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13 May 2021, 7:32 am

Film about autism wins best documentary prize at Oxford Film Festival


Caren Zucker and John Donvan came to Mississippi looking for hope. Not just for themselves, but for people like Caren’s son and John’s brother-in-law — both of whom live with autism.

Zucker and Donvan, both award-winning journalists, have teamed up since 2000 to tell the stories of autism. Through their reports on ABC and PBS, they’ve shared accounts of resilience, compassion and love in a society that can be cruel and filled with misunderstanding and negativity toward those on the spectrum.

In their research, Zucker and Donvan discovered that the first person ever diagnosed with autism was still alive and was living in Forest. The man is referred to in medical journals as “Donald T.” or “Case No. 1.”

Zucker and Donvan eventually met "Donald T." – now a senior citizen – and found out he wasn't much of a talker.

“He’s very friendly and open, but he’s not particularly interested in talking about autism,” Donvon said. “It’s not a big part of how he thinks about himself.”

The man they discovered was a joyful man named Donald Triplett who’s able to live independently in a community that accepted, supported and protected him. The special man and his central Mississippi home gave Zucker and Donvan a feeling there’s hope.

The story of Donald Triplett and Forest became part of a magazine article in The Atlantic, which led to a book co-written by Zucker and Donvan, “In A Different Key.” The book was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.

Desiring to reach a broader audience, the two worked together to produce and direct a documentary film of the same title. Like the magazine article and the book, Triplett and Forest became central figures in the documentary.

Zucker and Donvan returned to Mississippi in March for the Oxford Film Festival, where the film had been selected as an entry. On the festival’s final day, “In A Different Key” won the prize for Best Documentary.

Circling back

In a Zoom interview with the Daily Journal, Zucker and Donvan recalled how their love for their family members prompted their desire to share the story of people and families affected by autism.

Together, they co-wrote the book to share stories they had gathered — how families fought back to change the laws and assumptions about people on the spectrum. They both said the goal of the book was to find people who want to be part of the solution.

“The book was very successful from an intellectual standpoint,” Zucker said. “It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and did well on the Best Sellers list, but we felt it didn’t reach what we call the ‘civilians.’ Our goal all along was to get people to understand and realize that it’s not so hard to support somebody who’s a little bit different. We decided to go for the film to see if we reach more of the mainstream public to get a better understanding and compassion for people like my son and everybody else as well.

The movie, like most of Zucker’s and Donvan’s reporting on autism, circles back to Donald Triplett and his hometown.

Instead of sending him to an institution to live out the rest of his life, Donald’s parents raised him at home. They sent him to the city’s public schools. He was integrated into everyday life in Forest, and the people there accepted him and loved him.

When Donvan and Zucker figured out the identity of “Donald T.,” they wanted to meet him. Their efforts were coordinated through a local intermediary, which was Sid Salter, the respected Mississippi journalist who is the former editor and publisher of The Scott County Times.

Salter, Donvan recalled, was among those protective of Triplett.

“Sid said, ‘If you hurt him in any way, there are going to be consequences,’” Donvan said. “That was a signal to us that something really wonderful happened around the life of the first child diagnosed with autism.”

Once the big-city journalists won the trust of Triplett and the folks in the city of about 5,500 residents, they were welcomed. Triplett quickly became friends with Zucker and Donvan, and also welcomed Mickey when he visited Forest with his mother.

Zucker said the documentary took four years to make.

“It was a long process, but we feel like we captured the very broad spectrum of autism and told important stories,” she said. “Most people are not as fortunate as Donald, and it’s much more challenging for people with severe autism. We thought it was important to tell all those stories. All of those stories are in the movie and they connect with one another.”

The documentary also included the work of people who have either been a part of the Zucker-Donvan team over the years or whose lives have been touched by autism. Ray Conley, the film’s editor and co-producer, edited the “Autism Now” PBS NewsHour series produced by Zucker. The movie’s music soundtrack was composed by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, who’s the brother of an autistic man.

Donvan said reaction to the documentary has been positive.

“We showed the movie recently to somebody in Los Angeles who works with autistic kids,” Donvan said. “He said, ‘I want to move to Forest right away.’ He didn’t really mean it, but what he meant was he liked what was going on there. I wish it could be like that everywhere.”

“In a Different Key” has been an entry in film festivals, winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sonoma Film Festival in Arizona. But it’s in Oxford where Zucker and Donvan felt the movie’s impact on the screening audience.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity.

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman


Joined: 21 Jul 2020
Age: 57
Gender: Male
Posts: 1,507

13 May 2021, 8:33 pm


Joined: 21 Jul 2020
Age: 57
Gender: Male
Posts: 1,507

13 May 2021, 8:34 pm