Local filmmaker sees life through his own lens

10:40 PM, Feb 27, 2013

Adrian Esposito, a 24-year-old filmmaker, right, who has Asperger's syndrome, and director Gary Sundown pose with a poster for their film, Bury My Heart With Tonawanda, in Esposito's Brighton home. (SHAWN DOWD//staff photographer)/

Written By Justin Murphy Staff writer

If you go

Bury My Heart With Tonawanda will be shown at 1 p.m. April 13 at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre in Buffalo as part of the Niagara Buffalo Film Festival.
For more information on Esposito and the film, go to espocinema.wordpress.com.
About Asperger’s syndromeAsperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder, classified on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s can struggle in social settings and have eccentric behavior. They often develop an intense interest in one topic — like filmmaking.
Asperger’s syndrome was declassified as a separate condition in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders; it was instead placed in the general category of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate one in 88 children in the United States has an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

An old Seneca legend explains why traditional corn husk dolls have blank faces: Long ago, a beautiful “corn woman” came to life and saddened everyone around her with her vanity. The Great Spirit saw this and took away her beautiful face; Senecas to this day do not decorate the faces of their dolls.

The message is clear to Brighton filmmaker Adrian Esposito, an advocate for the disabled who has Asperger’s syndrome: no person should be valued above another because of his appearance. That message, and a strong respect for both the disabled and Native Americans, make up the core of his new film, Bury My Heart With Tonawanda.

Esposito, 24, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 8 and first started learning about filmmaking at age 12 through classes at Animatus Studio in Rochester.

He has written and edited several documentaries about creating understanding across cultural and generational divides, garnering awards at regional and international film festivals. Bury My Heart With Tonawanda, his first feature film, was born when he heard the tale of the corn husk doll during a visit to Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor.

It tells the story of a boy with Down syndrome in the 19th century who is sent off to an institution by parents unable to care for him. On his way, he escapes and is welcomed by the Senecas on the Tonawanda Reservation near Buffalo.

The film was shot at Genesee Country Village & Museum and stars actors with Down syndrome and Senecas from the Tonawanda Reservation, including tribal elders who speak the Seneca language.

My films are about just trying to have compassion,” Esposito said. “In Bury My Heart, just because this person has Down syndrome doesn’t mean he’s not capable of feeling love or being a part of everyday society.”

Gary Sundown, a Seneca and the film’s director, said he appreciated how Esposito found common ground between the disabled and Native Americans.

The bringing together of the two groups was what fascinated me,” he said. “Once I got the gist of the story, each page (of the script) really kept me intrigued.”

Several of the actors with Down syndrome came from the Arc of Monroe, which also partially funded the $30,000 film. It has been accepted to the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival in April.

Esposito is pitching the film to other festivals, including the High Falls Film Festival, while also working on his next projects, a feature film about life in an institution for the developmentally disabled in the 1970s and a documentary about traditional Native American medicine.

I’m not expecting to be another Steven Spielberg or George Lucas,” he said. “But I’d like to have my name recognized, at least at the independent level.”

Having Asperger’s syndrome has been a blessing and a curse for the young filmmaker. The stress of production can take a toll — he sometimes needs to stop the filming for short periods so he can step away and regroup. But he said having a different kind of mind allows him to create different kinds of stories.

It helps me be creative and think of ideas no one else would have,” he said. “Before (making movies), I wasn’t such an advocate for people with disabilities. … It’s helped me realize, just because we’re all different doesn’t mean we’re not all equal.”