Film about autism wins best documentary prize at Oxford Film Festival
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
Caren Zucker and John Donvan came to Mississippi looking for hope. Not just for themselves, but for people like Caren’s son and John’s brother-in-law — both of whom live with autism.
Zucker and Donvan, both award-winning journalists, have teamed up since 2000 to tell the stories of autism. Through their reports on ABC and PBS, they’ve shared accounts of resilience, compassion and love in a society that can be cruel and filled with misunderstanding and negativity toward those on the spectrum.
In their research, Zucker and Donvan discovered that the first person ever diagnosed with autism was still alive and was living in Forest. The man is referred to in medical journals as “Donald T.” or “Case No. 1.”
Zucker and Donvan eventually met "Donald T." – now a senior citizen – and found out he wasn't much of a talker.
“He’s very friendly and open, but he’s not particularly interested in talking about autism,” Donvon said. “It’s not a big part of how he thinks about himself.”
The man they discovered was a joyful man named Donald Triplett who’s able to live independently in a community that accepted, supported and protected him. The special man and his central Mississippi home gave Zucker and Donvan a feeling there’s hope.
“Forest is a very special community,” Zucker said. “There are a lot of reasons that is the case. We still have a ways to go. We’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go for people to understand and to have more Forests out there, so to speak.”
The story of Donald Triplett and Forest became part of a magazine article in The Atlantic, which led to a book co-written by Zucker and Donvan, “In A Different Key.” The book was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.
Desiring to reach a broader audience, the two worked together to produce and direct a documentary film of the same title. Like the magazine article and the book, Triplett and Forest became central figures in the documentary.
Zucker and Donvan returned to Mississippi in March for the Oxford Film Festival, where the film had been selected as an entry. On the festival’s final day, “In A Different Key” won the prize for Best Documentary.
In a Zoom interview with the Daily Journal, Zucker and Donvan recalled how their love for their family members prompted their desire to share the story of people and families affected by autism.
“About 25 years ago, my son, Mickey, was diagnosed with autism,” Zucker said. “I was a producer at ABC News and John was a correspondent. I asked John if he would help me teach the world about autism.”
Donvan, inspired by the brother-in-law who he said was profoundly challenged by autism, related to his colleague’s motivation to inform the world about autism. They collaborated on the “Echoes of Autism” stories for ABC and later the six-part PBS NewsHour series “Autism Now.”
“I think the motivation comes from a combination of love and worry,” Donvan said. “Caren loves her son, and this is true of so many families who have kids on the spectrum. People who want to stand up for them. It’s also true for people who are on the spectrum who want to speak up for themselves and want a shot at belonging in a larger society. But the record shows society doesn’t do a good job of allowing them to belong. The families still have a lot to worry about for the ones they love.”
Together, they co-wrote the book to share stories they had gathered — how families fought back to change the laws and assumptions about people on the spectrum. They both said the goal of the book was to find people who want to be part of the solution.
“The book was very successful from an intellectual standpoint,” Zucker said. “It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and did well on the Best Sellers list, but we felt it didn’t reach what we call the ‘civilians.’ Our goal all along was to get people to understand and realize that it’s not so hard to support somebody who’s a little bit different. We decided to go for the film to see if we reach more of the mainstream public to get a better understanding and compassion for people like my son and everybody else as well.”
The movie, like most of Zucker’s and Donvan’s reporting on autism, circles back to Donald Triplett and his hometown.
Triplett was born in 1933 to an attorney and his wife in Forest. When he was 5, his parents took him to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to meet Dr. Leo Kanner, a noted children’s psychiatrist. Kanner studied the behavior of Donald and other children who shared similar intelligent traits but also “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness.”
Kanner published his results in the landmark 1943 paper, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” and the medical condition known as “autism” was born. Kanner described each child and their behaviors as cases. Case No. 1 was “Donald T.”
Instead of sending him to an institution to live out the rest of his life, Donald’s parents raised him at home. They sent him to the city’s public schools. He was integrated into everyday life in Forest, and the people there accepted him and loved him.
Donvan sees some similarity between his mother-in-law, her protection of her son, and the actions of Triplett’s parents.
“Thanks to his mother’s work, he’s not where he would’ve been 50 years ago, which would’ve been locked away in an institution,” Donvan said. “But he still needs the community he’s in to support him, like him and be a friend with him. ... Donald’s community was like the antidote to all of these worries. It’s just an amazing, accepting, embracing, protective community.”
When Donvan and Zucker figured out the identity of “Donald T.,” they wanted to meet him. Their efforts were coordinated through a local intermediary, which was Sid Salter, the respected Mississippi journalist who is the former editor and publisher of The Scott County Times.
Salter, Donvan recalled, was among those protective of Triplett.
“Sid said, ‘If you hurt him in any way, there are going to be consequences,’” Donvan said. “That was a signal to us that something really wonderful happened around the life of the first child diagnosed with autism.”
Once the big-city journalists won the trust of Triplett and the folks in the city of about 5,500 residents, they were welcomed. Triplett quickly became friends with Zucker and Donvan, and also welcomed Mickey when he visited Forest with his mother.
“He’s not chatty, but he knows what’s going on,” Donvan said. “He listens. It’s not like he’s tuned out. He’s taking it in all the time. ... If he feels a connection, he gives you a number and a nickname,” Donvan said. “He gave us numbers and nicknames, and we’re very honored by that. He knows what we’ve said about him and he likes it.”
Donvan and Zucker both said while Triplett’s story is uplifting, they also share in the movie uncomfortable stories. Stories of how people who have been bullied in school, who’ve never had a community support network, who don’t have equal access to resources because of poverty, who don’t receive a true diagnosis because of their ethnicity, or who face a greater suicide risk than the general population.
“We think Donald’s story has given a lot of people hope, but we want to be careful with that,” Donvan said. “Donald is very capable of independence. He travels on his own. He plays golf on his own. He drives on his own. So, we want to be careful not to give the impression that everybody’s going to have the situation Donald had because everybody on the spectrum is so different.”
Zucker said the documentary took four years to make.
“It was a long process, but we feel like we captured the very broad spectrum of autism and told important stories,” she said. “Most people are not as fortunate as Donald, and it’s much more challenging for people with severe autism. We thought it was important to tell all those stories. All of those stories are in the movie and they connect with one another.”
Response and recognition
The documentary also included the work of people who have either been a part of the Zucker-Donvan team over the years or whose lives have been touched by autism. Ray Conley, the film’s editor and co-producer, edited the “Autism Now” PBS NewsHour series produced by Zucker. The movie’s music soundtrack was composed by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, who’s the brother of an autistic man.
Donvan said reaction to the documentary has been positive.
“We showed the movie recently to somebody in Los Angeles who works with autistic kids,” Donvan said. “He said, ‘I want to move to Forest right away.’ He didn’t really mean it, but what he meant was he liked what was going on there. I wish it could be like that everywhere.”
“In a Different Key” has been an entry in film festivals, winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sonoma Film Festival in Arizona. But it’s in Oxford where Zucker and Donvan felt the movie’s impact on the screening audience.
“We had never seen the film in front of an audience until Oxford,” he said. “We just didn’t know until then whether it worked the way we hoped it would. By that I mean, people would laugh at the funny parts, be outraged at the outrageous parts and cry at the sad parts. They did more than that.”
The Oxford Film Festival closed March 28 with the awards ceremony and the presentation of the “Ronzos.” The award is named in honor of the late Ron “Ronzo” Shapiro, who promoted independent films through his Hoka Theatre from the 1970s until it closed in 1997, and was a support of the film festival until his death in 2019.
Donvan and Zucker both said they were surprised their film was chosen Best Documentary.
“There were some really great films there,” he said. “We were kind of blown away by that. It was an exciting experience to be there and meet other film makers and the organizers. Neither of us had seen Oxford before. It's a beautiful town. And we won.”
Donvan, a veteran journalist and producer who has been a White House correspondent and a bureau reporter in locations like Moscow, London and Jerusalem, said the documentary ranks as one of the greatest works in his career.
“I have four Emmy awards from my work at ABC News on my shelf,” he said. “They are these big golden statues. The Oxford prize is more of a modest-sized acrylic disc. I said to my wife, ‘This one means more to me than the Emmys.’ It’s now in the middle of that arrangement with the Emmys.”
Zucker also has been lauded for her journalistic work, winning the Peabody and Alfred DuPont awards for her role in ABC’s coverage of 9/11, and for her storytelling about autism with the Ronzo Award. She’ll always have hope for Mickey as he grows older and strives to become more independent. It’s her wish the documentary will help make others aware of the struggles faced by those living with autism and the people around them.
“The fact that it’s having meaning to people inspires us to work to get the film out there for as many people as possible, hoping it will make a difference,” she said. “We’re in a good place right now for hopefully doing that. That’s a different feeling than we’ve ever had before.”
Contact Bobby Pepper at email@example.com.
Photos courtesy of John Donvan