The Human Camera

“This is going to be very brilliant, because I’m famous.” Autistic savant Steven Wiltshire is describing a pen-and-ink drawing he’s making, an exacting image of a building in London. At first, it sounds as though he has the cause-and-effect reversed, as he is, in fact, quite famous, ostensibly because he is a remarkable artist. But in fact he’s also got it right, this complicated relationship between fame and distinctiveness, for his celebrity has helped to amplify the idea of his “amazing talent.”

But the relationship, however interesting it may be, is not the focus of The Human Camera. Instead, the documentary takes a narrow and superficial focus, looking at Steven as he draws, interacts with doctors, teachers, and other artists. Airing on BBC America on 17 September, it also offers interviews with experts and a “family friend,” Michael Vincent. (It’s unclear why the film does not even mention, much less speak with, Steven’s mother, Geneva, with whom he lives in West London).

Each observer describes Steven’s ability as he or she sees it. “You seem to be naturally counting,” Professor Simon Baron Cohen tells Steven, “which is a very quantitative, a very precise, way of seeing the world. You’re sort of carving up the world into objects and getting the number exactly right. It’s a gift.” Vincent remembers that he and Steven were children, autism was not so well known, and at first he remained undiagnosed. “He became more vocal as a youngster, highly animated. I don’t think ‘disruptive’ is the right word, but certainly the outbursts caused a lot of concern.” Searching for a way to describe Steven’s behavior, Michael terms his outbursts “temper tantrums,” recalling, “Nothing would trigger it.”

Today, with autism understood as a spectrum of disorders, wherein events and other stimuli can trigger behaviors, it’s plain that Michael’s is a lay diagnosis. But the film is not interested in the specifics of autism as a condition or a spectrum, except as it provides a general frame for Steven’s “unmatched” skills and status as “one of the world’s most famous autistic savants.” Unfortunately, such celebratory phrases become something of a mantra throughout The Human Camera, whether used in assertions (he has “extraordinary mental abilities like those portrayed in the famous movie Rainman) or questions, asked at each commercial break as if to generate suspense, as in “So how did a mute boy with an involuntary tic transform into the Steven we see today?” or “With certain autistic traits still clear in Steven’s behavior, how much has he really changed?”

In order to contrast then and now, the film uses footage of Steven from a 1987 BBC documentary, The Foolish Wise Ones. Here he is one member of a class of young savants at the Queensmill School, and here, the new film declares, he first came to fame (he was about eight years old). His headteacher then, Jude Ragan, explains briefly how autism works: “There’s a difference in wiring in the brain,” she says, “and they just don’t have the facility that others have to learn language, to pick up on language right from the beginning.” As she speaks, Steven appears distracted and unhappy, his interactions with peers agitated. Here the Human Camera narrator intones, “When Steven was a pupil here, his future did not look bright.”

But, of course, his future turns when Steven’s teachers discover his interest in buildings and drawing. “We thought he was just scribbling” says classroom assistant Mary Oliver. “But the end result, that’s what I can’t get over with Steven.” Such wonder and pleasure, repeatedly articulated by the people around Steven, stand in for investigation of how he lives or works. As the film recounts, he has over the past two decades become even more famous, publishing several books of drawings and exhibiting his work in a gallery near Trafalgar Square. The film notes the efforts he must make to interact with non-autistic people, submitting that routine and repetition help him. “He gets his lunch at the same sandwich shop at precisely 1:30 every day,” observes the narrator, as you watch him in the shop.

The film suggests that Steven’s “extraordinary” ability is therapeutic even as it is wondrous. “When Steven realized that he could depict a controlled world onto a piece of paper, it allowed him to find control in his life,” says Professor Linda Pring, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. To show that his work is not only a personal triumph but also admired by other “experts,” the film follows Steven’s meetings with “the structural engineer of his favorite building, the Gherkin,” and architect Narinder Sagoo, who provides a what seems a spontaneous moment, as Steven draws and then erases what he’s drawn: “He’s a real artist,” attests Sagoo, “the way he’s composing the drawing as he’s going along getting the scale so accurate… even if he does decide to rub it all out once he’s done it!” At the offices of Foster & Partners, Steven is “surrounded by models of buildings,” which is for Steven, the narrator points out, “like being a child in a sweet shop: there is just too much to savor.”

The Human Camera reaches a sort of climax with a stunt: Steven takes a 15 minute helicopter ride over London, then spends five days recreating what he’s seen on a panoramic canvas. As he draws, he is visited by children from Queensmill, the architect and the structural engineer, as well as John Hawkes, who “photographs London frequently from the air.” While the film here shows more of Steven’s work than it has previously, so that viewers might respond in their own ways, the narrator again imposes a non-existent suspense onto the moment: “Steven has been drawing for 25 hours,” he says. “He’s used 11 pens and three pencils in his quest to complete his panorama, which covers seven square miles of the capital. But will it stand up to scrutiny?” Indeed it does. He’s not just a camera, but an artist as well. At last, the narrator can relax: “The experts are astounded by Steven’s panorama.”

RATING 5 / 10
PopMatters