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Show You the World: an Interview with Roger Ross Williams
“Grow up?! But that means no more stories!” says Peter Pan, disgruntled. This strikes a chord with Owen Suskind, a young man transfixed by screens big and small. Subject of the moving new documentary Life, Animated, Owen lives for the Disney canon, meticulously re-arranging the VHS tapes in his bedroom. Affected by autism spectrum disorder, Owen has spent 20 years (and counting) immersed in Disney’s universe of familiar fables and reliable archetypes. Now, with adulthood looming, it’s time to leave Neverland and enter the real world.
Based on the New York Times bestseller by Owen’s father, Ron Suskind, Life, Animated is a rites-of-passage carpet ride to independence. Director Roger Ross Williams is a long-time Suskind family friend, who shows how Owen, at age three, inexplicably stopped speaking, and remained silent for years to come. Unable to connect with others, Owen learned to read facial expressions, social cues and the written word by fanatically watching Disney titles such as The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.
“I’ve always wanted to give a voice to the outsider, to the people who are struggling,” says Williams, the first African-American man to bag an Oscar in the category of Documentary Shorts (for his short film Music by Prudence). “It’s always upsetting to me that the world looks past all these treasures, and the world’s missing out.” Life, Animated captures the joy and anxiety of adolescence – a relatable phase for most people, neurotypical or not.
With a mandate to “make a documentary that celebrated life,” Williams set out to explore Owen’s unique worldview. “Owen loves and embraces life, and is always looking to a bright future ahead,” he says. “It was really important that it was Owen’s world that we were in, Owen’s interpretation of these films.”
As a child, Owen was solitary and insular. When he wasn’t watching Disney films, he’d be found in the basement, drawing Disney characters and writing his own personal saga, The Land of the Lost Sidekicks. In this fan-fiction magnum opus, an intrepid young boy protects notable companions like Sebastian the crab and Iago the parrot from malevolent forces. Writing The Land of the Lost Sidekicks gives Owen an outlet to play the hero for his two-dimensional pals, and Owen’s fiction is brought to life in Life, Animated by French visual effects company Mac Guff, in consultation with the author.
Williams says Owen relates to classic animation “because of the emotion in the hands on the paper,” noting how golden-era animators “would look in a mirror and make facial expressions to see how to draw … All of that is a human connection.” The film shows how Owen craves friendship, despite (or maybe because of) his screen-centricity.
To interview Owen, Williams brought out the documentary discipline’s big gun: the ‘Interrotron’. This helped Williams work around Owen’s tendency to avoid eye contact, as Owen was “totally mesmerised” by the streamed image of Williams, who was actually in another room. “Owen could spend his whole life looking at a television screen … But he’s [also] looking into the audience and telling his story,” Williams says. “I had a little switcher, and I’d switch to play Disney clips. He’d mouth the words along with every character in these scenes, and do the movements … the effect is amazing on screen.”
Like a true 90s kid, Owen relishes his VHS tapes, which he can control frame by frame. “That’s how he learned emotion and facial expressions,” Williams says, proclaiming Owen “a genius” of story structure: a Gen-Y Joseph Campbell. “Those Disney films, they’re just classic stories that have been told for thousands of years.” During their time together, Williams came to see Owen as “an expert of story, myth and fable, and an expert on life,” since, in our everyday lives, “those classic myths and fables are what connect us as humans. It’s a guide to being human.”
Disney is not without its flaws. Increasingly criticised for a lack of authentic racial diversity, depiction of unrealistic beauty standards, and pervasive heteronormativity, Disney films don’t speak for everyone. “As far as representation goes, this film is really about Owen’s experience,” says Williams, who nonetheless is noticing a shift in Disney’s shtick. “Disney is making a real effort, especially with the live action stuff they’re doing now, like Queen of Katwe with Lupita Nyong’o.”
Fan-led campaigns like #GiveElsaAGirlfriend prove that audiences are more eager than ever to see manifold characters on screen, whether it reflects their own experience or not. That’s why Williams made Life, Animated. “I want people who have no connection to autism, who don’t know anyone with autism, to see the film,” he says. “This isn’t an ‘autism film’ – this is a coming-of-age story about a young man who happens to have autism. It’s a story about the power of story.”
And it’s a diverse world after all.