Anna Czarska on the world of Mildly Different

Released earlier this year, Mildly Different is a short film made by, starring, and about autistic individuals. Written and directed by Anna Czarska and starring IFTA nominated Irish actress Jordanne Jones (Metal Heart, You Are Not My Mother) alongside Ruby Connolly and Lára McIvor, the film follows a young woman on the autism spectrum from childhood to adulthood, immersing the audience in her inner world. Christina struggles to feel accepted, hindering her ability to progress forward, until the kindness of one person changes her life and restores her confidence. After a run on the festival circuit, the film is now accessible to wider audiences, available to view on demand online.

Developed by Sticky Tape Productions, featuring an original score by Natasa Paulberg and music from Irish chart-topping singer-songwriter, Orla Gartland to accompany its performances, Mildly Different is heartening viewing. Understanding, immersive and illustrative, it provides a look into the experiences of neurodivergent people, and the challenges that come with the search for the right diagnosis. As the younger and older versions of Christina, Ruby Connolly and Jordanne Jones show themselves as exciting and engaging young talents. The film had its Irish premiere in 2021 at the Stella Cinema, as well as a North American premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival. During its festival run, the film won the “Audience Choice for Best Short Film” award at the Louth International Film Festival, as well as the “Best Emerging Director” award at the IndieCork Film Festival. The script for Mildly Different has also won Best Short Screenplay for the Changing Face International Film Festival.

Anna Czarska has been involved with the film industry on and off throughout their life and is the managing director of Sticky Tape Productions. They have a background in business and produces, directs, writes, and manages projects that exemplify their interest in unconventional cinema, often regarding topics involving mental health or societal matters that require greater public awareness. Film In Dublin spoke with them about their short, its personal connections, the work that went into bringing the film together and more.

What first motivated you to start on Mildly Different? 

It’s a personal story, I would say, because I was late diagnosed autistic. I was misdiagnosed as a child with a variety of different things. That’s sort of the typical story that I hear from a lot of people who present with atypical symptoms of autism. Essentially people who are male and have the traditional expression seem to get diagnosed very quickly, and then people who have the atypical representation usually found in people born female are often missed and misdiagnosed.  

We spend most of our lives knowing we’re different, not knowing why or how. When I finally found out that that I was autistic, it made a lot of sense, but it also gave me a whirlwind of different feelings, I was rather angry; all the times that I had gone to see a therapist even as a child, nobody had assessed me for autism. Nobody had even thought to do that. If I had known, things would have been easier for me in school, they would have been easier for me with my peers, my relationships, the diagnosis gave me the language to express my differences. 

This film essentially was to give people that are like me a voice. Many of my friends when they saw the concept and the trailer and started reading into it, they got assessed and found that they’re autistic too. I wanted to show a different side of autism, because what most people think when they think of autism is still Rain Man. I’m sure that there are a lot of people who maybe do identify with that, but I know that there are so many of us that don’t at all. I wanted something that would give authentic representation for us, something people can show their friends and family and develop more of an understanding of what it’s like.  

The film definitely comes across as drawing from personal experience. The things Christina goes through, are they very reflective of your own experiences?  

Absolutely. It was a bit of a journey, I had always gotten on very well with people who are neurodivergent and years ago I had looked into the possibility of being autistic, but I read about and thought, no this is definitely not me, because it was all the old, traditional research. As the years went on I kept thinking about it, I found communication was so much better with people that were neurodivergent. When somebody really special to me told me I really think you’re autistic, I thought no I’ve been down that path, I’ve done the research but at this point, there was a lot of new research, there were some really amazing things that have been put out that made me realise that I am actually autistic.

I wanted Christina to have that moment – this is a project that she was doing about something that she never even considered, and these words, phrases and research really resonated with her. When I was reading those things, I remember going wow, it’s like somebody just wrote about me, you know? A lot of the situations in the film actually happened to me, slightly tweaked. Other situations which we wanted to show were put in from common stories that I heard from the wider autistic community. 

The short is striking from an audio-visual standpoint, in how it depicts elements of Christina’s autism – her synaesthesia, her inner monologue – as writer and director, how do you decide on how to use the filmmaking to show different elements of her autism? 

I really wanted this to feel like you’re in her world and experiencing what she’s experiencing. Though a lot of autistic people don’t have synaesthesia, I don’t, but I did my research and made sure I got it right! People who do have synaesthesia are often neurodivergent and I thought that was really interesting, and it was a really good way to visually show what it feels like for us. So even if I’m not actually seeing colours and lights and things moving, it can feel that way to me. When the lights are really bright, it’s like they make a sound to me, when there’s a lot of stuff going on, it feels like the world is moving. When I’m listening to music, I sense it everywhere. For a lot of people, even though they’re not seeing things as visually as we see it in the film, it is something that we’re feeling and that we’re experiencing anyway.  

In Mildly Different when you see the party scene with the children, it does feel that way. You’ll notice the whole room is blurred, there’s one girl that you can focus on when she’s speaking. That’s what it feels like when you’re overwhelmed and very stressed, all of your sensitivities and everything sort of flare up. And that’s when stuff feels very blurry and you can’t quite focus on any of it. I wanted to represent it that way, despite the fact that I don’t have synaesthesia, it is correlated with neurodivergent people and it is a great way to represent what we’re experiencing in those situations.  

How did you go about casting the leads for this film, and how did you work with them to draw these performances out? 


We did a wide casting, we included the UK and wherever we could because we wanted to get the right actress for the role. For the adult Christina, I was surprised at how many amazing autistic actresses applied. These people were all so incredibly talented and it was difficult to pick. You go with your gut though and with Jordanne Jones, there was something subtle about her, and I liked the fact that she was also an activist for autism. She was very outspoken about wanting to do right by the community, and she’s a very talented actress. We had rehearsals, we had little tweaks to work out, but she embodied the character so well because she understood her so well. I loved her passion for the project and her little ways of expressing things. She would ask questions about the script, for example would I do hand movements here, because that’s something that Jordanne does in real life herself. I said absolutely, that’s part of the character. She really understood Christina and the character resonated with her personally, so it was a good match. 

Then for the younger Christina we had Ruby Connolly. Ruby is not autistic, I didn’t want to hire an autistic child for this role because I was a little bit worried of any stress that we might put upon them, it was a little bit different than asking an adult to come into the role. Obviously if somebody had applied that would be fine, but I wasn’t narrowing it down the way that I was with the adult role. But Ruby, I have to tell you, she has won my heart. I’m an advocate for Ruby!  She was so mature and again, just subtle.  

A lot of the girls we auditioned ended up in the film at the end or at the birthday party, they were just so good. But when I watched Ruby’s audition I was just always watching what she was gonna do. You feel that performance, it was so raw and real, she was ten years old when she did the part, but I’m telling you, the girl is a pro! There’s an emotional scene where she was crying at the birthday party, which was the most difficult scene for her. We were running a little late on time and originally I had told her that she’d have a fair bit of time to prepare. Now of course, I was gonna make that happen if it needed to. But I said we have one minute, let’s just try it – she did whatever she needed to do and we got it like that. I couldn’t believe that she could pull that emotion at the drop of a hat and be that. She was always good at asking questions, she was just such a pro, it was amazing to see somebody so naturally talented and able to portray this character. Christina isn’t your average child, to have somebody so young embody that kind of spirit so easily, I was really blown away. 

It’s a great performance, absolutely. And Lára McIvor as well, she has a pivotal presence in the film, was the search in casting wide for her character also? 

Very wide for Jo. Because this character is nonbinary and also because we wanted to have that immediate connection between Jo and Christina. You see how they’re so understanding of each other and there’s no weirdness between them, they just get each other. For Jo, again I cast a very wide net in terms of the types of people that we were seeing, but I wanted somebody that was going to be able to be non-binary and be as androgynous as we could get them. Lára had that spirit, she was able to bring that character out. You could see it in the way that she and Jordanne interact together, it’s quite natural and I really loved that about her. She’s a very talented and underrated, underused actress, I’d love to see her go further. 

Over the credits we see the film’s storyboard. How did storyboarding help in putting together this film? 

We needed really good storyboarding because this film was primarily crowdfunded. We did also get an 8K grant as the film was supported by the Arts Council Ireland, New Work Award, in their Disability Connect Scheme, managed by Arts and Disabilities Ireland, but we were mostly funded by contributions from the community, and in order for us to show people what this was going to be about, we needed to have proper storyboarding.  

Matt Kavanagh who did our storyboards is amazing. He understands camera angles and understands what would look good in a shot, he’s helping shape everything and we did that together. I would send him these ridiculous little sketches that looked like stick figures and give him notes. I’m terrible at drawing, but he really brought it to life! That helped us so much to show the audience and funding contributors what we were looking to do, it helped us tremendously. Honestly, without that I don’t think we would have gotten the funding, so I’m very grateful to Matt for doing such a wonderful job. I’d say to anybody who’s trying to crowdfunding – get a good storyboard. Go to Matt! He’s wonderful.  

How has it been so far sharing the film, particularly with people from the community and the people who helped to crowdfund it? 

It’s been a really good reception! When we first had our premiere at the Stella, I didn’t know how people are going to react, especially as there were so many from the autistic community in the audience. I was very nervous and just had my fingers crossed but I remember at the end, people came out saying how they cried and they were still reeling. I couldn’t believe that people, even people that weren’t autistic, could understand it so well, that meant so much to me. 

On a wider scale and we’ve had so many people comment or send messages, I think there were a lot of them that were very sceptical of the film at first because of the misrepresentation that is happening for autistic characters.  

I should mention, for people that don’t understand autism, sometimes they miss little things in the film because there’s so many subtleties and some things happen where they don’t get what they’re seeing, they don’t get the ‘why’ of some things. But if you’re autistic, if you’re learning about autism or if you know people who are autistic, this is going to appeal to you. This is something that’s going to resonate. 

Part of why that’s valuable is because as you say there are these films that are misrepresentative, there is almost a sub-genre of films that tell stories about neurodivergent people, but not for that audience. They’re for wider audiences in a way that has varying levels of success and very varying degrees of accuracy. 

Yes, there was a chance of funding Mildly Different earlier than I had done. A company had said that they were very interested in the film, but they wanted to cut out this, this, this, this, this and this from script. I said OK, you’ve essentially cut out all of the autistic parts and they were like well, this will make it “more punchy”. I told them it’s not meant to be punchy, it’s meant to be authentic, and it’s meant to give a voice to these people and if you can’t understand that, then you’re just not the right company for us. I wasn’t changing the script. What these people are looking for, that punchy thing, it’s a completely different thing to when you’re trying to give an authentic voice to a group of people. 


On the public funding side and grants – how significant is that in allowing people from underrepresented communities to tell their own stories?  

I think Ireland is very lucky to have some public funding because, for instance, in the US you won’t get any of that. So that is something that I am very grateful for. The funding that we got was through the Disability Connect scheme, it was particularly tailored to people with disabilities, and that was wonderful. It was a really a great experience, they held my hand a little and helped me through that, they’re very supportive and will tell you exactly what’s needed for the application, which was wonderful.   

What can be incredibly difficult in the non-disability schemes, it’s so competitive, but also they won’t tell you what they want. They give you very simple descriptions but don’t tell you really what they mean. There are quite of lot of us in this industry who are neurodivergent, and there’s a dire need for assisting in applications, it can be impossible for me and people like me. What we really need is also somebody that is willing to help us to get these applications, to provide support.  

Do you have a perspective also on ways that film sets can be more accessible and accommodating for neurodivergent people? 

I think the biggest thing is to actually have the conversation. I think people are so scared of asking because they’re worried that somebody is going to need accommodations that they can’t afford or can’t manage. They’re worried that somebody that isn’t neurotypical might become a “problem” for the production, so everything’s kind of quiet and they won’t put out there that they’re open to neurodivergent people. If people actually understood that the majority of people who are neurodivergent, whether that’s ADHD, OCD, autism, bipolar, there’s a wide spectrum – usually we know ourselves. We know ourselves well enough to know what jobs we can and can’t do, we’re not going to go into something that we don’t feel we can handle. Usually, it’s just one little accommodation that we need, like I know somebody that just needs a quiet workspace, they put their headphones on and that’s how they work.  

For myself, I just need very clear, direct communication, so things that maybe would be assumed, don’t expect me to assume. Tell me straight out, communicate clearly, as long as I have that I’m fine, I can deal with all the different plates and the stresses that come with being a producer and a director.  

If people in charge opened up in the beginning that would be helpful. I ask people’s pronouns on set, I would normally like to ask people, if you have any accommodation needs, please let us know right away and we’ll do our absolute best. When you’re open to everybody, they don’t feel like they’re a problem, you show people that you want to make them feel comfortable and welcome and accepted.  

There are a lot of courses available on neurodiversity. There’s one on right now run by Eleanor McSherry, Screen Ireland do one, Women in Film and Television too. If people were able to go to these courses, they would actually better understand what neurodiversity is and would feel more open to starting that conversation, and that’s really what needs to happen, in my opinion. 

Finally for somebody watching Mildly Different who hasn’t received a diagnosis or is awaiting a diagnosis, and finds aspects of the film resonant, what advice would you have for them? 

I would say do some research, especially on atypical presentation of autism, you don’t have to be a women but that is usually what’s found in women. There’s a lot of good articles by Tanya Marshall, Tony Atwood, there’s lots of them on the Internet.  

I’d also suggest looking into the autistic community. There’s a great one on Twitter where I follow the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag, there’s people like Neurodivergent Rebel, there’s lots of people that you can find online and get a better sense of whether you belong, because so many people in these groups quite similar and have similar stories and experiences.  

If those communities feel ‘correct’ and it seems like it might be a fit, then I would go and get a private assessment. The HSE which I tried to go through took 2 and a half years of telling me that there’s no services and they’re waiting on services, it kept going and rolling on. Finally I got a private assessment, now it is quite expensive, but you can find people that sometimes might do a sliding scale fee. I would say to go through that process for yourself, because even though I knew at the time I was autistic, having the validation, the actual paper that says you’re autistic, I was in tears, because nobody wanted to believe me until I had the paper, you know? So I think just having that experience would be really important. 

The short is now available to view On Demand from Vimeo.

Mildly Different was made by combining the generous contributions from the community via crowdfunding and support by the Arts Council’s Arts and Disability Connect Scheme managed by Arts & Disability Ireland.

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