Tag Archives: Bullying

Auf Augenhöhe – A Film about a Boy’s Search for His Father Who Happens to Have Dwarfism

9 Oct

  

Auf Augenhöhe (“At Eye Level”) is a German film by Joachim Dolhopf and Evi Goldbrunner currently playing in theaters across the country, starring Jordan Prentice and Luis Vorbach. Michi (Vorbach) is an 10-year-old foster child living in a home. He’s at the age where put-downs and one-upmanship are conversation-starters both at breakfast and on the basketball court. Dissing your opponent’s family is standard fare, but it carries extra weight for him and his housemates, many of whom were neglected or abused by their parents. Michi was raised as a toddler by a single mother until her death. Since the identity of his father is unknown, he can and does make up stories about how cool his dad must be whenever he needs to swagger in front of his friends.

Early on in the film he discovers a letter at the bottom of a keepsake box addressed to his father, Tom Lambrecht, who lives not far away. Michi heads to his house and leaves a letter under his door, explaining who he is and inviting him to meet at the foster home. On his way out, a neighbor points him in the direction of Tom’s rowing team. Michi heads over and hears someone utter his father’s name. The man who answers to the name is curly-haired and 4 feet tall (1.24 meters). Michi runs away.

Previously unaware he ever had a child, Tom is shocked to discover his son’s letter and worries about the prospect of meeting him. He is fearful of how his son might react to his size. “And what if he’s short-statured, too?” he asks a friend. “He’ll blame me.”

“Well, it means he’ll already know all about it,” his friend shrugs.

Tom shows up at Michi’s foster home and in this moment Michi’s world of pre-teen posturing transforms into a nightmare right out of Lord of the Flies. He and his father are shoved, screamed at, mocked, grabbed and pelted with chips until neither of them can hide their tears. The scene is painful because no amount of Tom’s attempts at being the adult in the situation can protect either of them. After Tom leaves, the bullying remains and takes on more sadistic forms. A garden gnome hanging from a noose outside his window drives Michi to run away and show up again on Tom’s doorstep, insisting he live with him. Tom agrees, but their problems are far from over.

Michi blames Tom for ruining the life he had by entering it. Tom is riddled with guilt and endures his son standing 10 feet away from him in public. Kids from the foster home show up and spray-paint “Verräter” (“traitor”) on their apartment building.

It’s reminiscent of another German film, Young Törless (1966), which like Lord of the Flies sought to pinpoint the roots of the Nazis’ cruelty by examining bullying at a turn-of-the-century boarding school for boys. Auf Augenhöhe adds the emotional problems of young people failed by neglectful parents into the mix. But it doesn’t let non-orphans off the hook either.

Because an even more painful scene soon follows when Tom is at the gym with his rowing team. Two gawking men creep up behind him to snap a photo—a common humiliation for people with dwarfism today, as I’ve written before—but his teammates come to his defense. They are successful in getting an apology out of the perpetrators because there are only two of them. The moral of this film, Young Törless and Lord of Flies could well be that no good comes of allowing the mature to be outnumbered by the immature, no matter their age.

After the incident, Tom lashes out at his friends, accusing them of only defending him out of pity. This was the hardest scene for me to watch because I could understand both sides of it. No matter how self-confident you are, the knowledge that a good deal of the world can’t handle your Otherness feeds paranoia. In moments when people in power strike you down, that paranoia can rise up and reign supreme, making you doubt the open-mindedness of everyone around you. Yet to act on such paranoia is rarely helpful, and Tom later apologizes at the next rowing practice.

Hours later in the bar, his friends insist that they should apologize. “I’ve got to admit I always assumed things were easier for you than they actually were,” one of them says. “And yet if I’m really honest with myself, I am glad I don’t have to deal with the problems you do.”

“Thanks for your honesty,” Tom nods.

Michi is also granted such honesty from a few peers over time. And of course he and Tom gradually warm to one another as odd couples in film are wont to do. Auf Augenhöhe has been marketed as a family comedy, and for that reason I had feared a predictable schlockfest of sight gags, height puns and an overly simplistic sing-song that we’re all the same inside! But the film is more contemplative than that. It’s heavy on dialogue, largely avoids clichés, and the acting is excellent.

There aren’t even that many jokes. Scenes of Tom standing in a streetcar, nearly smothered in the crotches of other passengers is presented soberly, not for laughs or tears. A young viewer sitting next to me smirked at the image of Tom using a step-stool to look through a peephole, but the film presents the adaptations in his car and around his apartment so matter-of-factly that any air of novelty quickly fades away. The biggest play on height comes when Tom turns it around to his advantage. When he lets Michi drive donuts in an empty parking lot, a police car pulls up. Tom switches back into the driver’s seat and puts on Michi’s hat before the police officer opens the door and is surprised to find an adult at the wheel.

“Honestly, officer, that we dwarfs are so often mistaken for children is quite humiliating. I think I’m going to need another session with my therapist to get over this,” Tom deadpans.

The officer issues his sincerest apologies before walking away and leaving father and son to burst into giggles.

That Luis Vorbach and Jordan Prentice develop such a chemistry on screen is all the more impressive in light of the fact that the Canadian Prentice delivered all his lines in English, which were then (almost seamlessly) dubbed over in German. I don’t know what that says about the state of job opportunities for German actors with dwarfism today, but in this case, the result is a cast of characters who are completely believable. This is no small feat when we consider just how many triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity films take the easy route with angelic and diabolical caricatures we only ever see in our fantasies. And Prentice redeems himself as an actor after his role in In Bruges (2008) and all the failures of that film to avoid freak show humor.

Three-quarters through the story there is another plot twist that borders on soap-opera. I won’t say anything about it other than that foster children or social workers may want to contest its credibility. But it gets a point across, and it’s a good point to make.

Glancing at the six other families in the theater with me at the screening—all of their children roughly the same age as Michi, some of them visible ethnic minorities—I wondered what kind of film they had been expecting. Were they drawn by the subject matter? Or by the trailer that makes the film look a lot goofier than it is? No matter what they were hoping for, I’m glad they saw it.

 

 

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When It Comes To A Boy In A Dress, The Question Is: What’s Wrong With Us?

12 Aug

When I was about 10 years-old, a friend of mine with achondroplasia was being teased at her school for being so short.  After being shunned at lunchtime repeatedly—“No freaks at this table!”—her mother finally called her local chapter of Little People of America, which sent a spokesman into the school to give a presentation.  After he read Thinking Big to the class, explaining thoroughly in an age-appropriate manner why my friend looked the way she did, one of the biggest bullies raised his hand.  “So, you mean, she’s little because she’s a dwarf?” he asked.

The spokesman offered to let my friend answer the question herself and she replied, “Yes.”

The boy who had teased her so much suddenly had tears in his eyes.  It later came out that his new baby brother had just been diagnosed with dwarfism.  He had had no idea until that moment that his brother was going to grow up to look just like the girl he’d targeted. 

To anyone who insists, “He couldn’t have known,” he could have.  We could have let him know.  What is school for, if not the pursuit of knowledge?  With the exception of women, all minorities risk marginalization not only by others’ lack of empathy but by the lack of visibility automatically brought on by their lower numbers.  Any place that prides itself on learning should pride itself on learning about other perspectives, other identities, other behaviors, no matter how rare.

So “What’s Wrong With A Boy Who Wears A Dress?” asks The New York Times magazine on its cover this week.  Despite that the flippant headline sacrifices sensitivity for saleability, at least it’s shedding light on the subject.  I know so many men and boys and trans individuals who wear dresses for so many different reasons, and they do it a lot more than mainstream movies, TV, and advertising suggest:

 


When asked why he likes regularly wearing his wife’s nightgowns, one man shrugged, “It’s comfy.”

The Times article has its flaws.  When discussing how boys who wear dresses turn out later in life, the article stuffs them into three overly simplistic boxes: a) gay, b) heterosexual, and c) transsexual.  Such labels do not encompass all the ways and reasons people of various gender identities and sexualities wear dresses into adulthood.  As one friend observed, “The path of least resistance for so many is to wear dresses in secret.  By using these limiting categories, the article implies that and also does nothing to change that.”  The use of the categories also implies that these individuals owe us a clear-cut, sex-based explanation for their behavior, which is itself a symptom of narrow mindedness.  No one demands a woman explain why she likes wearing jeans.

And yet the article also keeps its subjects silent.  While documenting the struggles of both conservative and liberal parents, the author would have been wise to include the perspective of adults who wore or wear dresses.  In the absence of their agency, their nervous parents are essentially speaking for them.  (Rule Number One in Battling Intolerance: Never, ever let a minority’s agency be ignored.)

But for all these errors, the article concludes with those who ultimately support their sons as best they can.  One dad heard that his five year-old was being taunted in kindergarten for wearing pink socks, so he bought himself a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear in solidarity.  The kindergarten teacher jumped in, too, opening up a class discussion about the history of gender rules and shocking the kids with the information that girls were once not allowed to wear pants. 

Whenever reports on “different” children list the anxieties parents have about their kids not being accepted, the message often starts to get muddled.  Sometimes the article is clear that we as members of society need to get over our hysterical hang-ups and start accepting these children as they are so that they and their parents no longer have to worry what we and our own children will say.  Too often, however, the article spends so much time quoting the parents’ fears that the source of the problem starts to sound more and more like the child’s disruptive identity, not others’ clumsy reactions to his identity.  And that’s wrong.

Whenever a child is made fun of for being himself, it’s our problem, not his.  Biologists can say what they want about a fear of difference being an evolutionary adaptation, but our culture values differences two ways, either as “abnormal” (i.e., strange and pitiful) or “super-normal” (strange and admirable).  The Beatles’ mop-tops were abnormal to parents of the time (“They look like girls!”), and super-normal to their teenage children.  In the nature vs. nurture debate, we need to stop saying “nurture” and start saying “culture,” because changing the environment a child grows up in means changing the behaviors of more than just one set of parents.  Mine never once told my younger brother, “Only sissies cry,” but his little league coach told the team just that.

This is our culture and we are the ones shaping it as the creators and consumers.  By making and watching films and TV shows that state what’s “gay,” “wimpy,” “ugly,” “freaky,” or “gross.”  By stating, “Guys just don’t do that,” or letting such remarks go unchallenged.  By repeating traditional views of minorities—e.g. the dwarfs of Snow White and Lord of the Rings—and failing to provide more realistic portrayals with greater frequency.  As adults, we bear so much responsibility for shaping the world the younger generation is trying to navigate.   (As this German Dad proved so well.)

Since the Sixties, many parents and teachers and educational programs have embraced books that promote understanding of ethnic diversity such as People and of disability such as I Have A Sister: My Sister Is Deaf to broaden our children’s perspective and nurture empathy toward people they do not encounter every day.  Yet books like My Princess Boy or The Boy In The Dress have yet to break into the standard curriculum.  There seems to be an unspoken assumption that such books are primarily for the boys they’re about.  (Buy them only after your son starts actively asking for a tiara.)  But everyone should be reading them, for the same reason everyone should be reading Thinking Big.  By waiting to address the idea of free gender expression until a little boy gets bullied, we are cultivating the assumption that the problem never existed until that little boy came along.  The problem was always there.  

Critics have argued The Boy In the Dress is unsuitable for any boy in real life who feels the like the protagonist because any school he attends in real life is far less likely to rally around him so enthusiastically.  But that’s exactly why this book needs to be read and discussed and picked apart by school classes around the world, not just by boys alone in their bedrooms. 

As a teacher, babysitter and relative, I encourage the little boys in my life to play dress-up, house or princess with their female playmates because I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument as to why it’s any different from encouraging the girls to get down and dirty in the mud with their brothers.  Sure it’s radical—just as my mother’s wearing jeans to school 42 years ago was radical—and the last thing I want to do is turn a child into something he’s not.  But as with a girl, I want him to feel that every option is open to him, despite any hang-ups tradition has about it.  And if it becomes evident that he truly has no interest in anything soft or sparkly, I at least want to do my best to ensure that he never, ever makes fun of any boys who feel otherwise.