What would you do if someone offered you the use of a movie theater for a couple of days? If you’re Matt Asner, vice president of development for Autism Society of America, you put on a film festival.
AutFest, the first film festival solely dedicated to the portrayal of autism in film and filmmakers on the spectrum, takes place April 22-23 at the AMC 30 in Orange.
“I’ve always thought it would be a good idea to highlight films that celebrate autism in creative and sensitive ways,” says Asner. And being a veteran film and television producer, Asner knew he would need some big names to make the festival fly. He reached out to Oscar-winning actor, director and filmmaker Ben Affleck – who portrayed a math savant on the autism spectrum in the 2016 crime drama “The Accountant” – and Pixar Animation Studios filmmakers Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, the team behind the 2016 Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature, “Inside Out.”
Affleck, Docter and Jonas are all being honored at the festival’s closing ceremony VIP reception at 8 p.m. April 23 at Café Tu Tu Tango adjacent to the theater. Awards will also be given out for Best Film, Best Director, Best Performance and Best Autistic Filmmaker. Affleck will do a Q&A after a 5 p.m. April 23 screening of “The Accountant,” which is R rated.
A festival highlight for families will be the sensory-friendly screening of “Inside Out” at 12:30 p.m. April 23, followed by a Q&A with Docter and Jonas. AMC, which donated use of the theater for the festival, has partnered with the Autism Society for nine years on sensory-friendly screenings, which feature lowered sound and increased lighting.
AutFest will include screenings of four other feature-length films, plus a panel of short films – many by filmmakers or featuring editors who have autism. The films come from around the world, and there are an equal number of fictional and documentary productions. “These are films that I think really highlight what’s going on now in cinema in terms of autism,” Asner says.
The final film of the program, the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary “Life, Animated,” will be followed by a sibling panel. The film tells the story of Owen Suskind, who has autism and learned to communicate with the outside world through his love of Disney films – and with tremendous support for his family. Asner, the father of three children on the autism spectrum and three neurotypical kids, wanted to give siblings a voice at the event.
Asner is happy to honor neurotypical actors such as Affleck who portray characters with autism and “get it right.” He also wants to spotlight representation of people with autism in film. “It’s a part of everyone’s life,” he says. “It’s a normal part of our lives, and I’ll bet everyone knows someone with autism. Like any group of people, they should be represented in film.”
Festivalgoers should bring their curiosity. “I want people curious about film, and I want people curious about autism,” Asner says, adding the featured screenings should satisfy both. “They’re not just about autism, they’re good films.”
Tickets to individual screenings are $10-$15, while a Festival Pass to all the films is $85. Tickets for the full festival plus the VIP Reception are $200. Proceeds benefit the Autism Society, and you can learn more at www.autfestasa.com.