Autistic teen and advocate shares her story in Slamdance’s ‘Unspoken’
Documentary is screening virtually
The Slamdance Film Festival is introducing a young woman named Emma Zurcher-Long to the world through a documentary called “Unspoken.”
The film is currently screening as part of Slamdance’s new Unstoppable program, which showcases 22 short films from up-and-coming filmmakers that either feature actors with disabilities or highlights the conversation around disabilities.
“Unspoken” peels back the layers of Zurcher-Long, a 14-year-old girl who is challenging societal judgement surrounding autism, said filmmaker Geneva Peschka.
“It’s Emma’s story, but it’s not just her story,” said Peschka, who also produced the film. “This story can be a jump-off point for others to tell their stories.”
Peschka, along with Julia Ngeow, co-directed the film with Zurcher-Long.
“It was important for me that Emma had her own agency to tell her own story, because I, as a woman of color, know the importance of what happens when people who are marginalized start controlling our own narratives,” Peschka said. “For so long, the narrative has been written and controlled by others, and that has created fear and misconceptions. So, when people are given tools and platforms or create their own platforms to share their own stories, we see them in their true light.”
Peschka met the Zurcher-Long family, which includes Emma’s parents — Ariane Zurcher and Richard Long — and brother Nick, in 2010.
“The day after I moved to New York, I connected with them because they needed someone to help out once in a while with babysitting Emma, who was 8 at the time,” Peschka said. “They became my second family, because I saw them every week, even after I stopped babysitting.”
Throughout that time, Peschka watched as the parents discovered the Rapid Prompt Method as they explored different ways of communicating with their daughter whose autism prevents her from speaking in full sentences.
The Rapid Prompt Method, known as RPM, utilizes a computer keyboard on which the person types out words to communicate with others.
“Emma started typing unfacilitated, and as an outsider, I saw this communication breakthrough,” she said. “I could see there was a forum that resonated with her.”
A short time later, Zurcher-Long started advocating across North America for human rights.
“She didn’t want any child to be judged and dismissed the way she had been,” Peschka said. “So, she started presenting at different conferences with her mother and put herself out there so people could learn from her. I was extremely moved by who she was, her selflessness, her grace.”
The idea to create a documentary evolved organically, according to Peschka.
“I had originally moved to New York to pursue filmmaking after putting things on hold for a while,” she said. “I knew how much Emma had changed my life, and (I knew) how her story could change other people’s lives. So I approached her and her family about working with her to make a film about her that would be made by her.”
The family’s response was so supportive.
“I have to give her incredible parents a shout out,” she said. “This is their daughter’s life. And this is their life too, and they respected her and empowered her with the agency to do this.”
Peschka and Zurcher-Long worked with co-director Ngeow, whom Peschka forged a friendship with after meeting her at a production company.
The filming started while Zurcher-Long was 14.
“A lot of (the approach) was a reflection of how I would want my story shared with the world,” Peschka said. “I would want to use my own words, and control my narrative so it wouldn’t be fractured. So, we made sure everything Emma wanted in the film would be there.”
Zurcher-Long wanted the film to show archival footage and scenes from her everyday life, according to Peschka.
“Emma also wanted to show that things weren’t always easy for her, but that her life is one filled with joy,” she said. “There are a lot of narratives we see with autism is the doom and gloom and that it needs to be cured, but she wanted to show there was nothing to be cured about her. She wanted to show that she is beautiful just as she is.”
Peschka learned some new things about Zurcher-Long throughout the filmmaking.
“There is always a glimpse of Emma’s fearlessness and selflessness, and how wise she is beyond her years,” she said. “But I was constantly blown away by the things she shared and communicated, and I learned from her about how important it is to live in the present, which is sometimes a hard lesson for many of us, because she has this ability to move on, once something she wants to do is done.”
Zurcher-Long was also part of the post-production, which included the edit, color sessions and sound sessions.
“I also gave her final sign-off on the film,” Peschka said. “So if she wasn’t happy with the film it would not have come out.”
Peschka is glad Zurcher-Long approved of the final cut, because it has the opportunity to screen at Slamdance.
“We’re so excited and, of course, honored to be in Slamdance,” she said. “If enough people see this, maybe we can look at each other differently and start seeing the humanity in all of us. At the end of the day it all comes down to human connection.”
Where: Slamdance Film Festival
When: Through Feb. 25
Cost: Festival passes are $10
Web: slamdance.com; emmashopebook.com; unspokendoc.com
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