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This documentary, by filmmaker Ron Zimmerman and special education expert Dr. Laurence A. Becker, tells the story of 29-year old Richard Wawro, a non-verbal, legally blind artist living in Edinburgh who was born with cataracts in both eyes and who at the age of three was misdiagnosed as severely mentally retarded, with an IQ of 30. Though he never went to regular school and didn’t learn how to write, by age three he began drawing with crayons and eventually became a prolific artist whose award-winning artworks were exhibited worldwide. The film opens with a close-up of Richard’s thick eyeglasses, through which we see him creating one of his drawings, making rapid repetitive movements with a thick blue crayon clutched in his left-hand, with his face inches from the surface of the drawing. It is as if his body and soul are totally immersed within this act of drawing. The sequence cuts between the view through the lenses and a direct look at Richard, signaling this film will focus on his point of view—one who thinks in visual images.

The film follows the narrator Richard “Cactus” Pryor (our neurotypical surrogate) as he explores this obvious contradiction (how can a person like Richard, presumed to be mentally retarded, create such wonderful art works?) and as he closely analyzes the actual drawings (explaining what kinds of sophisticated cognitive processes are involved in their making). On the one hand, the film emphasizes Richard’s amazing capacity for growth, which inspires hope. Rejecting the medical misdiagnosis, his loving family refused to institutionalize Richard and encouraged him to pursue his art, which enabled him to have a productive career and finance his own trust fund. On the other hand, we become painfully aware of the loss that resulted from the various limitations and misperceptions that were falsely imposed on him. Richard was a potentially high-functioning person with autism, not mentally retarded. His legal blindness was also the result of a false diagnosis and wrong treatment, which have now been corrected. And the loving care of his father tended to infantilize him and keep him non-verbal instead of encouraging his social development and independence. We see how Richard responds differently to those who have higher expectations of what he can do. His younger brother Michael shows Richard he is capable of signing his paintings with his own name and encourages him to travel and to be more verbal. Although this film is hopeful in documenting the process by which Richard overcomes the various limitations that were imposed on him in the past, it also makes us painfully aware of what was lost during those 29 years.

Marsha Kinder

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