Documentary by SU School of Education dean named Best Short Film at Vermont International Film Festival
Documentary by SU School of Education dean named Best Short Film at Vermont International Film FestivalOctober 19, 2005Patrick Farrellpmfarrel@syr.edu
A new film by School of Education Dean Douglas Biklen was named best short documentary at the Vermont International Film Festival, held Oct. 13-16 in Burlington, Vt. The film, “My Classic Life as an Artist: A Portrait of Larry Bissonnette,” competed with 25 films in the short documentary category.
The Vermont International Film Festival provides a forum for films dealing with issues of war and peace, justice and human rights and the environment. In announcing the decision, festival organizers noted that Biklen’s film is “a moving portrayal of the great gifts liberated in an individual when family and society combine to support those who are differently abled.” The film also was cited for being “an outcry against the labeling, prejudice and stigmatization that rob human beings of their dignity and autonomy – [and] against involuntary incarceration and marginalization that has gone on and still goes on.”
The documentary 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.
Rossetti, who represented the film at the festival, says it was received with great enthusiasm. “It’s been amazing here. People really loved Larry and the film,” says Rossetti. “At the Q-and-A, someone asked about the benefits of doing this as an independent film rather than a Hollywood film, and after I made up a pretty good response, Larry typed that if it were a Hollywood film there would be a nicer looking actor playing him.”
Says Biklen, “I suspect that one of the aspects of the film that caught the imagination of the judges is Larry’s sharp humor, his wonderful ability to laugh at himself and also his knack for poking fun at the foolishness that can be found in society at large. I’m so happy for Larry. This award signals recognition not only for his art but also for who he is.”
Biklen 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 of the award-winning documentary “Regular Lives,” which also 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.” 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).
“This 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.
“The great advantage of winning an award such as this is that it guarantees the film will receive more attention,” says Biklen. “Any good film requires good subject matter. It is particularly gratifying that text of the Vermont International Film Festival award to ‘My Classic Life as an Artist’ focuses on the subject of the film, Larry Bissonnette. The film tells of Larry’s emergence into the world as an artist and as someone who attracts friends wherever he goes.”
Rossetti is a doctoral candidate in special education and disability studies in SU’s School of Education. Rossetti came to SU 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 humor are 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.
“My Classic Life as an Artist: A Portrait of Larry Bissonnette” soon will be playing to audiences in Europe as an entry in the 5th International Short Film Festival, “The Way We Live,” in Munich, Germany. The film, to be screened on Nov. 2, is one of just 26 entries selected from 300 submissions from 43 countries. Earlier this year, the film was screened at the Vail Film Festival in Vail, Colo., and at the Sprout Film Festival in New York City.
The film will be shown on the SU campus this fall as part of the Beyond Compliance Coordinating Committee (BCCC) film series on Monday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. in Watson Theater. Bissonnette will be on campus for the screening, after which he will answer audience questions about the film and his art. For more information, visit http://bccc.syr.edu.