When Jackie Spinner adopted her first son, Samir, from Morocco in 2012 at the age of four months, she had no idea he would be diagnosed with autism. But that didn’t stop her from adopting her second son, Rafi—then five months old—three years later. Rafi was also diagnosed with autism in 2017 when he was two years old, the same age that his brother received the diagnosis.
It's a lot of work for Spinner, a single mother who is a professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former war correspondent for the Washington Post. She often wakes at 3:30 a.m. to get work done, and daycare is often a struggle. But she puts the work in—she believes that she has a moral obligation to keep her sons connected to their culture, and does so through language. Samir is fully bilingual in Arabic and English speaker, and Rafi is learning.
She's also connecting her work as a mother with her work as a journalist. After getting tenure in 2017, Spinner received grants from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Columbia College, which enabled her to take her first sabbatical to return with her boys to Morocco to film other autistic children and their families for a documentary that she is in the process of making, titled Don’t Forget Me.
Spinner, who has always been a print reporter, says she turned to film because the medium requires the viewer to go into the world of the autistic child.
“I’m sensitive to the fact that for many autistic children who are not verbal, their parents are always speaking for them," Spinner says. "There’s not a lot of dialogue in the film because most of the children in the film are non-verbal. So, it requires you when you watch the film to pick up on the cues that an autistic child would need to pick up as well.”
Film isn't foreign to her—the former Post Baghdad bureau chief has some video journalism experience and runs the photo journalism program at Columbia College—but she's put together a team of young filmmakers, made up almost exclusively of young Moroccans. The executive producer, producer and associate producer are all women.
“I know to surround myself with people who know how to make a film and I’ve done that. I’m directing and producing the film but relying heavily on people who have been doing this for years,” Spinner says. “Because I’m not a filmmaker by training, it’s not my main platform, I hired young Moroccans who were technically more proficient than me, who actually went to film school. But I’m a storyteller, a great storyteller. So, even though film is not my primary platform I know how to tell a story and I’m learning.”
Her main influence is famed documentary filmmaker Michael Rabiger, who lives on the same North Center block and once taught at Columbia College. Along with consulting with Rabiger, Spinner enlisted the help of Don Smith, a Cinema Art and Science emeritus faculty member at Columbia College and Hakim Belabbes, who has an MFA from Columbia as well.
Together, Smith and Belabbes help run Sahara Lab, a Moroccan educational and media non-governmental organization that trains emerging filmmakers in Morocco. They recommended director Rajae Bouardi, associate producer Manal El Yakhloufi and senior editor Erin Turney, a Columbia College graduate. All three women attended the Sahara Lab. Rounding out Spinner’s team are Moroccan cinematographers Ismail Chatar and Mehdi El Kadoussi, sound engineer Malak Nahass and production assistant Aziz Errafly, who is an orphan from the same orphanage as Spinner’s boys in Meknes, Morocco.
The film's director, in turn, has learned from Spinner.
“I knew so little about autistic people. The only thing I knew was from the mainstream media but after spending time with Jackie and her kids and other families for the film, I saw people from all over the spectrum,” Bouardi says. “There is definitely a stigma in Morocco. A lot of people don’t even know what autism is. For example, Jackie told the woman we rented a house from that her boys were autistic and she asked if that was like being colorblind.”
It’s that type of lack of awareness, along with the fact that people with disabilities do not have equal rights in Morocco, that Spinner wants to change.
“There is a lot of misconception in the United States but there is twice as much misconception in Morocco. No one in Morocco believed my boys were autistic because they are verbal and very high functioning. Most Moroccans just thought they were naughty. I’m making the film for an American audience but I didn’t do this for America. I did this for Morocco. I did this to show in Morocco so that people understand what would happen if the government invested in its autistic children,” Spinner says.
Now in post-production, the 28-minute documentary is in Arabic and subtitled in English for a U.S. audience and in Amazigh for a Moroccan audience. In addition, because she says she is sensitive to the fact that she’s not autistic yet making a film about autism, Spinner is close to signing a deal with Exceptional Minds in Sherman Oaks, California—a nonprofit animation and visual effects outfit that employs all autistic professionals to do the motion graphics and visual effects
In Morocco, autistic children do not have the right to go to school and while Spinner says she would like to see that changed, she knows it’s not her place to dictate policy to a foreign government.
“I think it would take a lot of pressure, but internally and externally, to affect any type of change in Morocco. I’m not Moroccan and that’s not my goal. It would be a hope but my goal is for someone in Morocco who has an autistic child to see the film and not feel so alone,” Spinner says “I am sensitive to the fact that I am a white American going back to Morocco to make this film, but I have a personal interest. I have two Moroccan children who are autistic. So, the way I’m setting the film up is that I’m going to establish why I care about this, why it’s personal for me. This isn’t just a story where I’m divorced from it. I have an interest in the story.”
Turney said it’s Spinner’s personal experience that allowed her to build trust with the Moroccan families that would appear in the film. “You can hear it in her interviews. She was like, ‘I just want to speak to you mother to mother, we are going through the same stuff and I just want to be able to share your story.’ She comes from a more genuine spot than an average person.”
Badreddine Aitlekhoui, a Moroccan autism advocate who has written two books about autism in Morocco and whose 11-year-old autistic son Momo is featured in the film, said he did not hesitate when Spinner asked him about allowing his son to be filmed.
“Taboos still exist so when I got the proposal from Jackie I did not hesitate. This film will accomplish many good things,” Aitlekhoui says. “Reading the Moroccan constitution, you will find nice sentences saying that all citizens are equal and have the same rights but in the field it is different.”
Belabbes, who lives in Chicago but often travels to Morocco to make his own films, says Spinner’s film will do a lot to raise awareness.
“You look at the film that Jackie is making, the mothers are the essence of what gives us hope in the sense that they accept whatever hand they were dealt and they offer the best hope and opportunities for their kids,” Balabbes says. “To me, that’s the big lesson. The other aspect of it is the absence of any laws in the country that would take care of kids with disabilities and I think that’s part of what propelled Jackie to make the film. Hopefully to change something if film could change anything. At least it will educate the public and provoke some debate.”
Indeed, Spinner says that in Morocco autistic children do not have an absolute right to go to school. “If you want your child to go to school you need to hire an aide but you also need to go out and find them and train them. It puts an enormous burden on parents with very limited means.”
In the end, Spinner realized she didn’t need to incorporate a direct criticism of the Moroccan government in the film. All she had to do was show daily life for families with autistic children.
“There are a set of twins in the film, only one gets to go to school because the parents can only afford one aide. The mother was very concerned about being critical of the government and I told her that she didn’t have to say a word. All we have to do is watch you send one child to school and have to keep the other one home. That’s a powerful image, to see one go to school and the other one in the car watching through the window.”
Don’t Forget Me is currently in post-production and will be finished by the end of August. For more information, go to www.dontforgetmedoc.com