Talking 'Animadocs' in Leipzig By Adina Bradeanu

in 51st Leipzig International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Adina Emilia Bradeanu

Apart from showcasing films, festivals can provide salient moments of focus against today’s morphing cinematic landscapes. The panel on animated documentary put together by Dok Leipzig this year pointed to the growing body of practice that testifies to the increased interest in this fairly novel hybrid: an interest coming from all walks of life-in-cinema, starting from creatives and reaching up to festival programmers and academics. A number of crossbreed features have emerged on the market lately, with Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) being the most talked about, but any still-to-come ‘mainstreamization’ of the animated drama/doc remains to be probed. References to the animated documentary have popped-up in academic scholarship for quite some time now, but they came primarily from scholars placed on the animation side, with sporadic contributions from documentary theory. That followed loosely the configuration of the practice, as animators have raided documentary’s territory before having the documentary film-makers starting to look into animation’s potential [here I refer to the creative and authored film, rather than to part-animated propaganda, animated maps in historical docs, or CGI-ed dinosaurs].

On the festival front, Britain’s BRITDOC ran an animadoc sidebar two years ago, Amsterdam’s IDFA came with a more consistent proposal last year and Zagreb’s Animafest scheduled a quite substantial offer earlier this year. But when it comes to a constant presence of the animadoc in a festival programme, then Dok Leipzig is a pioneer: its mixed breed, as an event dealing in both documentary and animation, opened it early to hybrid forms emerged at the intersection of the two, and led to a consistent tradition of showing animadocs in Leipzig.

Having attended both BRITDOC’s and IDFA’s programmes in the recent years, I found Leipzig’s offer the most consistent: the twenty-nine film retrospective included classic, Oscar-winning films such as Frank Mouris’s Frank Film (1973), Sylvie Bringas and Orly Yadin’s Silence (1998), Chris Landreth’s Ryan (2004) and John Canemaker’s The Moon and the Son (2005), alongside an array of exciting new titles, adding to which was a master class with Frank and Caroline Mouris on ‘animating one’s life’.

The animadoc panel unfolded as an informal but extensive conversation meant to provide a working framework for approaching the respective mongrel crops. It brought together some of the resonant names of the animadoc ‘canon’ [Dennis Tupicoff from Australia, whose His Mother’s Voice screened in the animadoc retrospective, and recent Chainsaw was in the animation competition; Tim Webb from Great Britain and Sheila Sofian from the the USA, whose A is for Autism and, respectively, Survivors were also part of the retrospective], and included Otto Addler, the programmer who established the animadoc section at Dok Leipzig, alongside academic/programmer Annegret Richter.

The discussion acknowledged two morphing domains, with specific grammars, traditions of practice and understandings of authorship, and with a history of punctual moments of intersection. The titles of the four sub-sections in the retrospective — Stories of Survival; Stolen lives; Me, Myself, and Others; What’s normal again? — pointed to the thematic areas where the animadoc seemed to have been the most effective over the recent years: traumatic individual stories, troubled psychological states, challenged perspectives, slippages of individual or collective memory. Indeed, looking at a loose chronology of the animadoc, one starts to perceive the recent interest shown by documentary to animation as a somehow ‘natural development’, once the former had consumed its ‘first person’ stage, where it tackled the psychological and the previously ‘un-showable’ while remaining on conventional live-action territory.

The point of tension between the two elements of the anima-doc is indexicality: animation and documentary relate differently to reality, with only the latter maintaining a firm grip on it. Through their ontology, each of the two carries different qualities and burdens, and makes different types of claims in relation to their object. Starting-off from one of the animadoc sub-genres, which consists from applying an animated visualisation onto a recorded testimony (see, for instance, Sheila Sofian’s Survivors or Conversation with Haris), the panellists acknowledged the importance of maintaining a level of indexicality — be that the aural or the visual — in relation to the real event, in order to have a film that qualifies as an animadoc. Here, Dennis Tupicoff’s classic His Mother’s Voice touches on the tension between the visual and the aural by visualising consecutively and in two different ways the same ‘documentary soundtrack’ — a mother’s monologue about the death of her son.

A salient oppositional pair when it comes to animation vs. documentary is that between the former’s tradition of representational ‘freedom’ and the latter’s tradition of ‘prescriptiveness’. Tupicoff commented on the ‘restrictive grammar’ exercised by documentary [talking heads + recreation + archival footage etc], as opposed to the ‘openness’ of animation’s vocabulary. But one element which remained un-acknowledged by the panellists as a crucial documentary asset was observationalism and the subsequent aesthetics of presence achieved through it, i.e. that ‘being there’ which remains one of documentary’s most remarkable features. Waltz with Bashir’s Ari Folman confessed in Sight & Sound recently (December 2008) that he fell in love with animation because of the freedom it provided. Still, he decided to end his film with the horrific documentary footage of a massacre, where blood, screams, rubble and limbs fill-up the screen to exhaustion. Says Folman, “I didn’t want you to go out of the theatre just thinking that this was a cool movie, with beautiful animation and a cool score. […] I wanted you to realise that behind those drawings there were people slaughtered. It would be a completely different film without the ending.” This and other negotiations between animation and documentary elements in cinema are clearly something to look further into over the following years.

Having learned early about inter-textuality, parody or bricolage, animation has acquired a sort of inherent self-reflexivity which had been less deeply ingrained in documentary. Now, the combination of the two leads to a contradictory form with subversive and transgressive potential, which helps both its original elements to problematize their ontology and grammar. Animation opens documentary [and live-action in general] to abstraction, illusion and the dream state, while simultaneously protecting the anonymity of those subjects who cannot or would not be identified. The insertion of animation within a documentary body can provide a sense of intensity and focalization while simultaneously ‘lifting up’ a film from the particular. Animation can ‘free’ documentary from its tradition of dogmatic understanding(s), while attaching question marks to the truth-claims made explicitly or implicitly by the factual side of the project. At the same time, specific cinematic contexts require a firm grip on the historical world: in those cases the impact of documentary footage is unequaled.

Leipzig’s competitive programmes also provided some other exciting points of intersection between animation and documentary. Avi Moghrabi’s intense and absorbing ‘musical documentary tragedy’ Z32 (Israel / France, 2008) took a Brechtian approach which involved a reflexive musical layer blended into the film, and engaged with the convention of subject effacement in documentary through the use of differently textured (latex and CGI-ed) masks for its central character.

Labelled a ‘documentary science fiction’, Lotman’s World (Lotmani maailm, Agne Nelk, Estonia, 2008) combined a medley of documentary material and animation techniques to tell the story of semiotician Yuri Lotman. The film plays with the conventional usage of animation and documentary: Nelk borrows the convention of the expert from documentary but re-writes it in the form of a Round Table of animated semioticians (of which Eco is one); at the other end of the spectrum, Lotman’s ‘inner world’, which conventionally qualifies as an ‘un-documentable’ realm (therefore conventionally calling for animation) is represented through b&w documentary footage.

Slovakian Blind Loves (Slepé lásky, Juraj Lehotsky, Slovakia, 2008) contains a single animated sequence which literally lifts the film up onto another level and provides an inspiring demonstration of the way(s) in which animation can back documentary into its examination of the human condition. Structured as a long-term, sympathetic observation of several couples with various degrees of visual impairment, the film ventures abruptly and shortly into animation: after listening to a radio dramatization of Jules Verne, one of the male characters enters the sea in live action, á la Tati, and emerges into an animated underwater where he engages in a cartoon-ish fight with an octopus — yet another being which approaches its surroundings through the tactile. Swiftly, the rich texture of the observational documentary morphs into a choreographed version of one’s intimate dreams and fears. The result is both hilarious and moving. The sequence remains Blind Loves’s most memorable moment, in spite of being possibly disconcerting to those less willing to accept it as a one-off investment into another visual grammar.

Issues of audience response were also woven into the conversation at Dok Leipzig, particularly by Sheila Sofian, by drawing on her films dealing with a range of subjects deemed ‘sensitive’, ranging from domestic abuse to traumatic memory: when applied onto a documentary soundtrack, animation seems to catalyze generalization, conceptualization and empathy on the part of the audiences. But the challenges put by the animadoc on the reading competences of the lay viewer need further exploration: my feeling here is that, at this stage, audiences confronted with animadocs tend to bring in expectations raised by animation and documentary taken separately, rather then employing a new set of expectations articulated at the intersection of the two. One example here might be the point made, during one of Leipzig’s daily ‘dok-talks’, by film-maker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, the author of Cyanosis (Iran, 2008) — an intense and inspiring sketch of the creative self, which interprets in animadoc form the daily life of an Iranian street painter.

Speaking of the public reactions to her film, Ghaemmaghami remarked that audience response appeared less permissive when it came to a particular moment re-enacted in documentary form (the painter’s recurring abuse by a public warden — an instance which could not be ‘captured’ and had to be re-created), than to the rest of her film, in which animation gradually ‘takes over’ the screen. Therefore, audiences tend to be prescriptive only in relation to the ‘documentary bits’ of the film, despite the fact that the degree of intervention implied by animation is by far more substantial than that introduced by documentary re-enactment.

It appears now that the boundaries between animation, animadoc and dramadoc with animation elements are unclear, porous and malleable — particularly when parody is involved; those boundaries are still to be negotiated between producers, distributors / exhibitors [labelling is essential] and lay audiences. In spite of not having included a documentary film-maker in the conversation, Leipzig’s panel captured many of the issues that make the animadoc an exciting territory today. And if we agree that the identity of a festival lays not only in its ability to discover / produce new authors, but also in its capacity to reflect on the state of cinema at a given moment in time, then this year’s focus on the animadoc provided just that: the sense that an exciting crossbreeding has been acknowledged by the world’s oldest documentary festival.

Animadocs are still to forge their own cinephile audience. Proof that that is already happening are the often fierce, often hilarious, controversies stirred by puzzling films posted on the web: just check out for the comments to Floris Kaayk’s Metalosis Maligna (Netherlands, 2006), a mock-doc-cum-animation posted on Youtube.

As concerns the animadoc’s academic legitimacy: while I’m writing this, one of the distinguished scholars in the field of documentary film has just posted a question on a discussion list, regarding his intention to include the animated documentary among the topics discussed in the forthcoming edition of his seminal ‘Introduction to’ documentary. Good timing, Leipzig.