According to the National Institute of Child Health and Mental Development, Asperger's syndrome is a condition that affects roughly one in 500 people . It's on the autistic spectrum and has a significant impact on a person's social and behavioral abilities, making the already challenging notion of daily communication even more of an uphill climb.
Love is a condition that affects everybody. Regardless of how you see the world, it's human instinct to crave affection and attention, to establish bonds among those with whom we share the world. For someone who finds it difficult to express his or her basic interests or to understand the feelings and needs of others—two defining aspects of Asperger's—the search for such bonds might seem never-ending.
A new documentary, Aspie Seeks Love, goes right to the heart of this condition, taking as its subject an Aspergerian named David Matthews—not that Dave Matthews—who was not diagnosed until the age of 41. Suddenly aware of the condition's influence on a lifetime of behaviors, the film follows David in the midst of his quest to find someone with whom he might share his life.
The result is a refreshing, moving, and frequently awkwardly sublime exploration of one person's search for self-understanding and shared meaning in a world where even making proper eye contact can be hard. Like American Movie or Crumb, filmmaker Julie Sokolow's eye operates at a sharp but curious remove, allowing David's one-of-a-kind personality to shine through, whether on a blind date with a college professor or at a support-group holiday party for other socially challenged minds.
I spoke with Sokolow over the weekend, following the film's debut at Cinequest, where it won Best Documentary Feature Film.
VICE: How did you meet David, and when did you decide you wanted to make a film about him?
Julie Sokolow: I was intrigued by David for a long time. I would see him around coffee shops and record stores in Pittsburgh, wearing his signature 1950s glasses and a long tweed coat. He was very awkward; he always ran places instead of walking. One day, out of the blue, I received a Facebook DM from him saying, "I've seen your documentaries, and I think you should make one about me."
I then discovered he had a reputation around Pittsburgh: For 20 years, he posted personal-ad flyers to telephone poles seeking love. A lot of people knew about his flyers, but they didn't know anything else about him. He was an enigma.
The first time I met Dave in person for coffee was surreal. He told me he was now looking for love on OKCupid and he wanted me to film his progress with women. He had the most incredible dry and offbeat sense of humor. That was 2011. I've been immersed in David's life ever since, over the past four years.
So you just began following him around after that, doing the filming, including riding along on the dates that he arranged? Did you ever feel your camera influenced his actions, or the actions of the people interacting with him?
I was really driven to make something authentic, and David made his entire love life open to me. All of his thoughts and insecurities about love and sex were on the table, which was brave! In the film, I follow him to an Ethiopian restaurant where he meets a German woman named Elisabeth, whom he exchanged messages with on OKCupid. Here they are—meeting in person for the first time, sniffing each other out as potential mates—as some awkward girl with a camera is sitting across from their candle-lit dinner.
The crazy thing is, I don't think filming really messed with the "realness" of things. A big part of getting genuine life on camera comes from a vibe you create as a filmmaker. I had no lights, no crew. It was just me, and I'm as un-Hollywood as they come. David is disarmingly honest, like a lot of people on the autism spectrum. He doesn't know how to put on social facades. I think David's sincerity paired with my awkwardness somehow made people feel at ease. People who watch the movie say it feels like my presence as the filmmaker is invisible. That's exactly what I want it to feel like.
What other definitive qualities did you have in mind for the film when you began, and how did that change as you went on?
I was really inspired by character-driven documentaries like Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, Albert Maysles's Grey Gardens, and Bennett Miller's The Cruise. I wanted to make a film about David as this fully realized human being beyond his quest for love or Asperger's diagnosis. I wasn't sure where the plot was going, and I didn't really care. The goal was to create a character portrait that felt real and raw and intimate. I thought that in order to achieve that, I had to stay out of the way as much as possible and be a "fly on the wall."
As David and I became friends, it became harder for me to remain distanced. David was working on a collection of short stories for ten years and was in a rut. As a friend, I decided to connect David with a few resources to help his literary ambitions. My friendly advice to David impacted the film's trajectory to a degree, but whatever. Impacting the people in your film is inevitable, but it can still be authentic. You just have to hope the impact is positive.
The film is framed around different holidays throughout the year, beginning with Halloween and moving through the release of David's first book. What inspired that organizational method?
Both David and I have always felt alienated by holidays. You're marketed this image of joy and togetherness that is unrealistic, especially for people who are lonely or experiencing various difficulties in life. Holidays are actually tough on a lot of people.
When I first started filming, I noticed that David's high-functioning-autism group threw parties for each holiday. I thought it would be intriguing to use holiday chapters to mark the passage of time in David's life. People on the autism spectrum are sensitive to noise, light, and stimulation, so they have these unconventional, minimalistic gatherings. During the Halloween potluck, no one wore costumes, and there was no music playing (unfortunately that scene didn't make the film).
During the Christmas-party scene, David says, "Suicides always spike during the year-end holidays, or if they don't, then they should." Then we cut to a shot of an angel on a Christmas tree directly under a moldy stain on the ceiling. When you establish a holiday scene, audiences often expect something heartwarming or cliché, and I wanted to subvert that expectation.
How many hours of footage did you end up with, and how did you go about tailoring it down to provide the best look at David's life?
I shot 100 hours of footage, and the final film is 73 minutes. I wanted Aspie Seeks Love to feel more like a character-driven fiction film than a talking-heads documentary. In Aspie, we see this protagonist on a quest, meeting potential lovers and mentors along the way. I cut the film to enhance that feeling.
I admittedly read The Writer's Journey (a self-help writer's book based on Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces) in preparation to edit the film. I had a lot of inner conflict between mainstream and indie storytelling inclinations. It's like, you want to make something new and original, but you also want to communicate effectively and tell a good story. In the end, I'm happy we arrived at a balance between conservative and experimental impulses. David likes the film, which is the most important thing.
Because David wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's until his 40s, it seems like a lot of this film is him figuring out what the condition even means, and how he can find his place in the world within that. I wonder if there's a change in him you noticed, or a change in his way of operation, that could be helpful to understanding that process of self-discovery?
David's situation with Asperger's resembles the struggles a lot of people face who have mental-health issues or neurological differences. It's scary when you feel like your psychology is abnormal or broken or imperfect. When you're constantly experiencing friction with the world, you want to know why, and a diagnosis can alleviate uncertainty. David says his diagnosis helped him realize his "so-called eccentricities had a neurological basis and were not self-willed."
The downside of the issue at large is over-diagnosis, misdiagnosis, and the ever-changing DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). A lot of people in David's support groups have been given multiple, changing diagnoses over the years. As a child, David was put on Ritalin for hyperactivity, which he has very mixed feelings about. We try to show the complexity of the issue in the film.
These days, David is very much attached to his Asperger's diagnosis, even since its removal from the DSM. Once he was diagnosed, he was connected to therapeutic resources and support groups focused around his condition. I think the diagnosis has increased his self-knowledge and discovery overall and decreased his social alienation.
For more information and showtimes go to AspieSeeksLove.com.
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