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The Sydney Morning Herald

The wizardof Oz rock

Author: Sacha Molitorisz
Date: 20/10/2008
Words: 1030
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: The Guide
Page: 7
An uncanny memory of '80s hits throws light on Asperger's syndrome, writes Sacha Molitorisz.

For many people, the prospect of appearing on national television can bring on butterflies and sweaty palms. For Mark Boerebach, it's worse. When he stepped through the doors of Melbourne's Esplanade Hotel to audition for SBS's music quiz show RocKwiz, the anxiety nearly sent him running.

"Mark has only ever been to one pub in his life," says filmmaker and musician Russell Kilbey. "He hates noise and clatter and if he doesn't like the music he can't bear to be in the room."

Boerebach has Asperger's syndrome, a surprisingly common condition related to autism. Sufferers of Asperger's often find it difficult to interact socially. They can also experience symptoms of sensory overload of autism.

"If you and your friends walk into a room and there is lots of lighting and colours, that's no big deal," says the 39-year-old Boerebach. "But for someone with Asperger's it can be a really horrible experience."

So what made Boerebach, who was born blind but now has limited vision after a series of operations, try out for one of television's noisiest shows - a musical quiz recorded in a pub with a rock band and a yelping audience?

"Give me a date and I can give you the top five," Boerebach says. "I'm talking about the Australian charts from 1979 to 1992. That just came from watching Countdown and Sounds with Donnie Sutherland and listening to 2SM and 2UW and Triple M."

Boerebach is the subject of Rainman Goes To RocKwiz, a deeply touching documentary about his trip to the Esplanade Hotel.

Kilbey, who directed the documentary, says: "We see this as a bit like Hans Christian Andersen's story of The Ugly Duckling . Andersen apparently had Asperger's, and the ugly duckling is a symbol for beauty. If you look through history, in a way the condition of Asperger's is almost an evolutionary imperative.

"You look at people like Andersen or Newton or Thomas Jefferson or perhaps even Einstein. A lot of characters in history who changed the world had Asperger's or autistic traits.

"Some of them were socially hopeless and couldn't pay a bill without their wives."

Kilbey teaches film and music at TAFE, which is where he met Boerebach. Earlier this year, Boerebach enrolled in Kilbey's music business course. The pair quickly bonded, partly because Kilbey has a son with Asperger's. His son is one of the three children Kilbey has with Amy Scully, the documentary's producer and narrator.

Scully says: "Last year Russell and I made a film, called Courage Is A Telescope about our son Marlon and other boys who have Asperger's. While we were finishing that we read about Mark in the local paper and then he ended up in Russell's class. Russell found out pretty quickly he had this savant ability of naming the top five if you gave him the date, so Russell sent an email to RocKwiz on a whim. They called him half an hour later saying, 'Come down and try out.'

"But the reality of that turned out to be a bit daunting. Having a child with Asperger's, I realised it was a real fine moral line of not wanting to push Mark too far, yet also knowing he needs to break through."

The doco reveals Boerebach has never had a job and finds it difficult to make friends. With his love of '80s music, he had dreams of working in radio that he keeps alive at the Planet Retro website (2prfm.com). He would love to work as a graphic designer or put together retro compilation CDs.

"I want to design CD covers," he says. "And I'd love to be making my own compilations. There are so many great artists from the '70s and '80s who have never had their music put out on CD."

Kilbey says Boerebach has never found work, even though he's "super-intelligent and super-talented". Kilbey says: "Actually, there's a software-testing company in Denmark that only employs Asperger's because they have this incredible ability to focus to the exclusion of all other things."

When Boerebach dreams, he often travels to a fully realised imaginary world where he has a wife, family and is an astronaut and a rock star. The documentary interweaves real footage with hand-drawn scenes in a comic-book style.

"We really liked American Splendor," Kilbey says. "We were inspired by that and we used that technique in our first film and found it was a good way of covering a lot of information."

With Kilbey's help, Boerebach wrote and recorded a song for the film.

"That was a thrill," Boerebach says. "Though there were some tricky moments, mainly because I have no sense of rhythm."

Kilbey says it's a moving song. "The words are: 'So many things in this city, there must be something here for me.' It's about doors being slammed in his face. I was amazed by his voice, which sounds a bit like Antony from Antony and the Johnsons."

Boerebach says being involved with the documentary and RocKwiz has already proved transformative.

"The reality of doing such a thing couldn't make me happier," he writes on his blog (www.rainmangoestorockwiz.com), "and more importantly, the fact that it is giving me the chance to really get to the nuts and bolts of my Asperger's and why I experience the things I do."

Scully says: "He's got a skip in his step now, which is really lovely. He was pretty depressed before he went to TAFE and then the stuff that happened at RocKwiz, him being accepted and applauded, that was magic."

Boerebach says that as a special-needs person, "a lot of people tend to ignore you ... This has been a life-changing experience."

Rainman Goes To RocKwiz airs on SBS on Wednesday at 8pm. See preview, p18. Boerebach's appearance on RocKwiz airs on SBS on Saturday at 9.20pm. See preview, p24.

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