Short Film LOVE Challenges Common Misconceptions on Autism and Love, Taking Us on a Rollercoaster Ride of Deeply-Felt and Amplified Emotions
BY JENNIFER HAKIM
“Can autistic people fall in love and get married?” is one of the searches that come up when you research autism and love, and Gemma Harvey has had enough of it. Through her first short film, entitled LOVE, writer and actress Harvey tells the unrequited love story from the point of view of Oscar, an autistic man. When he faces uncomfortable social situations, Oscar communicates through the lyrics of the Streets.
The short film, a female-led project directed by Jane Ashmore and starring autistic actor Jules Robertson as the romantic lead, is not about autism. It is about love. “I was very aware that we don’t get many stories told from the point of view of someone with autism, that isn’t necessarily about autism.”
Harvey, a long standing creative support for some of Robertson’s acting roles and more recently the National Theatre, wrote the film as a direct response to the lack of representation of autistic actors on our screens - and even more so as romantic leads. While working with Robertson on BBC’s Holby City, Harvey recalls the actor sharing he never imagined he could ever be the lead in a movie. “When I asked why, his response was ‘because I’m autistic’. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered, how many autistic leads are actually out there?”
Robertson was the inspiration behind the role of Oscar, a complex central character with unique needs but the same hopes, dreams and desires as anyone else. “We all wish for love, whether or not we have disabilities”, says Harvey.
With LOVE, Harvey wants to challenge the common misconception that people with autism don’t experience emotion, using the power of film and its empathic qualities to bring the audience along for a ride, on deeply-felt and amplified emotions. The film is a gateway to the bewilderment involved in trying to navigate the complexities of human emotion and where friendship ends and love begins.
Harvey started writing the film in 2018, which in turn started shooting in June 2019, and endured the many challenges of shooting during Covid-19. Difficult access to funds and a shift in restrictions made the task even harder, but the project was finally completed in August 2020.
LOVE will have its UK premiere on 4th December 2021 at the BFI London, as part of Busting the Bias, a 3 day festival launched in 2017 to call on the industry to improve access for disabled talent and to encourage an authentic on-screen representation of disabled people. When asked about what she wishes viewers keep away from the film, Harvey says she hopes people will start thinking of neurodivergence in a broader sense, and not just through the single narrative we’re accustomed to in films. “It's very important that we share knowledge and awareness that neurodiversity is a spectrum, and that spectrum covers dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, OCD, autism and Tourette's syndrome” she explains. “It might help people understand how vast that spectrum is, and make them aware that there are more people on that spectrum in their lives than they realise, that it’s not the shocker they think it is.”
As a creative and filmmaker, Harvey acknowledges that TV and film screens, just as much as theatres, should be a vessel for public awareness, and a source of opportunities for disabled actors - beyond ‘ticking a box’. “At the moment I don’t feel that there is enough opportunity for disabled actors and actors with learning disabilities to be cast in roles just to reflect society” she says.
Making an independent film entirely accessible on a budget much smaller than establishments such as the BBC or the National Theatre was trickier than Harvey ever imagined. “Even though I was passionate about making the experience as close to Jules’ experience on Holby City, there is no way I could have done that, because independent filmmaking does not have the money to create that experience, and that was the most frustrating thing for me,” she explains. “That is why, until this changes, there’s never going to be equality, and it’s always going to be unfair. Actors with disabilities don’t need much - they just need support that is unique to them. It’s known in the industry as ‘reasonable adjustments’, but for that to happen, there does need to be some movement in the way things are done”.
The pressure of time and a restricted budget forced the cast and crew to ‘drive through’, including Robertson, who is in every scene of the film. Before the BFI’s Busting the Bias, LOVE will be included in film festival Inclús in Barcelona at the end of November 2021, with more coming next year. But that particular blessing makes the lack of funds even more real. “In order for a film to be included in a disability festival, there is a lot of work that goes into making it accessible, which is so specific,” Harvey explains. “For some festivals, the film needs closed captioning, and in order to create that, you need money, because it’s such a specific skill, and we just don’t have it. That is the dichotomy, and it’s always going to be there: how do you make independent projects inclusive without money?”
Of course government funding exists, but it’s notoriously tedious to access, with the endless paperwork an extra challenge for a dyslexic person like Harvey. “It’s ironic because the applications are so huge that I could never put in one of these, so what needs to change first is the accessibility around getting funding to make an accessible film”.
Ultimately, the film touches on one of the most universal topics there is, and something that everyone can relate to: love. “The research I did before writing the film showed me that a lot of people's perception is that the autistic community does not feel emotions, and therefore cannot feel love, and some of those ‘most asked’ searches about autism really shocked me - I was wondering, who is even asking these questions?” shares Harvey. The experience ignited her burning desire to write LOVE. “Interestingly, I’ve had so many brilliant conversations with Jules about love. He’s always been so passionate about falling in love and meeting the right person. He talks to me continuously about it, about what it means to me, and what it means to him.”
Harvey hopes the film will be the opportunity for viewers to stop being so scared to ask questions to people, “because the only way we’re gonna learn about each other and our differences is by asking these questions.” As for the future, Harvey wants LOVE to get on more platforms beyond film festivals, even though these are a ‘closed shop’, and that it will inspire other filmmakers to create real opportunities for disabled actors and actors with learning disabilities. “To get the opportunity for the film to be seen by the biggest audience possible, is my biggest dream.”
LOVE is premiering in London at the BFI during the Busting The Bias film festival, on 4th December 2021.