New film by School Of Education dean gets international attention
New film by School Of Education dean gets international attentionSeptember 13, 2005Patrick Farrellpmfarrel@syr.edu
A new film by School of Education Dean Douglas Biklen about an artist with autism has been accepted as an entry in the 5th International Short Film Festival “The Way We Live,” in Munich, Germany. The film, to be screened Nov. 2, is one of just 26 entries selected from among 300 submissions from 43 countries.
The documentary, “My Classic Life as an Artist: A Portrait of Larry Bissonnette,” is the first film both produced and directed by Biklen, who shares those credits with doctoral student Zach Rossetti. In the film, Vermont-based autistic artist Larry Bissonnette looks back on his years of living in a closed institution for people labeled mentally retarded, which he describes as a form of “apartheid” and “better for growing vegetables rather than people.” The film is animated by Bissonnette’s humorous yet poignant assessments of his life as he discusses growing up, his family and creating art. Bissonnette’s wit and insight punctuate a day in his life as an “outsider” artist as he expresses himself in speech, typing, and painting-each artfully illustrating the complexities of expression.
The film was screened earlier this year at the Vail Film Festival in Vail, Colo., and at the Sprout Film Festival in New York. It also has been selected for the 16th Annual Vermont International Film Festival in Burlington, Vt., Oct. 13-16.
Biklen recently was appointed dean of Syracuse University’s School of Education, where he is also professor of cultural foundations of education, disability studies and teaching and leadership. He first became involved in film in 1978 as director of print media for the six-part television series “Feeling Free,” a featured segment of the PBS program “Zoom,” and was executive producer ofthe award-winning documentary “Regular Lives,” which aired on PBS in the late 1980s. He served as educational advisor to the Academy Award-winning HBO documentary “Educating Peter” (1992) and its sequel “Graduating Peter” (2003). In 2002, he was executive producer and producer of the short documentary “Inside the Edge.” Just last year, he was co-producer of the Academy Award-nominated “Autism is a World” (2004), a co-production of CNN Presents and State of the Art Inc., which is based in part on a chapter in his latest book “Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone” (NYU Press, 2005).
“‘My Classic Life as An Artist’ was an especially rewarding film to make because of the person it is about,” says Biklen. “Larry Bissonnette spent much of his youth as an inmate at the Brandon Training School, a mental retardation institution in his home state of Vermont that has since closed.” Biklen adds that diagnosticians classified Bissonnette as autistic and mentally retarded, yet even as a youth his artistic talents could be observed by anyone who took the time to notice. Bissonnette explains his art as a way of “keeping busy as a powerless-to-communicate young child.”
Biklen describes Bissonnette as a recognized “outsider” artist who works mainly in acrylics. Much of his work is related to his years of being institutionalized and is populated by institutional buildings and renderings of the institutional wards. Embedded in many of his paintings are Polaroid pictures of friends he made while in confinement. The film shows another side of this multifaceted artist. Says Biklen, “I have no doubt that the success of this film is due to Larry’s rich, image-filled narrative and his ebullient sense of humor that surfaces throughout, even in the final film credits.”
Rossetti, the film’s co-producer and co-director, is a doctoral candidate in special education and disability studies in SU’s School of Education. Rossetti came to Syracuse specifically to study with Biklen and School of Education professors Steven Taylor and Robert Bogdan. Rossetti says he was particularly impressed with Biklen’s writing on inclusion and communication rights.
“This is an important film in that Larry has written it and collaborated in the final edits,” says Rossetti. “He is telling his story and sharing parts of his life rather than someone else talking for him and judging his quality of life. I loved working on this film.” Rossetti adds that Bissonnette’s art, advocacy and humorare at the center of the film, highlighting the importance of getting to know someone rather than quickly judging one’s capabilities or competence by their appearance.
A former teacher and inclusion facilitator, Rossetti lists inclusive education, social relationships in schools, autism, typing to communicate and cultural representations of disability among his research and advocacy interests. He holds a M.Ed. degree in special education from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. degree in sociology from Middlebury College.
The film will be shown on the SU campus this fall as part of the Beyond Compliance Coordinating Committee (BCCC) film serie, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m., in Watson Theater. For more information, visit http://bccc.syr.edu.