Justin Canha is a 24 year old autistic whose mind races with cartoon images and movie dialogue. He fills notebooks with nanoscale drawings of every imaginable cartoon character. His speech is peppered with animated film sound bites and when alone, he rattles off non-stop cartoon dialogue. Because of his autism everything he sees is through the prism of cartoon culture. But there is far more to Justin than his incredible capacity for detail and his obsession with the animated universe. Like many of us, Justin has a dream of living an independent life, and he has set the deadline for his twenty-fifth birthday. For the past five years, award-winning director Ben Stamper has been following Justin as he enters the uncharted waters of adulthood. Don’t Foil My Plans is the story of a young man with a dream that is far bigger than his diagnosis.
But often, the biggest dreams are realized in the very mundane aspects of life, which is where this film begins. The opening scene to Don’t Foil My Plans depicts Justin’s mother training him to navigate the NYC public transit system so he can commute on his own. From there, the camera follows Justin everywhere from his job at the local bakery to learning household chores. Through it all, it is clear that Justin never steps out of his cartoon world. He furtively works on his impossibly small drawings, sharing them with whoever happens to be around. He deftly uses cartoon culture, cartoon dialogue and tiny drawings as a social bridge and vehicle for self- expression. Justin insists on pulling others into his world as much as he tries to function in theirs. Scenes like these provide new insight into the interpersonal possibilities with people on the spectrum.
This film’s objective is twofold: to enable Justin to tell his story on his terms and to help shift the public dialogue away from “What are we going to do with all of the new autistic adults?” to “How can we empower this autistic generation to reach their full potential in the work place, in higher education and as leaders in the public sphere?”
Because this film is a portrait of Justin Canha as an individual rather than an issue, his story arises out of genuine relationship and shared experience. Featured in the film are family members, friends and professionals all serving to shape and be shaped by Justin. Justin’s parents Maria Teresa and Briant, are depicted in the struggles of the present day, as well as in home movies from Justin’s childhood that reveal relentless and innovative parents teaching their son seemingly simple concepts, like why it’s not okay to touch a hot stove, or when and how to say “I’m sorry.” Don’t Foil My Plans is an intricate tapestry of the past, present and the ever-looming future. The result is a complex and surprising portrait of Justin Canha as the artist, the animal lover, the younger sibling in a suburban family, the hard-working employee at a bakery in Spanish Harlem who is engaged in a lifelong struggle to use his “handicap” as a tool for self-realization. Don’t Foil my Plans is a film about pushing the boundaries of what is considered possible for people on the autistic spectrum.
In many ways the film provides a sequel to the landmark article Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Harmon published in September of 2011 in the Sunday New York Times. The article and accompanying multimedia portrayed Justin’s life between the ages of 20 and 21 – just before he left the umbrella of the public education system and accompanying supports.
More about the filmmaker and the philosophy behind Don’t Foil My Plans
Award-winning director Ben Stamper is a multi-disciplinary artist with extensive experience in documentary and narrative filmmaking. As a painter, musician and educator, Ben relies on these disciplines to create films that appeal to both the left and right sides of the brain. This commitment to artful cinematography and editing has led Ben to work on several international projects covering a broad range of human interests, from exploring remote villages in the Amazon to the complexities of human trafficking across India. Ben now brings his vision to Justin’s story to show a different side of autism – one that is hopeful, humorous and refreshingly human.
Over the past ten years, Ben has cultivated a close working relationship with Justin as an art facilitator and friend. Justin was also the subject of Ben’s first award-winning documentary film entitled Sidecars in 2007. In that project as well as this one, Ben describes his role as collaborator first, and director second. Because of their shared trust, Ben is ideally situated to film Justin’s daily life and creative process in a way that is both sensitive and revealing. For the next two years, Ben will be following the inevitable ups and downs of Justin’s journey as he illustrates, animates and bakes his way towards independence.
Don’t Foil My Plans is currently raising funds through our fiscal sponsor Noah’s Ark Institute. Partner with us in creating social change through artful storytelling!