The films made by Roger Ross Williams would at first appear to have little in common. “Life, Animated,” the acclaimed documentary that premiered at Sundance in January and was released by The Orchard over the summer, got into the head of a young man on the autistic spectrum who learned to relate to the world through Disney animated films.
Williams’ 2013 feature “God Loves Uganda” focused on the Christian right in that nation. Along the way, he has made shorts about everything from a young disabled African musician (the Oscar-winning “Music by Prudence”) to a gay luchador (for “The New Yorker Presents”) to the Dutch holiday tradition of Zwarte Piet (“Blackface”).
But Williams sees them as all of a piece.
“They’re actually very connected, because everything I do is about people who feel they’re outside of society, outside of the mainstream,” says the native of Easton, Pa., who now lives in upstate New York. “I felt like I was an outsider growing up in the black church, as a gay man, in a poor community.”
Julie Goldman, a producer on “Life, Animated,” “God Loves Uganda,” and “Blackface,” explains, “Really, what attracts Roger is the human side of the story. He’ll have this breakthrough with subjects where they’ll say, ‘I’ve never talked about this before,’ or ‘I’ve never gotten emotional like this,’ and it’s because he has this extraordinary empathy.”
Williams got his start in TV journalism, working at ABC, NBC, CNN, and Comedy Central. A Sundance Channel gig — covering the film festival — sparked a desire to pursue documentary filmmaking. With $5,000 in the bank, he quit his day job and made “Music by Prudence.” It won him the 2010 Academy Award for documentary short. With the success of his first feature, “God Loves Uganda,” his career was on its way.
At this year’s New York Film Festival, Williams has two projects: “Traveling While Black,” an immersive virtual-reality project about the fraught experiences of African-Americans through the lens of travel, and “Land of the Lost Sidekicks,” a short inspired by “Life, Animated.”
He’s also at work on an untitled documentary about the cycle of incarceration in the black community in his Pennsylvania hometown, as well as a project about upper Manhattan’s storied Apollo Theater. Meanwhile, he’s executive producing a couple of documentary features and beginning to explore narrative filmmaking.
“I’m excited to see what I can do in that area,” he says.