Multi-hyphenate Ben Affleck and Pixar filmmakers Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera were honored Sunday at the first AutFest International Film Festival at the AMC 30 Theaters in Orange, Calif., presented by the Autism Society.
AutFest’s focus is on celebrating autistic audiences, filmmakers and movies that promote autism awareness.
“The festival was born out of a partnership with AMC that started nine years ago,” explained the Autism Society’s Matt Asner. “Scott Landis, who’s with AMC, has a son on the spectrum and he he wanted his son to experience movies like any kids can have, so he created this wonderful sensory screening program and partnered with the Autism Society. I wanted to see how we could expand that partnership, and when the idea for a film festival came up, I kind of pushed everyone off the cliff, and here we are.”
Asner hopes the festival can help everyone have a better understanding of autism through these films.
“What we wanted to do with this festival is to help people understand that autism is an individual thing. It’s something different for everyone,” Asner said. “We want to show people a window into other worlds of autism so we can all come out with a better understanding of what we’re up against and what we’re involved in.”
Docter and Rivera were honored for their 2015 Oscar-winning film “Inside Out,” which has helped those with autism better communicate their feelings. “Inside Out” was shown at the festival in a sensory-friendly screening in which the lights aren’t as low and sound not as loud as in a normal screening.
The “Inside Out” filmmakers said they didn’t realize that the movie would have such an impact. “What we started with was just having fun creating characters that were emotions,” explained Docter. “It wasn’t until a couple of years later that we realized that there was something deeper and meatier that we could talk about with the film.”
“When the movie came out, we did hear from parents who have kids with autism that there was something about it that was visceral and tactile that explained things. We dramatized emotions and personified them,” said Rivera. “One mother who had a son who was six or seven with autism wrote to us and said it was the first movie they saw that they felt they saw together as a family. And that really meant a lot to us.”
Veteran actor and autism advocate Ed Asner presented Rivera and Docter with the AutFest Vanguard Award at the conclusion of a Q&A following a screening of “Inside Out.” Asner starred as curmudgeonly Carl Fredricksen in Docter and Rivera’s 2009 animated film “Up.”
“Your identification with this particular film and this particular handicap, I’ll call it, is truly a marvel and a great contribution to society and the future of our children. We can’t thank you enough,” said Asner as he presented star-shaped awards to Rivera and Docter.
Asner later presented Affleck with the first-ever AutFest Awareness Award, calling Affleck “a wonderful, giving human being. Not just an artist, and a damn good one, but a wonderful human being.”
Affleck said he talked to many people on varying points of the autism spectrum as he prepared for his role as a CPA with high-functioning autism moonlighting as a hitman in the 2016 film “The Accountant,” and wanted to honor them with his performance.
“I tried, from the truth that they were willing to share with me, to cull enough material to make the character believable, particularly in the eyes of the people who have this disorder,” Affleck explained. “I really felt an obligation and responsibility to get it right.”
He described the central character in “The Accountant” as “essentially an autistic superhero. I just wanted to honor the folks that helped me do the research for this movie and to let the folks who are dealing with this that, even if you have autism, you can do just about anything,” he said. “I wanted people to come away with the feeling that autistic people can do all sorts of exciting and special things.”