Now Playing at Zeitgeist: "The Horse Boy"

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The day-to-day rituals of parents with autistic children might easily be mistaken for shamanic remedies. One scene of “The Horse Boy” captures the parents of nine-year-old Rowan grinding vitamins and herpes medication with a mortar and pestle to create a therapeutic cocktail for their autistic son. The family’s days are nonetheless plagued with Rowan’s incessant tantrums and incontinence; at five years old, the boy remains resistant to toilet training. Though journalist and human rights activist Rupert Isaacson, Rowan’s father and the film’s narrator, says the documentary is a story of a family who “did something crazy,” traveling to Mongolia to seek indigenous healing for Rowan doesn’t seem very crazy at all. For a family living with autism, difficult journeys are nothing new. “I've had harder rides to the grocery store,” Rupert remarks in a later scene.

Rowan, often incoherent and unruly, becomes calm and able to speak when he rides the family horse with his father. This revelation prompts Rupert to take his family to Mongolia, where horses are valued as much as the shamans, to seek healing. The trip forces the family to confront many questions. Are they doing what’s best for their child? If Rowan isn’t healed, how will he function in society as an adult? The most immediate concern seems to be if Rowan will ride a horse by himself — a perceived ticket to freedom for the boy and his family. In the journey Rowan finds comfort among the shamans, whose mental idiosyncrasies are considered in Mongolian culture to be special, not dysfunctional.

Some audiences may dismiss the shamans’ transformative effects on the boy as New Age propaganda or products of clever editing. But the true power on display is that which comes from seeing autism as diversity, not as disease.

Zeitgeist is screening the film at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. There will be a special "sensory screening" for families with autistic children on 5:30 p.m. Saturday. The Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center will bring horses to the screening for a presentation about the various programs they offer at their facility in LaPlace.

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