Relational Filmmaking

justin ears

Recently I was asked in an interview why I am doing another film on Justin Canha. My answer was simple: I know Justin and I want others to know him too. Some documentaries arise out of an issue or a cause, and a relationship with the subject might follow. DON’T FOIL MY PLANS is born out of relationship, and then wades into the waters of autism, transition and culture. The experiential human connection is the only starting point that makes sense to me as a filmmaker, and it is how I approach all the projects that really matter. In this sense, the real pre-production for this film began 11 years ago when I was introduced to Maria Teresa Canha, Justin’s mother. It was 2002 and I was a burnt out teacher at an otherwise vibrant art school in Montclair, New Jersey. That day, I had just finished up a woefully uneventful drawing class when a woman came through door. She was new to the area and wanted to know about art lessons for her teenage son. She handed me a small portfolio.

As I flipped through its plastic pages, I encountered Justin’s artwork for the first time, a menagerie of pastel and watercolor animals. Each small image was rendered with a breadth that I had never seen in the work of a 13 year old. They were bold but precise, revealing a great sensitivity of spirit. I was totally energized by what I saw, but I was hesitant. I had never taught someone with autism before, and what could I possibly teach this kid when his work is way more exciting than my own?

I told Maria Teresa that I would give it a shot, and the following week my journey with Justin began. Our early lessons were very simple; we would both sit in a room together and I would watch him work. They were a kind of listening conference that revealed Justin’s methods and his relationship to his materials. Over time, our lessons became more collaborative and verbal. Conversations would often follow a predictable pattern.

Justin: What is your favorite guest on the Muppet Show?
Ben: Steve Martin.
Justin: Steve Martin plays the Banjo and appeared in many motion pictures as a famous comic actor.
Repeat as necessary. (To this day, the lion share of Justin’s most profound artwork is made during such circular conversations. It is one of many routines that we both look forward to in our times together.)

Eventually, I began to understand my role with Justin as art facilitator, providing him with a context in which to explore and be challenged towards his full potential as an artist in pursuit of serious work. What compels me to write, direct, shoot and edit DON’T FOIL MY PLANS is Justin himself. The fact that he has autism, has a great story or even that he is an exceptional artist is secondary to the fact that I love him and his family to bits. In answer to the question, “why am I doing this film,” perhaps what I should have answered thus:
Justin is my friend, and one of my goals as a filmmaker is to make a film on all my friends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *