About the presenter: Joke Nyssen (26) succesfully graduated in 2006 at the documentary departement of the RITS film school in Brussels. Since then she completed several short documentaries for the social profit and cultural sector. She developed film workshops for mentally challenged people. And in April 2010 she completed her first feature documentary, "Stammers", about her younger brother. She is now studying social work, which she wishes to implement in her carreer as a filmmaker. joke.nyssen@telenet.be

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2010.

"STAMMERS", a documentary by a brother and a sister

by Joke Nyssen
from Belgium

STAMMERS tells the story of Jef, an 18-year old with autism spectrum disorder, who struggles with severe stammering. Together with his parents Jef made several unsuccessful attempts to overcome his speech problems. Now, years later, he decided to fight his stammering for the very last time. He is getting help from Gert Reunes, a therapist who specializes in stuttering and who struggled with his own words for over thirty years. Together they are working to improve Jef's fluency. And now that Jef feels there is hope again, he might be able to improve in other areas of his life as well....

In 2006 I choose my younger brother, Jef, to be the subject of my graduation film at the RITS film school in Brussels. He was diagnosed with autism when he was seven years old. Going through a difficult period when he was sixteen, he was admitted to a youth psychiatric hospital for observation. At that point I choose to spend more time with him and follow him with my camera during his six months stay in the hospital. Jef grew stronger, brother and sister came closer together and the documentary "Not too close" was born. One year later Jef faced a new and even bigger challenge: fighting the stammering that has kept him imprisoned for many years. As I felt my brothers' story wasn't yet fully told, I decided to film him for another period of two years.

Every Thursday I accompanied him during his two hour session with speech therapist Gert Reunes. For over thirty years Gert confronted the same problem - a problem he eventually turned into a great passion. His approach to speech therapy includes learning how to speak slowly, with more intonation and to listen to the sound of your own voice. It was a method that improved his own fluency and would hopefully do the same for Jef. The outcome of the therapy, and the film, could not be predicted. Would Jef be able to persist in the intense therapy and practice? Would his autism, and its related problems, stand in the way? And was his desire to change strong enough?

Talking automatically, without thinking, is how most people communicate. People who stammer and try to overcome that problem however, need to divide their attention between the content - what they want to say - and the form - how they want to say it. Jef's stammering was severe with many secondary behaviors, such as head-, mouth-, eye movements and a lot of body tension. Alternately he would block or repeat his sounds and use synonyms to avoid difficult words. Although his stammers obviously caused him a lot of frustration, it never stopped him from finishing his sentence, even if someone else had already finished it for him.

Aside from that - and being a warm and beloved person in his community, Jef's stammering did cause him problems socially. But being diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) Jef experienced more difficulties trying to work on improving his fluency than someone else would. The constant fight to focus his attention where it was needed, was exhausting. The inability to think long term, inherent to autism, could be one of the reasons why Jef experienced more trouble than, what you would call, a 'regular' person who can more easily set his goals for the future.

As a director, I wanted to tell this story because it hadn't been told in the past. I learned that stammering is hugely underestimated and even an unknown problem. Without a doubt everyone has come across someone that stammers, at least once. But for the most part, people fail to see the immense impact it has on a person's life. It not only affects your self-confidence, it often drives people into isolation and may stand in the way of their own personal development, as was partly the case for my brother.

Both Jef and Gert are very strong characters. Gert's determination and Jef's frankness turned out to be a perfect match on the screen. Moreover I was working independently which gave me the time and space to follow them very closely for a long period of time - a luxury you don't often get as a director.

Another luxury was the pleasure of working with someone you've known all of your life. Jef's spontaneity was a gift. But the troubles that often arise in any brother-sister relationship and the challenge of capturing a part of your own reality, have also caused problems. In the end however, I saw my brother prouder than ever at the premiere of his film, feeling the support of all those invited.

As a sister, it was a privilege to experience my brother's struggle from so close by. It made me understand more about the difficulties involved in not being able to say whatever comes to mind, the perseverance necessary for the therapy and the dynamics involved in trying to change. But above all, I learned about the constant efforts my brother has to make - on all levels - to fit into society and to prove himself to the people who have put a lot of effort in him as well.

Out of 150 hours of footage, editor Bram Busschots and I distilled a film of 73 mintues. It has been a long process, as was Jef's path toward fluency. It has become a 'tranche de vie' (slice of a life story) that taught me about the patience and trust needed to motivate a person to reach higher and the difficulties involved. The documentary, in Flemish with English subtitles, will soon be available. In the meantime, you are invited to take a look at the

Trailer of Stammers

Those involved in making the documentary included my brother, Jef Nyssen, me, Joke Nyssen (cinematography and direction), Bram Busschots (editing), Yves De Mey (original music composer) Jan Roekens (production - www.sophimages.be) and with support of the Flemish Film Fund and the National Lottery and Media.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the authors before October 22, 2010.

SUBMITTED: September 20, 2010
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