Celebrated film on autism to be shown at Ilsley

MIDDLEBURY — A little piece of Hollywood is coming to Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury.
On July 26 at 6 p.m., Academy Award-nominated film producer Douglas Biklen will be appearing alongside the documentary film “Wretches and Jabberers.” The film follows two Vermonters living with autism as they travel to advocate for disability rights. This film is among others, including the Academy Award-nominated “Autism is a World,” that Biklen has produced on the topic of autism awareness.
The film will be shown during Autism Awareness Month and aims to bring a brighter light to an illness that Biklen has said many deem a “death sentence.”
The documentary, directed by Gerardine Wurzburg, premiered in New York City and Los Angeles in 2011. The film gained popularity on a 40-city U.S. tour in partnership with AMC Theaters and the Autism Society during April.
Biklen, an education professor at Syracuse University and film producer since 1998, believes the film shows a different side to disability that people often do not see.
“Individuals with extreme disabilities can be very smart and have rich lives,” said Biklen. “By the end of the film the audience is completely connected to the individuals, and everyone is rooting for them. The film shows that life can be pretty good for people living with autism.”
Biklen has long been invested in raising autism awareness and disability rights. Before filmmaking, he brought over a technology from Australia for people suffering with autism to communicate through typing. It was through this that Biklen was first introduced to Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette of Barre and Milton, respectively.
Thresher and Bissonnette were unable to speak as children. When Thresher was 23 and Bissonnette was 34, typing technology changed their lives and allowed them the ability to communicate like never before.
Biklen spent a year and a half working on “Wretches and Jabberers,” traveling with Thresher and Bissonnette and the rest of the film crew to Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland to put an international perspective on the disability.
“The production was very elaborate,” said Biklen. “We traveled all around the world to meet other people with autism that we knew. These people were using the typing technology and we wanted to show how it is being used all over the world. It gives the disability a different vision.”
Through this process, Biklen said Thresher and Bissonnette made “phenomenal friendships” with the other individuals featured in the film, one of them a Japanese teenager barred from attending his local public school due to his disability. Unable to communicate with other children, Naoki became friends with Larry and the two bonded over their love of art.
“This film gave them a unique opportunity,” said Biklen. “On an average day in their lives, they don’t get the chance to develop many friendships, especially with people from other countries.”
Despite their worldly travels, Thresher and Bissonnette remain tied to their roots. Biklen says Vermont gets a lot of attention in the film, as both told everyone they met they were Vermonters.
Since the film’s wrap, it has premiered in more than 100 cities, many of which Thresher and Bissonnette have appeared at to answer questions about their experiences. They have become activists for the cause, giving a face to the disability.
“It has had a cathartic learning, explosive effect on my life with good movement of ideas, thoughts and feelings,” said Thresher. “I was feeling less autistic and felt I had purpose in life.”

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