I have just watched a documentary film called “The Horse Boy.” This film, produced in 2009, is one of the strangest ideas for a documentary I have ever encountered. Rupert Isaacson is a documentary filmmaker. His wife, Kristin, is a psychologist. They have an autistic son, Rowan, four years old, who has not responded well to any therapy. As Rupert has spent time with the Bushmen, filmed, and was impressed by their healing ceremonies, he and his wife decide to take Rowan to Mongolia to seek out shamans (that are known to still be active there) in the desperate hope that perhaps they can do something for the boy. Mongolia was also picked because the boy has also shown he has some strange affinity for horses, and of course horses are of great importance in Mongolian culture.
So off they go to Mongolia where they made this film (with some juxtapositions with their life in Texas). There are some wonderful scenes of Mongolia as they travel across much of it in a large van and also on horseback. There are scenes that make it clear just how difficult it is to deal with an autistic child as he has terrible tantrums, no control over his bowels, and is difficult to control. They obviously are caring parents and deal with the situations as best they can. With a Mongolian interpreter they do manage to expose the boy to shamanistic rites on some occasions and you get a reasonably good idea of what is involved. You also gain some appreciation of what everyday life in Mongolia, living in both tepees and yurts, is like. They, themselves have tents and are obviously well provisioned for such a journey. Their ultimate goal is to reach the reindeer herders near the Russian border, which they do, and find a powerful shaman who treats the boy in a brief ceremony. He tells them that perhaps Rowan will someday become a shaman himself, but in the meantime at least some of his difficult behavior will change for the better almost immediately. There is not very convincing evidence that this occurs, but the implication is that the boy begins to control his bowels and also begins to interact more normally with other children. Back home in Texas he finally learns, more or less, to ride a horse by himself. The parents believe he has changed somewhat for the better but they make no claims about why this actually occurred. That is, they do not claim shamanistic success, or the strange foreign experience, they merely indicate they believe some change has occurred. If you want some insight into how difficult an autistic child can be, and how difficult it is for the parents, and if you also want some very nice scenes of Mongolia and life there, you will find this film of interest.
I confess to being perhaps unnecessarily suspicious about the whole undertaking. First of all, of course, is the fact that autism is still pretty much a blanket term for a condition no one understands very well. Second, I am having trouble trying to decide whether they were serious about their quest for help or just using the situation as an excuse for making a documentary. There is no doubt they made this difficult trip with hardships along the way, and there is no doubt about the reality of being in Mongolia and encountering Mongolian people. But there obviously must have been a film crew with them, and they obviously were well provisioned along the way. I cannot help but wonder how much they paid the Mongolian shamans for their performances and I therefore also wonder if the shamans themselves were serious about what they were doing or just performing for the camera. I wonder just how serious this trip truly was. Did they really expect the shamans to help their son (or was this (1) just an excuse to make a film and have an adventure, or (2) was it a sincere but desperate attempt to really find some help. Finally, as a documentary film, does it even make any difference?
There is no doubt the Isaacsons love their son, no doubt they are fine and patient parents, and no doubt they wish him well and rightly worry about his future. But I also wonder how much thought they gave to the possible outcome of such a trip. A four year-old boy, already disturbed, exposed to strange people in a strange culture, worked over by strangely costumed adults beating on drums, muttering incomprehensible words, and performing strange rituals over him, and so on. It could have been a rather traumatic disaster. It does not seem to have been. But will anyone ever know for sure what it meant to him, if anything at all? Did they assume that he was so autistic nothing could potentially harm him, a kind of “go for broke” therapy. I do not mean to be unkind, and I assume they were well intentioned, but I cannot help but wonder. In any case, as above, if you are interested in autism or Mongolian culture or both you will probably find this film of interest.