Becoming Someone Else

in 23rd Tromsø International Film Festival

by Dominik Kamalzadeh

A good documentary has an awareness of how representation fixes meaning. If its subject is an autistic boy who barely interacts with his environment, the task of representation becomes even more difficult. How do you encompass the boy’s way of looking at the world, and how do you avoid amplifying his silence? The Ukrainian-born director Lyubov Arkus, a former film critic, has found a perspective on her protagonist which deals with these questions in an impressive way: she never objectifies young Anton, a juvenile Russian, but patiently watches and unobtrusively follows him, until he himself approaches the handheld camera of Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev. Hence, from the beginning, Arkus’ film is more than a documentary about a boy: it’s an attempt to create a space for a different kind of subjectivity.

Anton’s Right Here (Anton tut ryadom) is one of the highlights of this year’s Horizon East section, an important sidebar of the Tromsø festival. Interestingly enough, Arkus discovered Anton from a remarkable essay the boy wrote some years ago. In this essay Anton revealed a strong power of observation, assembling a variety of actions which people in his surroundings (and everywhere else) perform. It’s not until the end of the film that we hear an extended quote from the essay; the words sound like a piece of concrete poetry.

Arkus tries to find a passage into the mindset of this extraordinary person who shuts himself off from the outside world, or runs away when unfamiliar people approach him in an overly direct way. In early images, he looks like a person who doesn’t fit into the frame — always in a rush, only letting us guess at his thoughts.

Arkus’ insistent approach finally yields results when Anton starts accepting the presence of the camera; he actually likes it and at one point even enters a scene just to be part of it. But then the perspective of the film alters. Anton’s mother is diagnosed with cancer and needs to undergo chemotherapy. The ailment has severe consequences for her son, as she is the central person in his life. Sooner or later he has to envisage a life without her. It is with this development that Arkus’ role as filmmaker changes gradually to that of caregiver, or even a sort of ersatz parent. Convinced that institutionalization would destroy him in the end, the director searches for alternatives. But even in places which are specifically geared to work with challenged people, Anton does not fit in; he is not able to work and is only interested in writing — something which is not considered worthwhile. Many ups and downs follow, but finally Anton starts to bloom in a facility where people with autism live together and learn social skills. Through his friendship with David, a social worker, he even makes some progress in communication.

However, it is not the generic story of a boy and his journey through asylums which makes Anton’s Right Here so unique. What really distinguishes the film is the way that the camera becomes a medium which alters Anton’s life. Being a person who will never completely fit into society, the empathetic perspective of a mechanical eye offers him a different image of selfhood, an attention which not even his parents share. From the grainy images at the start to the more focused scenes in the end, Anton’s interior is revealed, so that he is actually here, in the present.

Edited by Lesley Chow