Bizarre and Depoliticized

in 38th International Animated Film Festival, Annecy

by Midhat Ajanovic

There can be little doubt that the animation critic largely contributed to its recognition as a beautiful art form. Ever since the beginning of film history, the notion of ‘film animation’ gave rise to much controversy. Animation has often been underestimated and wrongly interpreted which resulted in a lack of understanding and reluctance to accept animated film as a form equal to others used within the medium of moving pictures. With the exception of Walt Disney’s work, there was little serious writing on animated film before the 1960s. The animators themselves came in 1959 with the initiative to build up an international association, ASIFA. The main intention of the association was to put an end to the long lasting marginalisation of cinema animation. In order to promote the art of animation ASIFA encouraged several international film festivals to specialise in animated films and also to focus on animation as art, rather than animation as “entertainment” or sales device. The first one was Annecy, established already in 1960 after which Zagreb, Ottawa, Hiroshima, Espigno, Stuttgart and others followed — even Mamaia, Varna and so on. It’s worth mentioning that the animation festivals were founded upon the ideas of solidarity and cooperation between people from all over the world. During the Cold War, the festivals of animated films were one of the very few places where artists and intellectuals from both sides of the Iron Curtain could meet and hang out, as friends.

In accordance with the festivals the earliest research in the field of animation history and aesthetics were arranged. The first serious writing on animation appeared as one part of various retrospectives screened during the 1960s and 1970s, and the first animation books outside of Disney Studios and the American mainstream industry were published in connection to the festivals. The festivals promoted the first attempts in the field of animation theory and history, developed by the artists themselves. One of them was John Halas, a prominent British animator, who contributed an invaluable service to the field of thinking on animation through his brilliant theoretical writing. Finally, during that period, some people not connected with the practical work but educated as art historians, critics and journalists, who wanted to write about cinema animation, turned up for the first time. To mention some of them; Ralf Stevenson (USA), Ranko Munitic (Croatia/Yugoslavia), Bruno Edera (Schweitz), Gianni Rondolino (Italy) and others slowly but surely established animation studies as an independent discipline.

Animation won further recognition during the 1980s and 1990s when it became a very significant feature of moving pictures more generally. The first magazines specializing in animation theory and history appeared and the first profound volume of animation history, Giannalberto Bendazzi’s One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, (1994) was published. During this period several film scholars specializing in animation gained international recognition. University film schools and art colleges helped to create today’s large and productive generation of animation scholars, and to encourage the major museum retrospective exhibitions of films, related drawings, paintings and sculpture by the great animators and animation traditions (or so called “schools”) followed by learned papers written by more and more competent animation specialists.

This year in Annecy I had the pleasure to work with two highly competent colleagues, Bujor Ion Ripeanu (Romania) and Claus Löser (Germany) on the FIPRESCI film critic’s jury. Since I’ve served on the same jury many years ago, as a young animation scholar in 1989 and 1991, it is easy for me to draw a comparison and conclude that the prize has been more respected in the past. Perhaps the animation critic has ceased to play a role in festivals today where animation is not only widely recognised as an important art form but also as the means of communication that — thanks to new distribution media and production technologies — shapes everyday life at an unprecedented rate.

Speaking of the films we saw, my impression of the short film program was quite disappointing. The global animation production, as presented in Annecy, appears as something that exists only in the richest parts of the planet. I believe though that it lies more in the selection than lack of animated film produced outside of the West. Many interesting films from, for instance, Africa, China, Iran, India or Israel were conspicuously absent.

The fact that in this year’s Annecy only a few films made outside the Western world were screened bears witness to the increasingly large gap emerging between developed countries and the less developed, so-called “Third World”, in this globalized time.

On a thematic level, the short film program was almost completely depoliticized. For a world characterized by all sorts of injustice and neo-colonialism, ruthless pollution, war and genocide, xenophobia and homophobia, violence and terrorism, the festival screened a lot of esoteric, self-centered and vain “image experiments”, pee and poo “comedies” and other films that are characterized by complete indifference and with no regard for the real problems of our time. Many essential elements such as visual flow and continuity, a coherent relationship between sound and vision and articulate storytelling emerged only occasionally. It comes as a logical consequence of the fact that the professional screenwriter is more or less non-existent in the field of recent short animated film production. Not only good stories — even funny films and humour in general were exceptional rarities in the short film programme. The main compliment one overheard about a film in competition was: “It’s so bizarre.” I find it bizarre in its own right.

That’s why I personally deem the Feature Film Competition as far more interesting than the short film program. Feature films are increasing in number, they are produced in varying techniques and approaches and one can notice a more intense international cooperation in terms of production. And they usually tell important stories in an articulate manner. Even if there were no true masterpieces like the last year’s fascinating Jasmine (Alain Ugheto, France), one could still see several works that come close. I would put emphasis on the Brazilian film A Boy and the World (Brazil) by Alé Abreu, which is highly recommended for its rich visual style, and modern editing and storytelling based on contemporary video game culture.

But still there were several films that seemed like credible artistic impressions of our time that survived in the short film program. One such film was No Fish Where to Go (Canada) by Nicola Lemay and Janice Nadeau. The film critically examines our modern civilization through important subject matter, so called “ethnic cleansing”, a modern euphemism for genocide. The tandem storytelling that definitely is not bizarre but genuinely existing comes from the perspective of a child and is pictorialized in child-like animated sketches. They achieved great theatrical vitality by using painfully strong metaphors expressed through sophisticated visual language.

It took our film critic jury about ten seconds to make our decision and award this striking artistic achievement as the best short film screened in Annecy.

Edited by Tara Judah