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Savannah Film Festival: Po chronicles autism, grief, and love

Savannah Film Festival: Po

Wednesday, October 26, 9:30 a.m.,

Trustees Theater

Saturday, October 29, 12:30 p.m.,

Trustees Theater

IN A sea of narrative features, shorts, and documentaries, Savannah Film Festival audiences can discover Po, a touching feature-length narrative inspired by a true story.

Created on a budget of less than half a million dollars, Po tells the story of a young autistic boy, Patrick (he prefers the name Po), and his father, David, as they navigate life after the death of Po’s mother.

The story is close to John Asher’s heart; the Po director/producer’s own son was diagnosed with autism when he was two and a half years old. After going through a divorce (a staggering 85 percent of marriages that have children end in divorce) did, he was handed the script to Po.

“I couldn’t stop crying when I read it,” Asher shares. “I knew I had to make it.”

Po is more than a glimpse into raising a child with autism; it’s a very real depiction of raising a special needs child during life’s hardest times.

In the wake of grief and adjusting to a “new normal,” David (Christopher Gorham of Covert Affairs and Justice League: War) might lose his job. Po is being bullied in school and retreats into The Land of Color, a magical world that exists in his head.

“There was a great sense of responsibility making this movie,” says Asher. “I feel like a lot of films that portray autism focus on one particular aspect of autism and don’t focus on everything that’s going on. There’s a lot of layers, and I wanted to make sure it was an accurate portrayal. I wanted it to be educational. I wanted people to learn what families with autism are going through on a daily basis.”

Young talent Julian Feder plays Po.

“He was so very much a young adult when I first met him, so well-rounded and worldly,” Asher admires.

In his first audition, Feder did a spot-on impression of Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man. It impressed Asher, but it wasn’t quite the approach he sought for Po’s character. Asher took Feder to meet and observe autistic children at school and assigned him a number of documentaries to watch, like How To Dance in Ohio.

For hours, the duo would play board games; for each round, Feder had to stay in character.

“Once he had the dialogue nailed, we would work on the physicality of autism, whether it be any kind of hand motions or rocking back and forth pulling his hair. Anything he would do with his emotions, we had to create a hidden language that only he and I understood, and I wanted the audience to see it was my interpretation of what was going on.”

Po thrives from a cast and crew of people whose lives have been impacted by autism. Several individuals, including scriptwriter Colin Goldman and Christopher Gorham, who plays Po’s father, are fathers to autistic children.

“We were all striving to make the same thing,” Asher says.

The director/producer is particularly excited for Savannah audiences to be introduced to Po’s Land of Color. Creating a fantasy world on a small budget was no easy task and required the Po team to get creative.

“One of the tricks was that we shot all the stuff that takes place in the real world on long lenses so it gave it a claustrophobic feel,” explains Asher.

“Then, when I went to the Land of Color, I shot that with all wide angle lenses to make it feel big. I think it had a good impact; once the father connects with the son, I kept the last half of the film shot with all wide angle lenses to see the world come together.”

Asher hopes, above all, that Po is an opportunity for people to learn more about the lives of children with special needs and feel the real, human connection that radiates from the screen.

“If anything, I just want to open their eyes,” he states.

“I made the movie so people have a better understanding of what families with autism are going through. At the end of the day, it’s really about love, and, for me, it was a love letter to my son to let him know that I know what he’s going through. That was a real important experience for me to go through, and was very cathartic.”