I spent many hours with the family with the camera turned off before I ever began filming.
“It’s outside of my normal experience, put it that way.” Kristin Neff’s description of her journey to Mongolia is just a little understated. She’s speaking near the end of The Horse Boy, a documentary recalling that journey, and from her perspective — that of a psychology professor and former California suburbanite who does “not even like horses” — it has been a long haul, full of horses and goats, rainstorms and shamans.
Premiering on 11 May, as part of PBS’ Independent Lens, Michel Orion Scott’s film suggests that Kristin and her husband Rupert Isaacson find themselves on this adventure, despite her own initial skepticism. Rupert, a former horse trainer from England, now a journalist and human rights activist, encourages her to take the trip, based on his research into possible ways to help their five-year-old son Rowan. Recently diagnosed as autistic, Rowan seems soothed by his interactions with Betsy the family horse. The boy’s reaction is so unusual — so unlike his regular tantruming to the point of breathless, wailing incoherence — that Rupert decides he must follow up on the apparent “direct line” Rowan has to the horse. As the camera holds on a shot of Rowan atop the horse, quietly cooing and petting her, his father observes, “There’s something going on between them… It feels like a warm sunny day after winter.”
This “winter” is made plain in the scenes that precede Rowan’s first encounter with Betsy: as his parents struggle to keep him placated, the camera pitches and reels with the boy as he throws himself on the bathroom floor, runs from his parents, and flails his limbs. “The world had once been our oyster, narrates Rupert, rather tritely. “Now it had narrowed down on just getting through the next day.” The dilemma facing Rupert and Kristin looks impossible to resolve. As a series of experts on autism (including Simon Baron-Cohen and Temple Grandin) observe here, the spectrum’s causes, definitions, and therapies are numerous and confusing. It may have to do with genetics, environmental toxins, the effects of social or familial climates, or most likely, all these elements combined. “Our lives became clogged under a mountain of conflicting literature and information on the disorder,” Rupert laments.
After so much frustration, he is heartened when he sees his son with the horse: “Why,” he asks, “does autism have to mean the shutting down of everything? Why can’t it be a gateway into adventure, a gateway into healing?” The film translates his hope somewhat literally. Having some experience with the healing practices of African bushmen during his work as an activist, Rupert does some research: “I asked myself, was there a place on earth that combined this sort of shamanic practice with horses?” Voila, he comes up with Mongolia, home of the world’s oldest “horse culture,” and a place where “shamanism is a state religion.”
Following his best-selling book, also called The Horse Boy, it delivers this adventure with a syrupy guitar soundtrack, as well as traveloguey maps and explanations. Initially apprehensive, Kristin offers occasional commentary when the camera turns her way (“When he first proposed the idea, I thought, ‘This is crazy’”). As she and Rupert did their share of adventuring before Rowan’s diagnosis at age two and a half, she hopes to find something out there in the harshly beautiful landscape.
While Rupert ponders his own motives for the trip (“I couldn’t help wondering, ‘Did I really have his best interest at heart here? Was I being a terrible father?’ I didn’t know”), Kristin is immediately the focus of the shamans’ treatment. Instructed to wash her “lower part” in nearby healing waters, she’s advised that it’s her manic-depressive maternal grandmother who has passed on (or manifested most obviously) the “black energy” now affecting her son. (Kristin’s naked bottom is blurred out, and as she passes the camera following her ritual, she smiles, “You can photo-shop that, can’t you?”) If she’s unsure of the editorial or metaphysical specifics, Kristin, like her husband, accepts the premise that her family history is pertinent, in a way that’s disturbing, given how uncertain almost everyone is concerning autism’s causes.
Rupert translates the diagnosis: “A recent ancestor… is somehow clinging to Rowan, perhaps trying to harm him, even pull him away.” Kristin concedes, dramatically: “In a way, [my grandmother] was a black hole.” Though she has “a difficult time understanding spirits,” Kristin says, “I saw her spirit as a symbol of that tendency in the female line on my mother’s side, of this real clinging and this kind of rage, not wanting things to be other than what you want them to be.”
And so she rides along, exhausted and beset, kicked by a horse at one point and feeling accused at others, yet still apparently determined to find some a solution, or at least survive the trip with her husband and son intact. It’s hard to imagine just how “outside of [her] normal experience” the trip, the narrative, and the seeming solutions appear, but it is clear that “normal” and not have been drastically redefined. Still, she seeks a way to understand what’s happened — if not the “black hole,” then at least what her son might have or be, now. While Rupert wants the trip to end with Rowan able to ride a horse by himself (as a means to other indications of peace and independence), Kristin’s goal is much more mundane: “If I could make one wish on the Mongolian trip,” she says, Rowan would come out of it able “to use the potty.”
It’s no surprise that The Horse Boy includes scenes showing both wishes fulfilled. The title indicates which is most ecstatic.