Written by Emilie Kefalas
Audience members present on opening night of the 2017 Telluride Mountainfilm Savannah festival engaged in a special conversation about passion, communication, and the power of storytelling following a screening of the critically acclaimed documentary, “Life, Animated.”
Directed by Roger Ross Williams, the film kickstarted the festival Thursday evening, January 19, at the Trustees Theater. Following the screening, the audience took part in an exclusive Q&A with journalist Ron Suskind, the film’s writer, via video chat.
“Life, Animated” is based on Suskind’s 2014 book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism,” which recounts the story of Suskind’s son, Owen Suskind, who struggled with autism but learned to communicate and interact with others through his adoration of Disney movies. The film was a hit at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where it won an award for Best Direction. It was also successfully received at the 2016 Telluride Mountainfilm, where it won the Audience Choice Award. On January 24, it received an Oscar nomination for the Best Documentary at the 89th Academy Awards.
Suskind spoke with the audience about “Life, Animated’s” filming process, Owen’s reaction to the film, and how the documentary continues to positively impact families caring for autistic children.
According to Suskind, Owen was diagnosed with a severe form of autism when he was four. Within the film’s first ten minutes, the Williams shows Owen heading to his Disney-decorated room and turning on his “Peter Pan” VHS tape. Suskind says Owen has memorized every Disney film, and knows the precise order of each film’s scenes. Certain scenes and sequences serve as a way for Owen to make sense of what he’s experiencing in the real world.
The Suskind’s decided Ron would view the film before Owen, and that Ron’s wife and older son, Cornelia and Walter, would see it for the first time at Sundance. Owen and Suskind saw a rough cut of the film in New York in September 2015. According to Suskind, Owen was feeling a bit tense before their screening.
“We’re in the elevator, waiting to go up and see the movie, and Owen goes, ‘When’s this elevator getting here?’ And that’s not Owen, as you know from seeing the movie,” Suskind said.
“I say, ‘Are you okay buddy?’ And he says, ‘This is the hero’s journey right?’ And I say, ‘Right.’ And as soon as Owen says that, you know you’re on firm terrain. I said, ‘What do you know about the hero?’ He says, ‘The hero never emerges unless obstacles are thrown in his path.’ And I’m like, ‘Right, and all the obstacles are in this movie, but how does it turn out?’ He says, ‘With me. I emerge.'”
Suskind said they went up, viewed the film, and Owen loved it, which was crucial. Owen can only tell the truth, and if he did not like the film, it would not have been released.
One of the questions from the audience brought up how the filmmakers captured such authentic footage as well as how Owen reacted to the cameras following him. Suskind said the film’s cinematographer, Thomas Bergmann, bonded with Owen, who gave Bergmann a sidekick identity. Williams said Owen was the best character he will ever feature in a documentary, because he occurs on camera.
“He just lives in the moment, more than the rest of us tend to,” Suskind said. “That makes for an extraordinary character on screen. For me and Cornelia, it created a welter of emotions, because Thomas is there when we’re not.”
Williams told Suskind that he believed the movie worked, because the story, from beginning to end, was shown through Owen’s eyes.
“This [story] was one very much intentionally meant to be seen through Owen’s eyes, and see what he sees as he makes his way,” Suskind said. “That’s why the movie worked so well. It’s in his shoes.”
Asked if Owen remembers when he first started using Disney films to express his emotions, Suskind said that even though Owen could not understand the language, he watched the films for their consistency in an ever-changing world.
“He said . . . it was kind of a song that seemed familiar to him,” Suskind said. “What he says now is that period in his life was all gibberish. Everything changed but [the movies], and he watched them over and over again to connect the sound to the emotions so vividly rendered on the screen. So yes, he understood it, but in terms of a deep familiarity and bond. What was happening on the screen was happening in his life.”
Audience members also commended Walter, who Suskind calls the true hero of the film, for being such a strong, constant supporter of his brother. Suskind recalled how Walter and Owen shaped each other as they grew and matured, and how Walter will ultimately provide for Owen when Suskind and his wife are gone.
“We want to guide Walter, but ultimately he’s going to have to make the decisions himself,” Suskind said. “He will own them. There were twists and turns along the way, like any kid, he was struggling. He would do anything for Owen, take a bullet for him as Walt would say.”
Suskind said Walter has been contacted by siblings across the county who say he has given them a voice.
“You see at the end [of the movie], Walter says, ‘Owen is my best teacher,'” Suskind said. “You see how Walter evolves so beautifully into his role. The bond between the brothers takes over the movie. More and more, it’s two brothers moving forward together.”