Spirit of Woodstock and “Life, Animated”

life-animated-HZTFor the next two Saturday nights, movie lovers can experience the power of life affirming films and the filmmakers who create them. The Woodstock Film Festival is hosting two events to celebrate its focus on exceptional filmmaking.

Each year, the WFF hosts an annual Spirit of Woodstock Celebration to gather together friends and patrons in support of their year-round schedule of film, music and arts activities. This year’s honorees — Ron Nyswaner and Philippe Petit, two luminaries with homes in Ulster County — will be feted on Saturday, June 4. Nyswaner’s documentary, She’s the Best Thing In It, won the audience award at last year’s WFF: he is a renowned screenwriter (Philadelphia, The Painted Veil, Soldier’s Girl), author (Blue Days, Black Nights: A Memoir of Desire), director, producer and activist.

Petit gained fame for his 1974 illegal high wire walk between the World Trade Towers in New York City, and was featured in the Academy Award winning film, Man on Wire. He is also a magician, street juggler, barn builder and the author of 10 books, including Creativity: The Perfect Crime. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served at a private residence overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir. (see below for details.)


One week later, there will be a special screening of the new documentary film, Life, Animated, on Saturday, June 11 at Upstate Films in Woodstock, followed by a Q&A with the Academy Award winning director, Roger Ross Williams.

The film chronicles one family’s journey to re-connect with their son, Owen, a healthy, happy young boy who inexplicably went silent at the age of three. Owen’s father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, wrote a book, Life Animated: a story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, about how Owen and his family were eventually able to re-connect via the boy’s love for and knowledge of Disney animated films. Disney characters such as Simba, Jafar and Ariel paved the way for the family to once again communicate with each other, and allowed Owen to convey his feelings and needs and begin to create a life for himself as a young adult living in his own apartment.

Suskind and Williams first worked together 15 years ago when Suskind was a correspondent and Williams one of the producers at Nightline with Ted Koppel. When Suskind started writing the book upon which Life, Animated is based, Williams says he was “blown away by it, and thought it would make a great documentary film. The book was written very much from the point of view of Ron and his wife, Cornelia, so for me, the film picks up where the book leaves off. The film is centered on a very transformative year of Owen’s life,” says Williams. “People with disabilities like autism are often depicted from the perspective of the outside looking in, but this film is from the inside looking out. It takes you deeper and deeper into Owen’s head, and brings you inside his world for a different perspective.”

The film premiered at Sundance last year, where Williams won the Director’s Award. Williams and his film have been on the festival circuit since then, and he received Audience Awards in San Francisco and at Full Frame in North Carolina. Life, Animated premiers in New York and Los Angeles theaters on July 1, with subsequent screenings scheduled nationwide.

“I hope as many people as possible will get to see it, and that it will help them to see living with autism in a different way,” says Williams. “People with autism have a lot to offer if we stop and listen. Because of their affinities and their focus — and Owen’s is on Disney — they in a sense become experts, and use that laser focus to understand things in the world.”

Williams says the film expanded his vocabulary as a filmmaker because there were several different layers to Owen’s experiences, but also because the telling of the story relies heavily upon the use of animation. “The amazing thing about Owen and his story is that he grew up on a diet of myth and fable. The Disney re-telling of classic fables is very Joseph Campbell. Owen is on a hero’s journey, and like Campbell, is an expert on fables and the human experience. During Owen’s journey as a human being and the telling of what he accomplished, he becomes very wise.”

At the New York premier, Disney soundtrack composer Alan Menken conveyed his excitement and support for the film, and told Williams he sees much more depth in the Disney stories as a result.

Williams is the first African-American director to win an Academy Award: his first film, Music by Prudence, won the 2010 nod for documentary short subject, and his second, God Loves Uganda, won more than a dozen awards before being shortlisted for a 2014 Academy Award. Last November, Blackface, his short film on the Dutch tradition of Black Pete and Sinterklaas, sparked a national debate on the Netherlands’ legacy of slavery. “The Dutch love Sinterklaas, but they don’t know their history. They made a fortune selling slaves, and the film was confronting,” says Williams. “I got death threats and received emails saying ‘you stupid black monkey, why don’t you go back to Africa?’ It was really controversial.”

An acclaimed television journalist and producer for over 15 years prior to making the switch to independent filmmaking, Williams is taking his particular view from behind the camera to another level: mentoring.

Using and channeling adversity into art is something he had to “learn the hard way. When you grow up in a disadvantaged community, you’re not always given the tools you need, and that’s why I try to serve as a role model. People think their story is one that no one wants to hear, and as an artist, you have to learn to take that pain and use it in your work. It’s very powerful, and you have to be honest,” says Williams. Thematically, his films have often focused on populations who have been left behind, and he has become a champion of the outsider. “As a Black gay man, that’s been my power. I use that feeling of alienation in my work. Don’t shy away from who you are.”

The son of a single mother, Williams’ mom worked as a maid for Lafayette College in eastern Pennsylvania. She attended the ceremony when the college gave her son an honorary doctorate degree, and he told listeners that his mother used to take him along with her when she cleaned the toilets at the frat houses. “When I took her to the Oscars, she was in heaven. It was the first time she had ever flown on an airplane,” he says, recalling his win for Music by Prudence. His next film for CNN Films and The Why? Foundation, takes a very personal look at the prison industrial complex. Some of his friends from high school are in the system, and he’ll be filming in his hometown of Easton.

Just before Williams bought his home in Roxbury in 1999, the 50-acre property once owned by a Mississippi Riverboat Captain was the setting for the feature film You Can Count on Me starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Today, Williams’ husband runs a successful destination wedding business at The Roxbury Barn, and the couple divides their time between Delaware County and the Netherlands.

Williams’ appearance here in Woodstock will no doubt add fuel to a mounting Oscar buzz for Life, Animated.


TWO EVENTS: 2016 Spirit of Woodstock Celebration Honoring Ron Nyswaner & Philippe Petit, Saturday, June 4, 5-8 pm, $100-$5,000 per person, private residence. For tickets, or for more information, see https://ulsterpub.staging.wpenginefilmfestival.com.

Life, Animated, screening, 2 p.m. Saturday, June 11, at Upstate Films, 132 Tinker Street, Woodstock. Tickets are $13, $14 and $15 per person; call 679-4265 for tickets or see https://ulsterpub.staging.wpenginefilmfestival.com.