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Inspirational documentary leaves its mark on UT

By Demi Manglona

There is a man typing a poem on his computer with a single finger, each punch of the keyboard creating a staccato rhythm and slowly filling the screen. Both the man and the poem transform into an oil painting and flow into an animation sequence, filling the viewers screens with messages about senses mixing with his words. The animation dances along with the poetry before it fades back to reality.

This is the first scene of Deej!. Shot over six years, the documentary film showcases a non-speaking autistic student making the transition from a small-town high school to his dream university, Oberlin College. According to the lead role and co-producer David James Savarese, DJ or Deej for short, expressing his poetry through film and animation is his way of breaking the narrative and starting the conversation about neurodiversity.

“We come to the conversation with what we know,” said Alisha Menzies, assistant professor of communications. “We must be open to learn and willing to talk about it.” Menzies coordinated the Deej! screening in Reeves Theater Tuesday, Sept. 25, along with the roundtable session in Austin Hall the following day.

The communication department teamed up with UT sponsors like the Honors Program, Disability Services and Office of Student Leadership and Engagement to put on this event.

Though Savarese’s autism disables him from speaking words with his mouth, he has different ways to talk about the importance of inclusivity: text-to-speech translation, pen and paper, poetry and film. His narrations are monotone, each syllable the same pitch as the next, but his message about the importance of an all-inclusive education is more telling than his inability to vocalize.

“I hope [Deej!] has opened a national debate,” said Savarese. “I think many people know my story now and the plight of non-speaking people. I hope the public and fresh-thinking young people will say this is possible. Non-speaking doesn’t mean ‘not able to be a participant.’ It doesn’t mean ‘not able to learn.’”

Savarese suggests thinking beyond labels in order to learn more about neurodiversity, and the difference between being disabled and being unable to function.

“Adopt a model of interdependence and neurodiversity; let go of the binaries surround able and disabled, or independent and dependent,” he said. “We are all a part of something.”

In the film, Savarese reiterates the importance of a support system but emphasizes the necessity of autonomy. We watch the beginning of his journey in his ninth grade English class, where his school aide and mother assist him with text-to-speech communication. The camera follows him through his first night in his Oberlin college dorm, and we see him becoming more independent and willing to overcome more obstacles by himself.

“I try not to speak. I am here strictly to support and help communicate,” his mother Emily Savarese said, who is accompanying him along the film tour. “DJ has worked really hard to bring the self-advocacy movement to the forefront in order to move it beyond the parent-advocacy movement.”

His mother said double-majoring in college demanded her son to mostly read and write. In the past year since his graduation, Savarese continues to expand his boundaries by practicing vocal communication in day-to-day conversations and interviews. There are times where he needs to refocus his thoughts — which his documentary portrays — but his determination and willingness to learn snaps him right back.

“I had no experience with filmmaking, so my role as a co-producer was an attempt to control the narration and representation of myself as much as possible,” Savarese said.

Deej! is a Peabody Award winner. Given that this was Savarese’s debut attempt to spread neurodiversity, winning was the best thing he could have dreamed of. Other accolades for Deej! include first-place recognitions and official selections for numerous film festivals. PBS featured the documentary in its independent film series America Reframed, and his documentary has been nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Graphic Design and Art Direction.

Chair of communications Stephanie Tripp has kept in contact with Savarese’s father, Ralph Savarese, who attended graduate school with her. Savarese’s father announced the film production on his social media and when screening started, Tripp and Menzies sought to bring both Savarese and his film to UT.

Tripp said she thought this event was a great fit for the communications department since it teaches inclusivity on campus and various ways of interaction. Additionally, other majors are able to benefit from watching Deej!. Tripp felt that the education department, disability services, along with the film, animation and new media department are points of interest since the documentary intertwines each aspect.

“I think most of us like to think we are inclusively-minded, but when you watch a film like this it really hits home how challenging it is,” Tripp said. “It’s humbling to realize how much we don’t know and don’t understand.”

Both professors agree that there has been a progression in teaching diversity, but we end up focusing on one group of people more than others. There is more discussion about race, gender and sexual orientation than there is on the disabled community.

Menzies picked Deej! over other diversity films because it can resonate better with college students to see a peer go through the same struggles in a different way.

“What you do on campus doesn’t have to end when you leave UT,” Menzies said. “Hopefully we are learning skills that we will keep pushing forward.”

Demi Manglona can be reached at demi.manglona@theminaretonline.com

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