“I need people to know what it’s like to be autistic.” First-time filmmaker Emma Zurcher-Long triumphantly succeeds in doing just that through UNSPOKEN, the point-of-view documentary short she co-directed at age 14 with Geneva Peschka (producer) and Julia Ngeow (cinematographer). Framed through the lens that is uniquely Emma’s, this groundbreaking film allows audiences to experience her non-fluent speaker’s world as she does… in “hi-res, technicolor and surround sound”. In 26 impactful minutes, the joyful teen delivers an “alternate view of autism” that’s opening minds and stirring hearts.
Emma was diagnosed with autism at 2 1/2 years old. Her ability to communicate with others remained extremely limited until she experienced a breakthrough at age 10. Emma had found a vehicle for her voice… typing on a keyboard. Everything that had been unspoken for years started to pour out of her – passionately, brilliantly, poetically, and humorously – one keystroke at a time. Emma’s insightful writing has since become a catalyst for challenging judgements, and a remedy for the fear and misunderstanding that surrounds autism.
“We are less like you, than we actually are,” the now 17-year-old replied when we asked her what she thinks is the biggest societal misconception about people with autism. “Being autistic is not a terrible thing. Autistic life has value. There is joy in being, no matter what your neurology is.” As the co-director, central figure, and primary storyteller of UNSPOKEN, Emma makes this abundantly clear in the film, showing audiences just how potent, radiant, and dynamic her life is.
“Autistic life has value. There is joy in being, no matter what your neurology is.” – Emma Zurcher-Long
The idea to take Emma’s story to the big screen came from UNSPOKEN co-director and producer, Geneva Peschka, who has known Emma and her family for nearly a decade. “She’s had a tremendous impact on my life. It was eye-opening to witness how the world would often treat Emma and others in the community,” Geneva shared with WYSK. “I knew her story would help change the dialogue and the perceptions. But as a woman of color, I know what it’s like to have others control your narrative and how misleading and fractured that is, others speculating who we are, what we feel, what we need.” So for Geneva, it was paramount that Emma co-direct the film and have sign-off on the final cut.
UNSPOKEN is Emma’s authentic story in her words, her way. It’s also a powerful reminder of the beauty of our differences. Thinking back on the critical roles she played both in front of and behind the camera, Emma told us, “Making a documentary is hard.” Compounding the intrinsic challenges that come with this type of filmmaking, she and her co-directors did not have the support of a major production company or movie studio. Nevertheless they persisted in making UNSPOKEN on their own.
Now with an award-winning, perspective-shifting, and audience-moving film to show for their collective efforts, these three women prove that turning dream into reality is “not impossible”, especially when there’s something greater driving you. As Geneva shared, “UNSPOKEN isn’t about me or us; it’s for the community, humanity, and creating lasting change. If that takes 4, 5, 10 years of my life, then I’ve spent my time wisely – shoulder to shoulder with Emma and Julia – focused on something that really matters.”
UNSPOKEN (run-time: 26 minutes) debuted at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2017, and in Fall 2018 was included on the 2019 Oscars long-list in the Documentary (Short Subject) category. The filmmakers tell us that audience and community response continues to be “incredible”. It’s the love-filled fuel that keeps Emma, Geneva, and Julia committed to shifting the dialogue around autism “towards one of inclusion, self-advocacy and human rights for all.”
Lead photo of Emma Zurcher-Long: Pete Thompson Photography