Raindance Film Festival 2021
Shorts Programme: Animation 1
Drawing On Autism
Drawing On Autism explores the ethical issues that arise when a non-autistic filmmaker attempts to represent an autistic documentary participant. Through a cycle of dialogue and reflection, the filmmaker and participant discuss autism tropes, unconscious bias, and the risks and rewards of using animation as a documentary medium.
Hey Alex, it's great to talk with you again, how have you been keeping during these strange times?
I was very lucky to be mostly sheltered from the worst of what last year offered us. The strangest aspect of it for me was that I taught a year group of MA Animation students that I didn’t ever get to meet in person.
Has this time offered you the chance to find some new inspiration or opportunities?
The months stuck at home really helped me get my head down and push through the long and arduous animation process for Drawing on Autism. It’s a 10-minute frame by frame 2D animation, so as you can imagine, that’s a lot of labour.
Congratulations on having your UK Premiere of Drawing on Autism, at Raindance 2021, what does it mean for you to be at the festival?
Raindance is a pretty impressive event, operating on a scale that dwarfs most animation festivals, so it's a real honour to be invited into what feels like the heart of the British film industry.
Can you tell me a little bit about Drawing on Autism, what inspired your latest film?
This film is one of the practice outcomes from my PhD that I'm working on at Queen Mary University of London, part of the Wellcome Trust Autism through Cinema research project. Essentially, the film is about the ethics of representing autism as a non-autistic filmmaker. I'm working on the assumption that it’s not impossible to ethically represent a group you are not a member of, but you start from a position of significant informational and ethical disadvantages. I’m interested in how non-member status can make you blind to the emergence of stereotypes and problematic tropes, and how these issues emerge unconsciously, slipped in behind good intentions. The narrative of this animated documentary is reflexively about the process of collaboration, which was designed to identify and address the aforementioned disadvantages. An autistic participant and I conducted three interviews. The second and third reflecting on how I had interpreted the previous conversations as animation. We talk about the power dynamics between us, the limitations inherit to documentary practice, and how it feels to be represented by someone else.
How different was your approach to Drawing on Autism compared with your previous award-winning animation Music & Clowns?
The idea of conducting secondary interviews, where I record the participant’s thoughts about the development of the film, was a small but intriguing innovation from Music and Clowns, but in Drawing on Autism I really ran with it. However, Music & Clowns is a very personal film made with my parents and my brother on the topic of his Down syndrome. Drawing on Autism, and my PhD in general, reflects my ambition to put my documentary and animation skills to good use in an area I do not have a personal stake in. Obviously, this is a very delicate transition that should be dealt with thoughtfully, but the PhD gave me the space and the support to think through the ethics of my intrusion into a community I'm not a part of. So far, the film seems to have been well received by the autistic viewers I've spoken too.
As well as directing Drawing on Autism, you also serve as DOP and Editor, how do you balance these different creative roles on a film project like this?
Honestly, I had to list myself as DOP due to the mandatory fields in the online application form. I did edit it, but there is not a shred of photography in this film. 90% of the labour was done by me, but when you’re working this way, you don’t really think about the titles until you get to the credits. These online submission forms are clearly designed for live action productions, but what’s an animator to do.
What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced making Drawing on Autism?
I was stuck on how to end the film. The special thanks section of the credits is basically a list of all the people I asked for advice. Eventually the participant and I decided we needed a third interview, turning the reflective discussion into more of a cycle. I quite liked how it created a bit of a temporal paradox, slipping into a discussion about the finished film in the last act.
"I'm certain we’re not fully aware of this as it happened so it's not enough to know you have good intentions."
What would you say has been the most valuable lesson you have taken away from making Drawing on Autism?
Controlling how someone else is represented is an enormous power and if it goes unchecked on a mass scale these media artefacts can contribute to a situation where harmful and misleading stereotypes take root in the popular consciousness. I'm certain we’re not fully aware of this as it happened so it's not enough to know you have good intentions. I think it should be a basic requirement that when members of the public are represented in the media, they should have a say in how their image and words are used.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?
I'm optimistic that other filmmakers may consider using the feedback cycle I develop, or something similar, in their work. They don't need for it to become the topic of their film in the way I've done here, but it's something to seriously consider when working with a marginalised community or vulnerable individuals. I think that most twitter backlashes, despite being terrifying, are a force for good. Marginalised communities have found a way to hold accountable those who used to control the discourse. I’m sure my methods are not fool proof, but thankfully they helped me discover my ignorance and insensitivity early in the film’s development.