Director. Roger Ross Williams. Cast/’Featured’. ‘Owen Siskind, Walt Suskind, Cordelia Suskind, Ron Suskind’, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Ron Suskind. Genre: Documentary. English. Running Time: 1hr 29min.
This film is an extraordinary example of human willpower overcoming deficits within the human form. Deficits which cause it not to work in the way most of us anticipate and hope to carry forward. Autism is a complex neurological disorder which has a very wide variance across the diagnostic spectrum. Some elements of motor malfunctioning takes place with limbs and head being given to spasmodic movements. At the age of three the portents showed in Owen Suskind was not like other children of his age. Parents Ron and Cordelia Suskind notice the change advancing swiftly taking their son prisoner. They describe the onset with frank accuracy giving us account which the Oscar®-winning director Roger Ross Williams uses home movie footage to outline the passage of Owens disorder. From then onward Williams uses illustration alongside conventional conversational interview and observation, inspired by the illustrated Ron Suskind book together with the beginnings of Disney Movie referencing.
Ron Suskind reveals a moment of discovery for him into Owens mind and how it worked. Previously playing and acting out characters from Disney movies they had watched had made no connection with him. In a scene which also reveals Owens fathers determination and willpower on learning what they all confronted Ron breaks down a wall of the prison when an enlighted moment works out the Disney characters have a great deal more meaning than mere entertainment. Astonishingly Ron becomes a transformed parent with some hope. The downside is that the evaluation is circumspect in the conservative diagnosis of the specialist they work with. It signals language understanding but no expression of connected meaning and linkage. The discovery of the language key that unlocks speech and the ability to converse is itself a wonderful moment and well explained in the film by Ron while it is illustrated by the flood of beautiful rolling animation. I will leave you to discover how the journey begins.
Owen is in a world he knows by means other than ours. This awareness is a core issue. Nosce te ipsum, temet nosce (“thine own self know”) appears in The Matrix translated as “know thyself”. Dad and son ignore the strictures of Medical niceties and begin a dialogue henceforth based on the most part by relating everything to Disney movies and more particularly the characters. The reveal for us is how it works. Owen is introduced to us early on at his ‘present’ age of 23. We then meet elder brother Walt who is a grounded individual full of empathy and common sense and a great friend and foil for Owen to relate to literally.
From the beginning of this film we enter the agonising world of evaluation confronting the family. Conceptual thinking is confined to Owen describing bad times as glop. He taught himself to read through the films. Films do not have subtitles so how! Every encounter in his early years is fraught with strangeness and after two phases of schooling one of which rejects him because they do not have the skills to cope and his piers in learning difficulties themselves are leaving Owen behind. Even so this is devastating and these episodes because the belong to the past are where director Roger Ross Williams works with the book illustrations animating them with full frame pictures of Owen as a young boy bewildered and looking over his shoulder. Developmentally though Owen is using his own imaginary tools – films – observing his family and their emotional drivers to produce a world of absolutes. Certainty is found in The Lion King, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Bambi, Aladdin, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast with brilliant accurate reading of each characters roll. Ron and Owen could run masterclasses on Disney movies and this in fact is what – at the age of 23 – Owen does at the learning facility by starting a Disney Club and becoming not only a Disney lecturer but to teach his fellow students how to read the stories or rather bring out of them the meanings they are aware of to recognize their connection with the real world. Pitfalls and all. The journey is not easy and darkly intimidating for the mixed ability classroom.
The Disney Emotional lexicon.
While he has become an expert, acquiring a collection of VHS of hundreds of Disney films and recorders and remote controls manipulated like Darth Vader, rewinding after rewind over parts of films he notes as stimulating. Captain Hook is a favourite, he is in all other ways a normal guy. When it came to reading expressions and mannerisms he finds it hard and likewise it requires a lot of attention to see how Owens behaviour has its nuances. In lots of autostic folk there is a tendency to stoop forward and look at the ground while walking – Owen and his therapist note this and also discuss Awareness while being outside. Of where to cross a road and paying attention. I found watching Owens expressions when he was in a ‘autistic’ moment, one in which he was calculating or trying to work out a thing his right eye would be partially closed while his left eye would be open wider than would be ‘normal’. When Owen was firing on all cylinders and telling a story – a lecture features – his eyes are as would be expected normally. Alert and evenly open.
The simple but precisely how it works as a film, approach by Roger Ross Williams is the brainwave, excusing all those parallel aspects, is to use the very thing which Owen and perhaps other children, teenagers, adults, can utilise – it is seen in the film as having similar effect on other pupils – the Animation in the film of his own construction including a very highly Disney inspired story, from the beginning, narrating the growth and life perils Owen encounters and how it moves on. Itfeatures in the middle of the film and has the makings of something much bigger. Get to it Disney!
Autism is so complex
This I think relates to the cerebral cortex which has the left side of the brain working with communication skills, words, speaking, memory and vocabulary, developing complex thought to communicate (it also controls the opposite hemispheres eyes, facial features – the right eye for example) while the right side of the brain deals with spatial awareness, three dimensions and creative things which are worked on internally before being shifted into models of use – i.e. Writing, drawing, expressing through hands, sculpting, manouevering trough the outside space. The left eye in Owen is showing this I believe. When a thing is seen clearly in space and tangible. He also expresses this with his hands, his left eye opens wider controlled by the right side of the brain. When at the same time the way to vocalise this is problematic he shuts his right eye slightly while processing the thing in question. This obviously is a feature crudely observed but along with other things such as hearing and loud noises other senses are involved. I recall a young mother recently whose daughter suffers along these lines, in a shop when the fire alarm went of the young girl became intensely worried and after a few minutes was clinging to her mother. Once the alarm stopped her mother had to calm her and introduced a diversion for her daughter. She said “We need 6 large eggs, now where shall we find the eggs?” Another, “Which cereal shall we get this week, I don’t know which, would you like to choose one for us?” After twenty minutes or so this ‘work’ was over and the daughter copied her Mum by putting the items on the conveyor at the checkout and joining the queue. It was a clear and very direct example of how autism affects so many children whose learning is different to the rest.
Left handed folk. (Owen is right handed so spoils my argument to follow straight away, but bear with me!)
From a little knowledge of (being a left hander) how left and right basis works, I have been told during the pre-birth period if a trauma happens the developmental process is adjusted while the right side functions that are developing cannot continue for a time, the left side of the infant brain processes these ‘right’ side normality in the left hemisphere until normal service is resumed! It sounds logical enough and I wonder how it occurs and whether it would be amplified in step with the presenting life problems. A death in the family, an emotional trauma for the mother, a change of circumstances health or otherwise, an accident – falling, breaking something? There is bound to be a pivotal point where this is manifested. In recent readings I have become aware of the discoveries in psychology on how malignant aggression may be disposed through a trauma enteringthe world at the point of childbirth, difficulties at the time of birth. There is also discoveries prenatally in Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs) where indications of traumatic ‘histories’ inform life itself and behavioural tendencies. We are only at the edges of discovery presently.
Where to now
As a family the Suskinds are aware of their own life span and of Walt who is a huge part of the film though Cordelia and Ron are in the frontline daily, has his own life prospects to consider alongside his love and caring for Owen however things may move on. In the film we have met his Disney Masterclass mates, even a few ‘stars’ of the films and we see the emotional, juvenile rite of passage which Walt has some dilemmas in drawing out, with one of Owens classmates becoming his girlfriend over three years. Emily is in the same school and plans are progressed for Owen to move out as a matter of course from the family home to a Life assisted living residential home where he will have his own apartment, his own condo and Emily can move along with him to an adjacent condo of her own.
There is a website set up by Ron Suskind called Welcome to Life, Animated. As follows – lifeanimated.net
Our son Owen, like so many with autism, has an ‘affinity’ — in his case, a deep connection to the Disney movies he’s watched countless times to make sense of an often-bewildering world.
When we first shared Owen’s story, we thought he was one in a million. But the wave of responses we received showed us that Owen was really one among millions. We learned about autistic men, women, boys, and girls all over the world with affinities from movies to maps.
While recent trends in documentary making are used, integrating forms of drama and illustration in ‘sequence’ played out as if the ‘action’ is unrehearsed and legitimate observation – here there are several incidents of ‘happenstance’ when Owen is observed as a link looking at the very same ‘pointer/reveal’ in the Disney contenr and it flows on. This is moderately irritating but in fairness to deliver in a short time frame – this is a movie after all – the storytelling has to move swiftly to get to the next important thing. The important thing being to inform us and empathise with the whole situation. The system of healthcare, the specialists at times floundering on the edge of experience- after all Owen is himself a pioneer and brings plenty by his energy and perseverance – to the need to be in a calm place and his parents moving out to Cape Cod and a beach existence which would soothe anyone – from New York work commitments foe Ron who is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. It reveals our own perspectives are lax and the learning is here so well delivered we become advocates or perhaps shall share the knowledge going forward. As a documentary it is of the highest quality given the ‘disclaimer’ I make immediately above and it is also a work which all involved – Disney published the book on which it is based but did not get involved in any editing, selection of the Disney catalogue and their sister company Pixar films. Owen has possibly memorized the entire catalogue and could make it as an advocate for more animation which is a Law onto itself in many respects. It is the diet of so many young folk and expands. I flag up the industrious and talented British creator of an entire series, Mr Moon, Kate Veale whose success for Disney Playtime is huge. Mr Moon, created by Kate Veale, from Anglesey, will debut on the Disney channel this summer. The series is a collaboration between art director Ms Veale and animators in Singapore, London and Canada. She was inspired to create Mr Moon one evening in her back garden but it took 10 years for her to realise her screen dream. The series centres around Mr Moon, who looks after the night time sky with his best friend Silva Star, while Sunny takes care of the daytime. That was in 2000 and it is a cult children’s series now!
Get to it Owen – give us a seminar on the world of Mr Moon and outer space. There is no Dark side of the Moon, matter of fact it’s all dark.
8 December 2016
Wonderful inspiring Documentary insightful vision of Autism on at Queens Film Theatre from this Friday 9 December up to and including Thursday 15 December 2016 and on VOD and general release.