On a flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg last month, I watched two documentaries in a row. Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams) and Dancer (Steven Cantor) tell very different stories, one of a boy with autism, and the other about one of the greatest ballet dancers known to day. Yet they both made me reflect on the idea of success and what it means to overcome limitations – whether physical, emotional or circumstantial.
In theory, Owen Suskind and Sergei Polunin have nothing in common. Owen was born in a middle class intelectual family in the United States. Sergei was born in a town in the south of Ukraine to a family with limited resources. Owen is autistic and at a young age seemed to be lost in a world from which no one could take him back, a world in which he could not speak or express himself. Sergei showed potential from an early age, and his family took this to be his only change out of poverty and small town Ukraine.
In June 2010 at the age of 19, Polunin became the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal, making the whole world admire and talk about him. Owen on the other hand, learned to speak and to express himself through Disney characters, he learned skills, and made friends just like him, and eventually started to live on his own. While the reach of these men’s efforts is so different, watching the films makes you realize that each of them and their achievements are just as extraordinary, because in different ways, they both beat all odds.
Life, Animated got an Oscar nomination and Dancer was nominated at the British Independent Film Awards. Life, Animated is made in the family story register, a touching, emotional film, a heartwarming one. What are the odds that a young boy’s only way to relate to the world, and therefore his only chance is through cartoon characters? What are the odds that his family discovers and learns to ‘speak’ the same language? I don’t know.
Dancer on the other hand has depth and aesthetics, and also a biographical story. And watching Sergei dance is a film in itself. He is handsome and amazing and boyish, and I can relate to his background because I have seen it before: an Eastern European family that has nothing, except one boy with potential, so they sacrifice everything to make sure the boy succeeds.
These stories are not as linear as I might make them sound. Eventually, support and a network cannot shelter Owen from disappointments he finds difficult to process, while Sergei eventually cracks from all the pressure, a young boy that reached very high and didn’t have time to be a kid.
But what’s important and why these films stuck with me is because they me reflect on the expression ‘the sky is the limit’. My generation and the ones that came after, we all have been raised in a culture that talks about success and going far, so far that far is never far enough, and we never take the time to reflect on whether we did great with that we had. How far are we genetically equiped to go? What role does our past and family play in our personal success? And even if the sky is not the limit, and our limits are actually much closer to the ground, what does it mean to fulfill your potential? In your own terms, in your own context, with what you’ve been given – what does it mean to reach for the sky?
And yes, watch this too.