Images of understanding

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Camcorders offer a dyslexic pupil a new kind of literacy. Jonathan Croall reports. Not so long ago Christian Digby was told he would never pass an exam in his whole life. Then, at 16, he was diagnosed as dyslexic. This autumn, if he gets good enough A-level grades, he'll be starting a degree course in media production at Westminster University.

His is a classic dyslexic story, characterised by the kind of ignorance and prejudice on the part of teachers that may be rarer than 20 years ago, but which some young people with dyslexia still meet today. But for Christian, and possibly the film industry, it may well turn out to have a happy ending.

Unable to take advantage of books as other children could, from an early age he plunged wholeheartedly into images and film. Now he's being seen as an exceptional film-making talent. A very personal film he's made about the experience of dyslexia has already been screened on television, and is now being used as an educational and training resource.

It's hard indeed to imagine that the self-assured and articulate 18-year-old currently doing his film and video and media studies A-levels at Exeter College could fit his mother's description of him only three years ago as "a nervous wreck, a shaking mess who felt he wasn't worth anything".

Both she and Christian put his state down to the treatment he suffered at a private school in Torquay he attended from the age of seven. Led by the head's example, the staff refused to accept that dyslexia existed; and despite his high intelligence he was not allowed to enter for the 11-plus.

"They just called me lazy or stupid, I was always put down because my writing and spelling were abysmal," Christian says. He recalls, at the age of seven, one teacher hitting his head against the wall. "It wasn't so much the pain that worried me, but the humiliation I felt in front of the class."

In the end, he says, he just couldn't look anyone in the eye. Then, at 15, he moved to Bramdean School in Exeter. Here he was treated much more sympathetically, and was able to gain enough confidence, despite his difficulties, to pass seven subjects at GCSE.

It was evidently his fascination with film that kept him going during the bad times. "When I was 11 mum and dad bought a camcorder, and they just never saw it again," he remembers. "I was using it all the time, filming the cats, anything." He was also watching films, and absorbing their conventions.

At Exeter the staff recognise his outstanding abilities. "Film is his passion, and his talent is exceptional," says his course tutor Eleanor Mason. "He's completely attuned to the medium, it's second nature to him. I can't imagine he could have a life without being involved in the film industry."

The idea of doing a film about dyslexia came to him when the students on the film and video course were invited to create something personal. As I See It is an atmospheric, highly subjective four-minute video, which conveys how life can feel to someone who is dyslexic.

Based on Christian's own experience, it shows a boy in an empty classroom ("That's how lonely I felt") struggling to understand what the teacher is demonstrating, and being ridiculed and cuffed for his failure to do so. A film of few words, it includes several powerful images including the boy's burning of his books.

But for people unfamiliar with dyslexia the most startling image is a printed page, seen through the boy's eyes, on which the letters are dancing or moving around. Like many dyslexics, Christian experiences this phenomenon, and often has recourse to coloured filters to help with his reading.

Barbara Janssen, the dyslexia support coordinator at Exeter, was struck by another element in the video. "I said I thought the sound was wobbly, but Christian told me he'd created that effect deliberately, because that's how he hears sound. Yet there's nothing in the dyslexia literature about this. "

The video was first shown at an art exhibition in Exeter, and was soon picked up by the local press and television, eventually getting a screening on Meridian Television. It's won several awards at regional and national festivals.

It's been used at conferences about dyslexia, and the British Dyslexia Association is now using it as an awareness-raising film for volunteers manning its helpline in Reading.

Jeanette Lyons of the BDA says: "It's moving and effective, and the very fact that he's made it shows how well he's managed."

Christian seems to be drawn to "difficult" subjects. Another recent work, Fragments of Dementia, is a touching short film in which an elderly woman with senile dementia soliloquises about and regresses to her youth.

Intershot with images of violence from the outside world, it's a deft and sensitive treatment of a subject that could so easily have been done intrusively.

He shies away from the kind of films his fellow-students make "usually mass murder or surreal". Not surprisingly, his ambition is to direct films professionally. "I'd like to do something like Peter Greenaway does, but not so over the top."

Christian Digby's story is a reminder that dyslexia remains a contentious issue, and that teachers who ignore the potential of visual intelligence will cause much talent to be lost.

For information about the videos contact Christian Digby on 01803 605656

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