As daylight wanes, a man quickens his pace through a forest. Following behind, his son, apparently annoyed, starts to howl. The father doesn’t pause, seemingly oblivious to the outburst. Soon, everything around them grows darker, enveloped in mist. Eventually, the father turns around, his voice heard off-screen confiding: “I can’t do it. [I want to] send him away. To stick a knife in him, to end it all.”
When director Shen Ko-shang (沈可尚) followed the two taking a walk that day, he knew he had captured something fundamental about the father’s love toward his grown child, who suffers from autism, a neural disorder which is characterized by speech difficulties and impaired social skills. The scene serves as the denouement of A Rolling Stone (築巢人), a poignant, haunting and fearlessly honest documentary that follows the lives of Chen Hung-tung (陳鴻棟), who is unmarried, and his 30-year-old son Chen Li-fu (陳立夫).
Through his lens, Shen takes a sober look at Chen Hung-tung’s repetitive, never-ending task of caring for his son, whose life revolves around soliloquizing, drawing bees, folding paper and collecting hives and any other object that might appeal to him. Chen senior is always shown by the side of his child as they walk through the city to find hives and bird nests or collect hermit crabs by the seashore. At home, he cooks for his husky son, who, unable to control his temper, often curses and even turns violent and aggressive toward his only caretaker.
Rather than appealing to the public with uplifting sentiment of parental devotion and perseverance, A Rolling Stone tackles a seldom, if ever, discussed aspect of real life, revealing a household filled not only with love, but fear, conflict, uncertainty and a longing to escape.
And the truth is not always easy to accept.
Chen Hung-tung, expecting a conventional documentary about how autistic children and their parents strive to enjoy life despite difficulties, was appalled when he first saw the finished work. The initial reaction from the Public Television Service (PTS, 公共電視台), which commissioned the film, was equally discouraging. It asked the director to remove Chen Hung-tung’s negative remarks about his son. Shen refused.
When a local film distributor showed interest in the film, which garnered top awards at home and abroad, Shen was surprised. Debate and criticism followed the film’s commercial release because it lacked the motivational punch that many were hoping to see. Now the thought of checking his Facebook page somewhat troubles the director, who spends hours every day replying to angry messages sent from parents of autistic children. They accuse him of ruining their effort to build a positive public image of people with autism.
“Most documentary programs in Taiwan look at the bright side of things, focusing on individuals doing good deeds or chasing their dreams. It is naturally unsettling to some when they see a work that diverges from that norm. I understand, and I think every bit of communication with others is important,” Shen told the Taipei Times.
“That’s probably the reason why I finally feel like a documentary filmmaker. Documentary filmmaking has impact and changes real life. And it won’t stop doing so after the work is finished. It is my responsibility to create a conversation.”
Documenting the small stuff