Communicating Through Affinity (and Disney) With 'Life, Animated'

Mar 2, 2016

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year's True/False Film Fest. Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

When Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, his parents didn't know if they would ever be able to communicate with their son again. That all changed once they realized Owen was using Disney animated films to understand the world. 

The documentary Life, Animated, named after memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, documents the story of how Ron, his wife Cornelia and eldest son Walter learn to communicate with Owen using his affinity for Disney films. 

In a conversation with the Roger Ross Williams, the Academy Award-winning director of the film, Williams told KBIA the documentary documents an important time in Owen's life. 

This was a very transformative year in Owen’s life. Not only did he graduate from school, he becomes independent and moves into his own apartment. He falls in love – and all that goes with the relationship. And he’s navigating for the first time the world and life as an adult.

And so it was important for me to capture this time in his life because as the numbers grow of the people who are diagnosed with autism they’re [also] going to have to become independent and move into this place in their life as that population gets older.

Q: Early on in the film, Ron asks this question: who decides what a meaningful life is? I wonder if you have thoughts on that from your experience working on this film?

When I started this film I didn’t really have a connection to anyone living with autism and I was quite uncomfortable. As I went through the process of making this film not only did I feel much more comfortable but I learned that there was this great gift that people with autism – that each and every one of them has to share with us.

Owen is such an amazing person who doesn’t have, sort of, a bubble around him that we all have around ourselves. He’s unfiltered; he’s raw with his emotions and honest. He has such this incredible knowledge of, not just Disney, but the idea of myth and fable and story.

I learned so much from him and I learned so much about people living with autism that it really sort of opened my eyes. And it made me realize that here is this great gift they have to share with the world and we’re not tapping into that, we’re losing out. 

Q: Now that I think about it, Owen is also following in his father’s footsteps. His father is this great storyteller and he’s found this way to do that as well.

He really is following in Ron’s footsteps, and to see them together when they team up and tell a story together and talk about the meaning – Owen sees so much more in these films than we could ever see.

It’s amazing watching Owen and Ron together talk about a scene because Ron has –also, all the members of the Suskind family – have to sort of use these films. They have seen the films, not as much as Owen, but a lot. And Ron can recite every word from every Disney classic as well. Because he spent the last 20 years doing that and that’s how him and Owen connect and that’s how they talk. They have a pretty amazing relationship.