Over the Hills and Far Away (The Horse Boy) (Director: Michal Orion Scott): I was happy to see this film while in Austin for the South by Southwest Film Festival because the family it’s about live in the hill country just outside of Austin, and my companion at the screening actually worked as the father’s masseuse for a while. The film had also just won the Lone Star States award for the best Texas film that day and the crowd was buzzing in anticipation.
We’re introduced at the beginning of the film to Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff, a couple seemingly blessed by the gods of genetics, as they meet and fall in love while both are traveling through India. Then we learn that these two very attractive and intelligent people have had a child and that something is terribly amiss. Rowan, at the tender age of two, is diagnosed with autism. It helps to explain, but does nothing to relieve the terrible tantrums and distant behaviour his parents have endured. Lots of home movies communicate very quickly the tedium that their lives have become, managing this beautiful but mysterious little boy. Then Rupert, a former horse-trainer, noticed something. Rowan seemed to have a special bond with the horses on their farm, and while mounted on a horse, the tantrums almost magically disappeared. Magic, as it turns out, is central to this story. Rupert is also a human-rights worker and journalist who has studied indigenous cultures in Africa and Asia, and he has a special interest in shamanic healing. He puts the pieces together and decides to take his wife and son on a healing journey to Mongolia, home of the reclusive Reindeer People, the Dukha, who are renowned as the best shamanic healers in a land of avid horsemen.
I should mention that by this point, Rowan had seen many traditional medical professionals and was on an onerous regime of medications that didn’t seem to be helping all that much. Although Kristin, herself a psychologist, initially resisted the idea, eventually she decided to support the trip, even if it only turned out to be an adventure for the family. Rupert is more confident than that, and enlists a film crew to document the whole thing. In the Q&A which followed the screening, director Michal Orion Scott said he couldn’t resist the idea, especially because he thought the shamanic healing probably wouldn’t work.
The resulting film is an interesting combination of stunning travelogue, family portrait, and talking head doc about autism. The talking heads are a sore point for me, actually. Esteemed autism experts from Temple Grandin (herself autistic) to Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen weigh in on the condition, with various opinions. The only consensus seems to be that we don’t yet really understand all of autism’s dimensions. By contrast, the Mongolian healers seem to treat young Rowan as if he’s demon-possessed. They speak of evil spirits, and suggest that a female relative on Kristin’s side of the family is still tormenting the boy. Perhaps the director is signalling his own uneasiness with Rupert’s utter belief in the power of these shamans, but it ends up making the film feel a bit muddled.
I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but I will say that Rupert gambles just about everything on this trip. Not only is there a documentary film, but he’s written a book (The Horse Boy) and started a foundation and therapy centre for autistic children where they can work with horses (The Horse Boy Foundation).
Another of my issues with the film is the amount of projection going on. Especially considering that Rowan’s mother is a psychologist, I was amazed that the family seems to make huge leaps in logic when it concerns Rowan’s “bond” with animals, with the animals’ power to heal, and ultimately with the wisdom of indigenous shamans. My reservations were somewhat put to the side by the film’s end, but I still had lots of questions. Unfortunately, they weren’t the sort of questions I could ask in a fifteen-minute Q&A after the film.
Even with my slight reservations, this is a genuinely moving film about a fascinating subject. It also happens to be set in a spectacularly beautiful place. It will be screening at the upcoming Hot Docs film festival here in Toronto, and I’m hopeful that I can get an interview with either the director, Michal Orion Scott, or Rowan’s dad Rupert Isaacson, should either of them make the trip.
Here is the Q&A with director Michal Orion Scott and Rowan’s parents, Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff, from after the screening (the first question is from a young autistic man who was attending the screening with his parents):