Sam the Hedgehog: The animated SA film teaching us about autism

Sam the Hedgehog, conceived by Joburg-based animation studio MAAN Creative and writer Julia Smuts Louw, is a short film that seeks to shed light on the experience of autistic children and their caregivers through the story of a hedgehog raised among sheep.

The idea for Sam — which is a 12-minute short film directed Michael Clark — was born in 2014, when Michael met radio journalist David O’Sullivan, whose elder son Michael is autistic. “Michael was being treated by my wife, who is an occupational therapist. David and I started talking about how we could use the medium of animation to bridge the divide between the autistic community and the rest of us. The idea for Sam was born out of that conversation.”

Sam, the main character in the animated movie is a little prickly but other than that, his sheep parents, Mr and Mrs Mouton, are sure that he’s a perfectly ‘normal’ lamb. “Their journey as a family leads them to the realisation that there’s more than one type of person in the world,” explains Clark. “Sam is a hedgehog, and the world has a place for him, prickles and all.”

Julia, writer of the short, says, “In our research, the one message that cropped up the most among autistic adults looking back on their childhood was that they wished people hadn’t tried to ‘make them normal’,” she explains. “From this insight, the idea emerged of a hedgehog raised in a world of sheep.”

The team have been working closely with Bellavista School and experts at other autism-related organisations to hone the story. “Getting the message right is something we take very seriously,” says Clark. The script, developed with the help of a National Film and Video Foundation grant, was nominated for a WGSA Muse Award in 2016.

“We’ve had great support from both within the autism community and beyond,” according to the director. “We’re particularly grateful to Nickelodeon Africa for offering to air our promo throughout World Autism Awareness Month, and to Bellavista School for helping us drum up grassroots support.”

The film is still in the process of getting developed and the filmmakers are crowdfunding as a way of completing it. “Sam is running a crowd funding campaign during the month of April, which also happens to be World Autism Awareness Month,” states the film’s site.

“The aim of the crowdfunding campaign is to fund the next step of production, which is to build our sets and miniatures,” says art director Johan Scheepers. “Backers can choose from perks including lasercut props from the film, virtual studio tours, or even a ‘cameo role’ in the film, which means we’ll design a background character to look like you or your child.”

Get involved by donating to the crowdfunding campaign, or check out the website for more info.

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