bars and stuff, when everyone is drunk, that they don’t notice the difference so much. So, he kind of has figured out, that if he can be with impaired people, he can sort of lead a normal life. He’s developed all of these amazing techniques, but he does confide in me on a regular basis, and he tells me, “I just want to be normal.” And I said, “George, you’re just George. You’re always going to be yourself. There is no normal.”
Does George still like to make films?
Corra: You know, he’s into still photography now. He travels. Right now he is systematically traveling in his car, taking a two-day trip to every state in the union. And I think he’s covered 38 states so far. He’s documenting his journey with still photography. He goes by himself; he’s very independent, he’s happy, and he’s checking them off the list.
Have you considered making a follow-up project or film?
Corra: I’m just beginning to now. I mean, I have to tell you, making that film almost killed me emotionally, because not only did the family kind of disintegrate during that film, but it just was a combination of the divorce and actually processing George’s diagnosis from eight years prior to that was kind of devastating. In a way, the film kind of forced me to confront his diagnosis for the first time. I was really shattered and almost in hiding before that, about it. It’s almost like three lifetimes ago for me. Every film has been like climbing Mount Everest for me, but this film was like climbing 10 Mount Everests. All the films that I’ve made are personal in that they’re very intimate, but to take on my own life as a subject, I haven’t been ready to do that again until recently.
What do you think about the film being available on Hulu?
Corra: Oh, I’m honored. It’s a wonderful film and it deserves to be more available to a wider audience, but it’s also an odd film that’s been hard to classify. So, you guys are great. I think the film George, was ahead of its time a little bit, because it’s not just a video diary or an autobiographical film. It’s a really, deeply psychological kind of construction of what it is to be the father of an autistic child. I think now, viewers have become more sophisticated. Documentaries have changed and become more adventurous. It will be interesting to see the responses to the film, because it’s been getting out to a more art world audience and to people interested in autism, but yes it will be interesting to see what happens.
What are you working on now?
Corra: I’m working on a movie called The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, and it’s a ghost story. It’s a feature-length documentary. I’m just finishing it now. I’m just in the color correcting and mixing stages. In a nutshell, it’s about a poor black guy from Texas who went to Vietnam in 1967 and defected. He went over to the Vietcong and then kind of disappeared. And two years ago, an old Vietnam vet visiting the battlefields of his youth ran into a black guy who said his name was McKinley, that he was from Texas and that he wished he could go home but he couldn’t. And then he kind of slipped away into the crowd when the guy started asking too many questions. And so, the visiting vet came back and found the family in rural Texas, and reported to them, this sighting. And they all concluded that he was probably still alive. And so the film follows a two-year journey, searching for McKinley Nolan.
Well we will definitely to see want that film. It sounds fascinating. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Corra: Thank you.