‘Educating Peter’ fillmmaker returns to Blacksburg
Gerardine Wurzburg’s visits to Blacksburg have a history of exploding preconceptions. The filmmaker hopes it will be no different when she returns Thursday to present her “Wretches and Jabberers” movie at the Lyric Theatre.
Two decades ago, Wurzburg drew thousands of visitors to Montgomery County schools with her “Educating Peter” documentary about a boy with Down syndrome. “I’m thrilled to be coming back,” she said last week.
Thursday’s event is aimed at changing ideas about people born with conditions that limit their communication capabilities, who often literally cannot speak for themselves.
“Wretches and Jabberers” follows two men with autism on an international quest to shift perceptions. The title comes from a comment within the documentary, in which a man with autism describes people like him as wretches, and those with more standard verbal abilities as jabberers.
The showing and a question and answer session with Wurzburg afterward are free and open to the public. The 7 p.m. event is underwritten by the Arc of the New River Valley, the NRV Autism Action Group and the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic.
“Wretches and Jabberers” came out last year and has played in about 140 cities across the country, Wurzburg said.
The presentation in Blacksburg comes against a backdrop of continued debate over how Virginia cares for special needs populations. Last week the commonwealth announced it had resolved a long-running U.S. Department of Justice probe with a 10-year, $2.1 billion agreement to close four of Virginia’s five training centers for developmentally disabled people. The change is intended to move thousands of people to living in their own homes and to community-based services.
Martha Ann Stallings, the Montgomery County teacher in “Educating Peter” and now a coordinator with the state Department of Education’s Training & Technical Assistance Center at Virginia Tech, wrote in an e-mail last week that funding and training remain challenges for schools across Virginia – as does the whole philosophy of mixing special needs and regular students in classrooms.
“If you had told me over 20 years ago … that we would be talking about the rights of students with disabilities to be included in 2012, I never would have believed it,” Stallings wrote.
Wurzburg sees the wider issue of inclusion in society as a civil rights struggle.
“Unfortunately, if you can’t talk, people assume you’re less mentally able,” Wurzburg said. “We sort people out in a split second and if you can’t talk, you’re immediately thrown out.”
It has been about a decade since the Washington, D.C.-based director and producer has been in Blacksburg. She first came in 1991 to chronicle the experiences of Peter Gwazdauskas as Montgomery County opened a regular classroom to a special education student for the first time.
The resulting documentary, “Educating Peter,” made by Wurzburg and Thomas Goodwin, won an Oscar. Its portrayal of Peter’s blossoming as a student – and of his third-grade classmates’ own growth as they accepted his differences – was cheered by advocates of the then-new practice of mainstreaming.
After “Educating Peter” aired on HBO, educators and parents flocked to Montgomery County to observe firsthand how the schools handled students with special needs.
Wurzburg followed student Gwazdauskas for another 10 years and produced a sequel for HBO, “Graduating Peter,” that aired in 2003.
Thursday’s film follows artist Larry Bissonnette, 52, and activist Tracy Thresher, 42, to Asia and Europe. The men “come from another era,” when people with developmental disabilities were often kept almost completely apart from regular society. Both men have serious speech limitations and were seen as mentally retarded.
But their lives changed when they learned to communicate through typing – a shift that occurred around when Wurzburg was making “Educating Peter.” Both men became advocates for people with autism. Bissonnette built a reputation with his artwork.
In “Wretches and Jabberers,” the two men set out to speak at autism conferences and meet people in other countries with autism. Along the way they changed people’s impressions of what people with autism can accomplish, and also “went through a profound change process” themselves, Wurzburg said.
They had planned the journey through email, but sometimes were overwhelmed by what they encountered. Wurzburg recounted the pair asking her to film them as they sorted out their feelings after Thresher’s long-held dream of visiting a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka was cut short by Bissonnette’s inability to tolerate being barefoot. The episode showed both the challenges faced by those with autism, and how Bissonnette and Thresher could work through it thoughtfully.
“That was really the moment I knew we had a film that was not like anything, that was really from their perspective,” Wurzburg said.
Besides the presentation at the Lyric, Wurzburg plans several private reunions while she is in town. One of them will be with the Gwazdauskas family.
Judy Gwazdauskas, Peter’s mother, said last week that she is eager to catch up with the filmmaker. Peter, now 30, “is doing great,” she said.
He lives around the corner from his parents in Blacksburg, but plans to move to Christiansburg soon, to an apartment in his caregiver’s house. He volunteers at a weight club and at a physical therapy center.
Gwazdauskas said she’s looking forward to seeing “Wretches and Jabberers.”
“It’s supposed to be transformative,” she said.
Want to go?
What: “Wretches & Jabberers,” with post-film Q&A with director and producer Gerardine Wurzburg
When: 7 p.m., Thursday
Where: Lyric Theatre, Blacksburg
Cost: Admission is free
The Roanoke Times | 381-1699
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