By Janeen Ellsworth
Finding true love is hard. But it can feel like an impossible dream for people on the autism spectrum. Behaviors we often take for granted – maintaining eye contact, experiencing empathy, interpreting facial expressions – can be real challenges for people on the autism spectrum. This can make the search for romance seem completely out of reach.
When Pittsburgh writer and artist David Matthews was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at age 41, his life finally started to make sense. He’d always felt lonely and isolated despite relentless attempts at finding love – for 20 years, he’d even posted personal ads on telephone poles in search of a date, to no avail. Now he understood why.
But what he did next isn’t something just anyone in his situation would do. He sent a Facebook message to Julie Sokolow, an up-and-coming documentary filmmaker whose work he had admired. Her films portrayed artists, like him, on the outskirts of society. “I’ve seen your documentaries, and I think you should make one about me,” he wrote.
“He told me he was now looking for love on OKCupid and wanted me to film his progress with women,” Sokolow told Vice.com in an interview. For the next four years, that’s exactly what she did.
“Aspie Seeks Love” follows David on his quest for love, exploring what it means to truly connect, even when the odds are against you. The film has already won best documentary feature film at the Cinequest and Omaha Film Festivals, and it premieres in Pittsburgh on Thursday, March 26th at 7:00 p.m. at the Regent Square Theater.
Julie Sokolow, the film’s director, sat down with us to share her insights on how this story came to life.
The Sprout Fund: When David reached out to you with the idea for the film, how did you react?
Julie Sokolow: I thought “Wow, this is uncanny. I’ve seen this guy around town and have taken a real interest in and been intrigued by him. And now, without having ever met, officially, he’s contacting me.” So it was kind of that moment of the stars aligning. I felt like this is such a perfect match that we would work on this project together.
How does the film shed new light on autism spectrum disorders?
The film has always been about David apart from his diagnosis. He’s a writer, an artist, a hilarious commentator, and he’s going on this quest for love. So it’s about a lot more than just autism. He’s kind of a public figure, putting himself out there with these personal ad fliers for 20 years.
Meanwhile, the people in his autism support group were very different. We were grateful that they were willing to share their stories with us, I think because they wanted a platform to share their experiences.
The ratio of guys to women on the spectrum is four to one, so it’s really hard for men, especially, to find another person with autism to date. In the support group scenes, you see men expressing that they don’t know how to find a love in life. It’s something that we can all relate to, because everyone’s felt lonely at some point.
By giving people space on the screen, you’re promoting their stories into the general consciousness. I hope that this shows everybody, both on and off the spectrum, how to be more compassionate in dating and romance. I hope at the end of watching the film you feel more connected. I think it’s a hopeful story.
Can you talk about the filming process and the editing decisions you made along the way?
We began filming in 2011. We had no lights, no crew. It was just me. There were a lot of moments when we weren’t sure if it would be a short or a feature or if it would ever get finished.
We got 100 hours of footage, but I didn’t want to make an inaccessible, six-hour long movie. I wanted to make a tight story that would speak to a lot of people. That required completely abandoning footage that I’d worked on really hard for four years.
Getting grants along the way made it possible to continue on, because making independent films is expensive and under-supported. So things like The Sprout Fund’s grant were essential to making this film.
When that grant got announced, filmmakers who had never met before were meeting for the first time, realizing how truly robust the independent film scene is in Pittsburgh, and we all began forging new collaborations with each other.
It was a really exciting time for all the filmmakers in the city, and we felt like our voices were being heard. Having Sprout at the community level, funding new filmmakers, is important, and I hope to see it again in the future.
Aspie Seeks Love will make it to Pittsburgh on March 26th. Will you or David be in attendance?
Absolutely. We’re almost more excited for the Pittsburgh premier than anything else. We get to share the film with the cast and crew and everyone who’s been in the film. All the supporters of the film are going to be there. Friends who’ve had to hear me talk about this for four years and weren’t sure if it was ever going to come to fruition are going to be there. We’re going to have a Q&A afterwards and an after-party, so it will be really cool.
Aspie Seeks Love premieres in Pittsburgh at Regent Square Theater on Thursday, March 26th at 7:00pm. Tickets are available now!