Between Art and Business

in 37th Annecy International Animated Film Festival

by Marcin Gizycki

The International Animated Film Festival in Annecy, France, is the oldest and the most prestigious of all animation competitions in the world. The last time I had a pleasure to participate was in 1985. I cannot even recall how and why I got there. Was I supposed to write a review for a newspaper or magazine? If this was the case, I have no records. Poland was still in disarray after a three-year-long period of martial law which ended in 1983, and perestroika had just started in the USSR. In Annecy, the beautiful Casino by the lake had just been torn down and replaced by the modern glass structure of the Bonlieau Cultural Center with a shopping mall attached to it. For me, coming from a city which had been destroyed to 90 per cent during the Second World War, the demolition of a building that was at least fifty years old seemed like a crime. Those who remembered the old Casino, as I did, knew that from now on it would be a different festival: bigger, louder, and much more business oriented.

What has change since 1985? First, the Bonlieau has been closed for renovation. It has aged terribly: it looks cheap and does not fit into the landscape, but then it never did. It should be replaced before it becomes fifty years old. The festival has moved again, temporarily we were told, to an enormous aluminum cuboid outside the old town. There are crowds everywhere. Not all of these people seem to be moviegoers, though. MIFA (the market) is apparently devouring the festival. The intimacy had gone already in 1985, but now art is almost entirely dominated by the business thrill. Pneumatic characters from feature films can be seen everywhere in the city, but very few people know about the meeting with one of the greatest living animators, Rauol Servais, at the Chateau. (I know, the festival directors would say it was not a part of the official program, so what?). The number of sponsored parties and cocktails has increased immensely. This year one could not even get in to some of them with a FIPRESCI juror’s badge. Not a big deal, there was always another party or cocktail going on somewhere else. Not that I really look for parties. The films are what really counts.

There is no doubt that the main competition of short films this year was very strong. Art has prevailed, at least in this category. The main prize (Crystal) of the festival went to Subconscious Password (Canada, 2013) by Chris Landrecht. We gave the FIPRESCI award to Gloria Victoria (also Canada, 2013) by Theodore Ushev. It could have been the other way round. Both films come from the same studio (NFB), but represent two very different approaches to animation. Landrecht digitally transposes live action (with himself as the main character) into a hilariously funny, but at the same time very scary, self-mocking comedy about personal fixations; the same obsessions about losing memory and going mad that made his Oscar-winning Ryan (2004) so great. Ushev puts in motion a phantasmagoric stream of abstract or almost abstract images set to Shostakovich’s “Seventh Symphony” in order to depict the chaos and senselessness of war. Flat, silhouette shapes, in which one can recognize references to constructivist paintings and Picasso’s Guernica, among others, flow in a 3D space which becomes truly haunting, if perceived through stereoscopic spectacles. Both films make clever use of new technologies, proving that there is still a lot of room for personal explorations in the digital world.

It would be fruitless to look for a common ground for the films in the short film competition. Their strength laid in their diversity. There were few psychological dramas Darling (Liebling) by Izabella Plucinska, Germany/Poland, 2013; Railway Watchman by Piotr Szczepanowicz, Poland, 2012) and existential reflections on human condition (Feral by Daniel Sousa, USA, 2012, FIPRESCI’s special mention), funny cartoons (Drunker than a Skunk by Bill Plympton, USA, 2013) and anti-corporate horrors (Lonely Bones by Rosto, Holland, 2013), surrealist phantasmagorias (Double Fikret by Hayiang Wang, China, 2012) and so called animated documentaries (Mademoiselle Kiki and the Montparnasse (Mademoiselle Kiki et les Montparnasse) by Amélie Harrault, France, 2012). One film did not fit anywhere: partially a musical, partially a historical tale, half-puppet, half-drawn Betty’s Blues by Rémi Vandenitte (Belgium/France, 2013) is truly horrifying story of a blues musician and the Ku-Klux-Klan. Good stuff — but let’s face it: art house animated shorts are an endangered species. They live in refuges like festivals and obscure cine-clubs at college campuses. Consider this: How many people in the world have heard about Jerzy Kucia, the recipient of the lifetime achievement award at this year’s Annecy festival, compared with, for example, Hayao Miyazaki? And this brings us to a serious question about the condition of feature animated film today.

It is apparently blooming, but that does not mean that there is nothing to complain about it. There were nine feature films in the competition and over twenty more shown outside the competition. Almost all of these films were made according to the old Disney’s formula: they were didactic, used violence sporadically, talked about tolerance, friendship and other important issues. And, with a very few exceptions, they were just awful. What makes them such is their graphic style. A perfect example of this kind of a movie is the Crystal Award winner Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury by Luiz Bolognesi (Una História of Amor and Fúria, Brazil, 2013). It is an epic about the Native American people that mixes history with mythology and science fiction. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Its graphic style, though, derives from the worst tradition of action comic strips. And here is the problem: Why even well-intended animated features spoil young people’s tastes with the cheapest possible art work? There is a certain kind of hypocrisy in the way the industry approaches its audience: “We entertain and educate, but we are not going to give up what really sells: the bad graphics!” As a result of this policy generations after generations of young consumers of popular culture grow up believing that art equals Disney and Anime.

There was, though, at least one film that addressed an intelligent and demanding movie lover: Jasmine by Alain Ughetto (France, 2013) — a moving story of an impossible love affair between the filmmaker and an Iranian woman. It is narrated in the first person and uses authentic letters of the protagonists. What really counts, though, is the visual side of the tale. Clay figurines placed in an abstract and yet concrete space complement the story rather than illustrate it. The visual narration of the film is truly innovative and, together with the personal tone of the script, makes a great film. It is the biggest mystery of the Annecy 2013 festival that it did not get any award or even an honorary mention. Or maybe it is rather logical that it didn’t.

Edited by Birgit Beumers