In A Far Green Country, autistic filmmaker Jonathan Victory goes to New Zealand and back again

A Far Green Country is the debut feature film of autistic Irish filmmaker Jonathan Victory, free to view now on Youtube.

Released in November, A Far Green Country follows Jonathan as he explores iconic film locations from the Lord of the Rings series and other stunning sites throughout New Zealand. Filmed in the first month of 2020, Jonathan’s journey sees his plucky enthusiasm collide with the reality of health challenges presented by autism. Traveling alone for the trip of a lifetime, Jonathan pushes the boundaries of his limitations to live life to the fullest.

Produced by High Function Films, the feature-length documentary was written, filmed, edited and directed by Jonathan. The composer for the film’s original music is Coolgirl – the electronic project of Bitch Falcon lead singer Lizzie Fitzpatrick, who released the soundtrack across Spotify and streaming platforms on Friday November 12th.

Film In Dublin linked in with Jonathan to discuss his experiences, his relationship with the films, and his perspective as a neuro divergent filmmaker.


Film In Dublin: In the doc, you mention how big an influence the Lord of the Rings films and Peter Jackson were on you. Can you talk about your personal relationship with those films?
 

Jonathan Victory: I saw those films around the start of teenager years, I was very into films from a very young age, 3-4 years old watching VHS tapes. But when LOTR came out I think there was just such a huge visual impact, not only was it a real turning point for visual effects and that kind of thing, but they made really good use of the New Zealand landscape and I think it’s a big reason why people connected so much with those movies. 

I was watching the special features on the extended editions  and very good, extensive documentaries about different aspects of making the film, lots of interviews with different cast members and crew members and the impression they gave was that it was a real adventure for all, ‘let’s come together and make these movies’ and I remember that making an impression on me, those were the kind of experiences I wanted to have so that’s kind of what made me want to get into the film industry and be a filmmaker from a young age. 

FID: Going over to New Zealand for this specific project, what prompted that specifically, were you planning to make a documentary about this as you were going over, or was it while you were there it turned into a creative project?
 

JV: I brought the camera over just to have a record of the trip, because I had been planning it and looking forward to it for so long. I previously travelled with friends to places like India and Namibia, but I didn’t really have photographs of these places. I also think I had a vague idea of doing a YouTube channel of my tour, a short video about Mordor, another one about Rohan and so on, but that has been done a lot by other people, and they’d have better equipment than I do. So I suppose during the pandemic, I started off by going over some photographs I took over the trip and uploading it to Instagram, a different picture, each day – that was really good for my sanity during lockdown because I got to re-experience and reflect on different parts of the trip, and from April 2021 I started seriously looking back over the video footage, and as I did that I noticed that there was a sort of arc to my journey, where I kept having these ups and downs with the health problems I was facing, that revealed  that there was a story to be told about my experiences as a neurodivergent person which come.
 

I think the pandemic gave everyone time to reflect on mental health issues they’re facing. I’ve heard from a lot of people, especially women, over the course of the pandemic investigating and getting neurodivergent diagnosis so I felt like it was timely for that reason as well. So the film is available on YouTube now for free because I feel that it’s an important time for people to be able to hear that kind of story and then to see the symptoms I was experiencing, that might prompt a viewer to think, oh, that sounds similar to something I feel maybe I should get checked out. If nothing else came of the film than that, I’d be very happy.

 


FID: As a professional in the film industry, would this be the first time that you would have gone into this level of reflection as an autistic person in something that you’ve been working on?

JV: I think I had made other things before that kind of address it, but a lot of the time that would be sketch comedy where I was poking fun at it. A lot of my previous work was submitted to the Firehouse Film Contest, a monthly film contest where people could submit a short film as long as it was made in the previous month, which ended up gravitating often towards sketch comedy because I think a lot of comedians got involved. I had sort of wondered whether I made good use of that as a creative outlet because on the one hand I made sketches that weren’t particularly good, at least not compared to the other ones that were shown, but at the same time I think having done that for a few years gave me technical experience so when I was making this film, which was a feature length project, so much more kind of time, demand and so on, I could do things quicker that would have taken me a while to figure out before. So in a sense that what I’m calling wasted time turned out not to be wasted! 

In terms of reflecting my experience of autism through my work, I had done that through journalism. I’ve written some pieces for HeadStuff, I’d been published in the Irish Times twice talking about autism. In my sketch comedy I would approach it in a humorous way and I tried to take that approach in this film as well, I talk about serious things that do affect me, but didn’t want to give the impression that I was taking myself too seriously.

So I do things like the disclaimer that pops up again and again. I’m going to open up about my experience and this is the kind of thing an autistic person could go through, but I can only speak to my own experience as a white, middle class male, which can be over-represented in depictions of autism, so I was trying to be self-aware about that as well, and just aware of an audience that may have encountered autism in media as ‘they’re so quirky with their special interests’, or ‘they’re so eccentric and funny’ or ‘this is a grim, miserable existence’. I try to get across in this movie that I’m a multidimensional person! I experience both sides of that life and that’s what I found looking back over the footage, these different dimensions of my own experience.  

 

FID: Could you describe the sensory challenges that you faced during your time in New Zealand?

 JV: I think there’s two dimensions to it that I talked about in the film. One is how just in general an autistic mind will interpret sensory information more sensitively, and that can influence emotional management issues or anxiety management issues. Sometimes it is psychological stuff, about my mood and certain things affecting my energy levels and so of course. The sensory processing issues can also be much more direct, for example heat. I was traveling through New Zealand in in January 2020, which would be their summer and was the same summer as a very bad bush fire season in Australia. 

There are actually a few days where there was dust in the sky. I think as I arrived in Queenstown especially, the sky was darker because of bushfires from Australia which was 1100 miles across the sea. One aspect of my sensory processing issues I was able to explore was how it links to the climate crisis and how it’s always framed as this issue about the future, and saving our children when no, it’s also us, it’s what we’re dealing with now…
 

Just in practical terms, disruptive weather events can take a toll on an autistic person because of the unpredictability of knowing how to dress or how to manage your energy levels.  What comes across in the movie is the heat and making sure I was staying hydrated and not spending too much time in the sun or overexerting myself. There be even more basic stuff, the texture of clothes you’re wearing, how much noise is around and even interacting with people…wanting to get on with people but maybe getting a bit flustered. There are a bunch of issues that certainly get across my experience of sensory processing and how that’s an issue in autism, but I was able to link it to a much bigger ecological issue around climate change and hopefully that is a good strand to the movie as well. 

FID: Working in the film industry, are there things that would be beneficial in making it a more neurodivergent accessible place? 

JV: If we’re talking about supports, I’m going to have to say the C word – class. Economic background will determine your access to supports. I was reflecting on how I upgraded to a private room (during the film) if I didn’t have the money, I’d have to stay in the sort of hostel dorm that was more uncomfortable for me. In planning future trips, will I need to pay for more expensive accommodation, will I need someone to drive me around instead of doing the driving myself, there’s a lot of things and the more money and economic privilege you have, that’s going to improve your range of options, that’ something that really needs to be addressed. 
 

 At a basic level, accessing mental health support services and supports for divergent people, when you’re asking about the film industry specifically and supports neurodivergent people would need? One thing I’m noticing so far is just there’s just hostility towards neurodivergent people.

There’s an Instagram page called ‘Irish Crew Stories’ that are starting to shine a light on experiences crew members have had with abusive working environments on sets…a lot of the stories that have been shared so far are from autistic people, and the prejudice directed against them. 

Ideally society would get to the point where a different neuro type is like a different eye colour or being shorter, just another kind of person a person could be. How you actually support neurodivergent people entering the industry, I think there can be an argument people have where if crews are working long hours, in noisy environments with lots of stuff going on, maybe it isn’t suitable, anyone arguing along those lines is just basically saying we do not want people like you working in the industry because it’s too much hassle for us to change things, when you actually could change the working environment. There could be 8-hour days instead of 11 hour days, the pace of work and the hours would be an issue to address. 

More mentorship pathways, sometimes neurodivergent people can struggle a lot with social skills and feeling secure in themselves and to have someone designated on set to show them that look, we’re all just doing our own job like you, it’s okay for you to stand up for yourself, it’s okay for you to be on this set, be part of this team and be respected as a member of this team. Maybe a designated part of the set that is a quiet, relaxed environment

There’s going to be some health and safety guidelines coming out for the Irish film industry, I’m hoping that covers how you ensure there’s a space for disabled people in the industry, because we also have stories to tell.  

 

FID: Have you watched the trilogy since you’ve gotten back from New Zealand and how has your experience influenced looking at the films?  

JV: As recently as a few weeks ago, the Light House Cinema were doing a marathon of all three films back-to-back, so that’s the last time I watched the trilogy. There were two dimensions, one is that I was able to confirm that some of the locations I visited were wrong! There are times in the movie where I followed instructions to drive to the correct place, I was definitely in the filming location, but I might have gone up to a specific tree I thought Elijah Wood was leaning against and then I thought oh wait, was it this one, I don’t know, I’m just gonna move on to the next location because I don’t have time. I saw that scene again and I was wrong both times! It was a different tree…that’s why in the film, I reflect, maybe this can tie into a person’s broader life situation, you can be in the right area, but maybe not the exact location.

I think it was just it was funny for me also seeing some scenes again and either thinking damn I got that location wrong or I am really happy I’ve actually been to this physical place because it looks so amazing in the movie and I think there’s a reason I connected with these movies, it’s really cool for me that I’m alive, I’ve actually been to that place.  

 

I think it vindicated the amount of passion I have for these films and how it was definitely very worthwhile for me going to New Zealand. And now I also have a feature film credit out of it!



A Far Green Country is available in its entirety now currently on YouTube.

About Luke Dunne

Luke is a writer, film addict and Dublin native who loves how much there is for film fans in his home county. A former writer for FilmFixx and the Freakin' Awesome Network, he founded Film In Dublin to pursue his dual dreams of writing about film and never sleeping ever again.

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