This is a big week for celebrating "difference." Sesame Street introduces a new character named Julia. She has autism, and it will be interesting to see how she interacts with Cookie Monster, Elmo and the rest of the colorful crowd. On HBO, the documentary How to Dance in Ohio, directed by Alexandra Shiva, features a no less colorful group of young teens from Columbus with autism, in the care of clinical psychologist Dr. Emilio Amigo. The three in the forefront, Marideth, Caroline, and Jessica have few filters. They wonder, as perhaps we all do however well we mask our social discomfort: if you want to say hello to a boy, how do you do that? The answer is not so mysterious: you say hello. And by the end of the documentary, which features a dance and a contest for king and queen, you cheer for the winners, and for the simple triumphs of being fully alive.
My favorite moments are the girls preparing for the dance, particularly selecting their gowns in a local bridal boutique. The fashion moment plays with our standards of beauty and self-image. The mothers do not interfere with their daughters' choices as they try on different shapes, necklines and colors. It is a gorgeous sequence, and you come away applauding the lack of grownup control, and Shiva's choice in showing this process, the mirror a metaphor for how the viewer adjusts to seeing as they see.
In a brief interview, Alexandra Shiva said the hardest part of making the film was "trying to find a way to synthesize (for the viewer) the experience of being in Columbus with our subjects for 3 months. We had 240 hours of footage and the film is 88 minutes. There were very hard choices to make about what we could keep."
The most memorable part for her was the crowning of prom queen: "I was sobbing, as were many others. When we were editing I kept thinking, how do I tell this story so that by the time that moment comes, the audience cares about her as deeply as I do and is as excited for her as we all were in that room."
The sentiment was shared at the HBO screening at the Time-Warner Center last Monday with filmmakers and writers, many of them parents, attending: David Remnick and Esther Fein, Gay Talese, Naomi Watts, Sandra Bernhard, Bennett Miller, Fisher Stevens, John Buffalo Mailer, Shiva's husband Jonathan Marc Sherman, and Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola, who observed Alexandra Shiva's achievement with this film, thinking filmmaking was a sideline for the mother of two. As she demonstrated in her previous films, Bombay Eunuch (2001) and Stagedoor (2006), "she's really good at it!"
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.