“Best Kept Secret”: Documentary film review by Jane Dunhamn

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I learned in a documentary film class your film should focus on something specific. Also, that specific thing points to something universal. In other words, your story might be about one person, but it can still connect to just about anyone who watches. The idea is there are universal experiences of being a human that we all share.

This seems like a great idea. Who wants to make a documentary about something no one wants to watch because they can’t relate? I watched a documentary called “Iraq In Fragments” that I can’t much relate to, being a white, non-Muslim woman in the United States who has never been to the Middle East or seen a war zone. I can watch it and try to relate to feelings of loss, isolation, discrimination and fear. That’s a good response. But I personally think a better response is to watch it and want to learn more, to want to understand what perpetuates violence there and here, to engage in actions that address and remedy those things in whatever way I can.

Frankly, that movie was not about people who are like me. To pretend I can relate to the people shown would be to erase them and the importance of their experiences. So even as we should be looking for universal things audiences can relate to, I want to emphasize something brilliant and beautiful about documentary film: You can go there to learn about and celebrate difference.

Below is a documentary film review on “Best Kept Secret” by Jane Dunhamn who is with the National Black Disability Coalition. Leroy Moore and I shared our personal responses to the film over email with Jane. She crafted our three perspectives into this brief essay. I want you to follow the link at the end and watch the PBS film. Of course. But I want you to read this review first.

My comments are a little out of place unless you watch the interview with the filmmaker after the film. What I’m getting at in Jane’s article is that the filmmakers put emphasis on something all viewers can learn from the film. That lesson is, simply put, that we all know someone with autism or someone who knows someone with autism! I think that’s a terrible lesson to learn from a documentary. What I would prefer from a documentary about young, Black autistic men living in poverty would be an emphasis on the systems that keep them held down, keep them from being valued and from accessing services and supports, and keep their unique and valuable experiences silenced.

Best Kept Secret: Documentary Review

By: Jane Dunhamn

“In the Best Kept Secret the filmmakers come together through interview to create a seemingly reflective film about a high school graduating class of students with autism from JFK High School in Newark, New Jersey.

While the film provides unseen, unheard voices, it leaves a questioning audience wanting more dialogue about the intersections of race, class status and disability.

Leroy Moore, a Black disabled activist and independent scholar said, “first look I was excited to see Black people, Black disabled people being the main subject of a film dealing with inner city living, poverty and dealing with social service systems.  We don’t see that in film!  It was great to get a father’s voice in the film because 9 times out of 10 you don’t ever see the father.”

However, Moore has many observations.  The transition process is a really big issue with 99% being about a job but he states in between there is a lot of alone time which leads to possible depression and suicide. He points out there was a lack of socialization, students reacting to each other, visiting one another and all that goes along with friendship.  “Transition is about getting services but should include disability culture, history and pride, even in the classroom. Life skills are one thing but being empowered about life is another thing.”

He is concerned that many of the parents are looking for babysitters and believes the teachers work means nothing if not followed in the home and also would have loved to have seen adults with autism as mentors.

Moore reflected from his childhood in the section that talked about what your kid can’t do.  “Damn it’s the same today.  How can we feel empowered when out of the gate is “can’t?”

Cheryl Green, a white disabled anti-racism ally and documentarian commented, “I thought it was a decent film in some ways. As long as you agreed that the film was about the teacher and not about those young men, then it was good. Sadly, they advertise it as being about the young men.

But I still got a lot out of watching it. What I could not bear was the interview with the film maker and one of her producers. I thought their comments were from their experience of being privileged and entitled, which left some of their comments self-contradictory.

As I listened to the description on the point of the film I thought “I bet that’s not what the families you filmed think this film was for.” It reminded of a lesson I learned as a white documentarian that I must be careful not to reinforce that I am the expert, and helper and doer and the black person as interesting token subject who gives me points for superficial multiculturalism.

“I don’t think the filmmakers have the first clue that the families they documented live in different circumstances that are relevant.  I have learned as an outsider coming in, I must check my privilege at the door.”

What stood out for me, a single Black parent of an adult daughter with significant impairment, with a long memory of my ancestry, was the disparity in values.  The young men appeared to be directed in janitorial and fast food services, while the white people with disabilities attended an arts and culture program. This practice is all too common in the Black/white disability divide.

Like Cheryl, I wonder if the filmmakers saw what they were showing.  Like Leroy, I wonder if the teacher and families understand the students have the right to be all they can be.  And I wonder if mankind understands that it is not ok for people with disabilities to aspire to be janitors and clean-up workers for fast food companies.

However, had it not been for the Best Kept Secret there would not be this discourse.

Best Kept Secret www.pbs.org/pov/bestkeptsecret/full.php#.UkLjc7HD8qQ

What did you think about the film?