On the Map of Georges Schwitzgebel

in 26th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Katja Cicigoj

When Georges Schwitzgebel was invited to curate the animated films section of this year’s International Film Festival in Fribourg, the master of Swiss animation film used this opportunity to contribute to the festival’s general conceptual orientation. Through his personal choices of animated films from and about the global South and East, he visually mapped the latter not only as a geographical and cultural zone, but also as a concept constructed within the Western world. His choices not only highlight, as he himself stated, the fact that “there are no technical differences between animated films from the North and from the South”, but also the wide variety of animation techniques and thematic choices that characterize the selected films. Contrary to what this North/South dichotomy suggests, the global South and East are nothing like a uniform concept (in any of the suggested meanings). Furthermore, even if it does not overtly address post-colonial approaches, Schwitzgebel’s choice of animated films offers in some instances sketches of the history and contemporary state of troubled North-South relations as well as globally pressing socio-political topics.

This goes also for the choice of feature length animated films. The  Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, 2010) uses the emerging genre of the animated documentary, combining animated sequences with archival footage of the Iranian green revolution (largely produced via mobile-phone video recording), as well as blog and twitter entries from those directly involved, in order to create a fictionalized account of the events. The film is directly addressed at Western audiences (and, by the way, also produced in Germany and directed by an Iranian émigré), and engages in shifting their attention from economic interest-driven debates on Iran’s development of nuclear armaments to a much more pressing topic: the disrespect of people’s rights in an ever more oppressive political climate. By using widely known and spread information, the film confirms the media image of Iran in the West. What thus comes out as perhaps more refreshing, is its formal approach: the intertwining of reality and fiction, the creation of representative single characters out of the thoughts of many bloggers — the singularisation of the collective will of the Iranian people through fictional characters.

An interesting case for reflection on the intertwining of reality and fiction, (auto)biography and historization is offered by the less political and more intimate Tatsumi (Eric Khoo, 2011). The film is a hommage by the young Singaporean director to the master of the Japanese graphic novels genre geika, perhaps the pioneer of Japanese comic genres addressed at adult audiences with mature — political, ethical, erotic — issues. The interplay between fiction and reality here is offered by the subject itself — considering Tatsumi’s graphic novels were very often at least partly autobiographical, the intermingling of his own biography and the stories he created is perhaps the most natural way to pay him a tribute.

Also Nina Paley’s Sita sings the Blues (2008) is a fluid, polyphonic interplay between her own autobiographical story and fiction. The American artist performs a witty appropriation of the Indian story about Sita, who is abandoned by her husband, to tell her own personal story of heartbreak in contemporary New York City. Different drawing styles are used efficiently to signal the different layers of reality which are juxtaposed: Nina’s own personal story is drawn in a rough, purposefully “sloppy” style, while Sita’s story is framed in elegant Indian decor, her own character a nod to the animated icon of Betty Boop. The narrative content of blues music here comes out as being non-culturally specific: loneliness, doom and heartbreak are truly global issues.

The two programs of animated shorts are also engaged in a reflection about the concept of the global South — while the first program showcases shorts from the (global) South, the second one conveys films produced in countries from the global North which engage (implicitly or programmatically) with the image of distant cultures. The wide presence of Japanese shorts in the first program is noticeable at first glance. Among these, Chainsaw Maid (Takena Nagao, 2007) brilliantly appropriates genre codes born in the West, which became very popular and prominent in contemporary Japanese cinema (and also an export-commodity for the West): the horror film. More humorous than the hilarious story — a maid with a chainsaw defending her employer and his daughter from a zombie attack, never losing her posture and good manners — is perhaps the deployment of the technique to create improbable and trashy replicas of blood and intestines out of plaster material splashing on the walls and furniture. Creepy or uncanny is also the effect of the graduation film by the young Japanese filmmaker Saori Shiroki The Woman Who Stole Fingers (2010) — a black-and-white drawn animation, which constructs a surrealist tale about a kid whose fingers and toes get stolen and develop a life of their own. Meanwhile in The Mechanism of Spring (Atsushi Wada, 2011), surrealism creeps in via associations of visual forms (an approach Schwitzgebel himself developed with mastery) — the human, animal and vegetative world become co-involved in this “waking dream” of excitement, waiting for springtime. Visual associations of forms and figures are skillfully deployed also in the Korean short Camels (Jee-youn Park, 2011), their surrealist effect being enhanced due to the overall simple and recognizable story: the reunion of two ex-lovers, told through a poetic female voice-over narration, which is paired with the visual materialization of all sorts of figures of speech.

The other part of the globe offered several remarkable works of animation as well. The Mexican Down to the Bone (René Castillo, 2001) is a humorous stop-motion animation that transports a visitor to a cemetery to the decadent (in the hedonistic sense of the word) life of the underworld, where the gloom of death is chased away through drinking, flirting and partying. The potential for creepy effects offered by the technique of stop-motion animation is cleverly used also in the Chilean short Luis (Niles Atallah, Joaquin Cocina, Cristobal Leon, 2009). Between the devastated room furniture coming back together (in a rewind fashion) and the creepy voice-over narration, the film catapults the viewer into an undefined limbo between dream (nightmare) and reality. The animated short that stands out for its freshness and its clever and fierce address of contemporary society is indeed the Argentinian Employment (Santiago “Bou” Grasso, 2008). The apparently simple, comic-style drawn animation is used to recount a dystopian (or quasi-realistic?) story with a series of (visually) narrative punch-lines, constantly shifting the expectations of the audience. Through the portrayal of a society where the service industry is literally turned into human servitude, the film exposes the reification of human (family, service and work) relations in a society where biopolitics (Foucault) are literally turned into a bio-economy.

If we turn our eye to animated shorts from the global North, which explicitly enter into dialogue with Southern cultures, we can observe how the voyage in all its forms (be it a voyage of conquering, scientific expedition, tourism or the journey of immigrants trying to enter the fortress of Europe) remains a privileged thematic trope of this encounter. Barry Purves’ The Script (1992) transports the viewer into the midst of Japanese theater culture, creating a puppet show that mimics both No and Kabuki theater: with clever short-circuits between the narration and the narrated, the film tells the paradigmatic story of an impossible love turned into bloodshed. Also in Aria (Pjotr Sapegin, 2001) a love story ends in tragedy, but here this tragedy is somehow linked to an (unhappy) encounter between two cultures. Aria is a stop-motion puppet animation of the opera Madame Butterfly, cleverly using its technique to simultaneously sharpen the tragic edge but also lightening it with slightly comic tones: the unfaithful sailor’s new family is entirely Barbie-like, while the suicidal reaction of his former Chinese lover is rendered as the self-dismemberment of the puppet. While The Voyage (Christian Boustani, 2011) explicitly recounts the story of 16th century conquerors’ voyages (the encounter of Portuguese conquerors with the Japanese), and The Land of the Snowy Mountains (Bernard Palacios, 1989) tells about a scientific expedition in Tibet (and about the inter-species friendship between the scientist and a snow-woman), several shorts in the program focused on the contemporary meaning of voyage in the context of population flows between South and North. Assisted Migration (Pauline Pinson, 2006) takes as its subject matter the migration of birds, but with several humorous twists (birds travelling by plane due to health issues) that resonate with contemporary human population flows. More explicitly, Miramare (by Schwitzgebel’s former student Michaela Müller, 2008) through the animation of painting on glass and the already mentioned strategy of visual association of forms, comments upon the inverse relation between mass tourism and economic and political migration. But most effective in treating the subject is perhaps the Swiss animated film Bon Voyage (Fabio Friedli, 2011), which in several ways mirrors the aforementioned Argentinean short Employment: its very simple and neat drawn animation and precise dramaturgy with the escalation of both humorous and tragic events in the journey of a group of immigrants trying to enter Europe’s vacuum-closed boarders, is another stone in the mosaic mapping out the contemporary economic and political situation.

All in all, the whole program of animated films from and about the global South appears to be committed more to a reflection upon the cultural and historical differences and exchanges between different global regions. Yet some of the films shown cleverly and effectively mapped out segments of economic and social relations that speak of global socio-political divisions.