The Eternal Unfinished Business of Animation in Festivals

in 63rd San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Alberto Lechuga

If we observe the tendencies of the past year, we can state that far from including animated films for their cinematographic value, film festivals seem to pay more attention to the role of the celebrities doing the voiceover. With the premiere of movies such as Kung Fu Panda 2 and Madagascar 3 shown out of competition, animation is being overlooked, set aside, becoming a mere anecdote of the red carpet. This is the main reason why the 63rd edition of the San Sebastián International Film Festival has taken  a step in the right direction. Hand in hand with the recognition of Latin cinema and the strong Ibero-American alliance, we can say that the other very significant gesture has been including animation films throughout the programme, including within the official competition and in the parallel sections. The Boy and The Beast (Bakemono no ko), Anomalisa, Adama, The Magic Mountain (La montagne magique), One Day I Saw 10.000 Elephants (Un día ví 10000 elefantes), Psiconautas)… Fifteen animation film titles have run through the festival. What is more important is that those 15 titles are clear examples of animation as one more possibility of cinematographic expression and not like a genre in itself. We could find eclectic proposals that covered fictional documentary to adventure themed films, intimate indie drama or dystopian science fiction.

It is worth highlighting the presence of The Boy and The Beast, Mamoru Hosoda’s new creation, in the Official Selection of the competition, a fact that has never occurred in the Festival de San Sebastián.  Sadly, the film is quite conservative, with a more typical exotic view of Anime than a true incursion of the filmmaker and his characteristic traits. In this sense, we cannot argue that the incorporation of an animation film in the official section is a step forward; we may qualify this action as a bit prudish as it does not believe in other movies which offer more interest but less pedigree.  In truth, it is no less significant that in the Pearls section — that includes full-length films “acclaimed by the critics and/or awarded in other International Festivals” —  the only animation film represented was Anomalisa, a self-satisfying story by Charlie Kaufman that uses stop-motion practically for economic reasons instead of using it for its possibility as a medium (the film was financed by Kickstarter). It makes you wonder if an animation film would have been able to make it to the greatest hits if it was not backed by Kaufman, a cult director. What other animation film has been exalted in the film festivals of 2015? How many other animation films have been considered by the programmers of big festivals without first considering if there was a known person backing up the project?

Where we could definitely enjoy a plural panoramic view of the diverse trends of animated cinema was in the Zabaltegi section. There, in its “open zone, with no formal rules or theme limitations”, we could see films like Adama, One Day I Saw 10.000 Elephants and The Magic Mountain, three films that add to the fabulous trend of animated documentary with a lot of personality. This trend has been spreading in the past few years: as in Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) and The Missing Picture (L’Image Manquante), One Day I Saw 10.000 Elephants and The Magic Mountain use diverse animating techniques (collage, cut-out, hand-draw animation, stop-motion…) to try to create the blank spaces of our memories. Animation reveals itself as a powerful and flexible language to trust with our forgotten or denied historic memory. In The Magic Mountain, the Romanian director Anca Damian employs the mutant nature of animation, mixing it with archive photographs, and poetically reconstructs the historic and personal biography of Adam J. Winkler the adventurer. In the same line, Adama finds its own peculiar aesthetics with expressionist 2D backgrounds and modeled clay characters as an expressive vehicle to narrate the misfortunes of the young Adama in the First World War, a voyage of great universal resonance. Playing with contrast between forms and animation techniques, and using the chromatic pallet with intelligence, Adama poetically and accurately speaks about a social reality delicately avoiding the paths of instruction or populist easy tears. Through the different textures and brown tones (earth brown, which refers to the face of our protagonist) the film talks about identity in a very subtle and beautiful manner, using animation in an exciting way, as a medium and as a means to an end (such as a scene of a blind man recognising the telluric textures of the face of the young man, Adama, or an almost oneiric warlike episode at the end). In Zabaltegi, Psiconautas also showed a wide range of expressive and contrasted resources. A dystopian science fiction film, it brings us the past to talk about the present, projecting it into the future. With an intelligent use of aesthetics, contrasting the lovely appearance of the characters and the terrible situations they have to confront, the directors talk about a world that kills itself little by little in a very brutal manner (drugs and ecological irresponsibility as a metaphor adrift). Sparing no crudity (the passage of junkie mice in the garbage dump is astonishing), but without forgetting a place for beauty nor an absorbing narrative. There is no doubt that cinema has always been able to talk about anything, as delicate as it might be, but it is interesting to reflect on how animated forms can make this more approachable to a bigger public, even to children.

Psiconautas also possesses the singularity of being a complete Spanish production, an industry that has, until now, been a vehicle for children’s productions or popcorn-driven films. Also Spanish are Mortadelo & Filemon: Mission Implausible (Mortadelo y Filemón contra Jimmy el cachondo), Possessed (Pos eso) and Tom Little and The Magic Mirror (Meñique y el espejo mágico), opposite proposals that were shown in the San Sebastian Festival (in the Made in Spain, Zinemira and Film for the Kids sections respectively). They testified to the good shape of Spanish animation, which is starting to wake up from a long induced siesta. Mortadelo & Filemon: Mission Implausible, is the 3D translation of the very popular universe of Ibañez —  a hero from the Spanish comic world —   to the cinema, after being tried twice as a real-life movie.  One of those films was directed by the same director that we are now referring to, Javier Fresser, who finally recognised animation as the right tool to give motion to the slapstick adventures of the TIA agents. Ibañez’s Universe is related to the folk-ish universe of Possessed, that in constant tribute to popular cinema, uses stop-motion to recreate in pop style our stereotypical culture with rhythm and plasticity that would even make Alex de la Iglesia blanche and with whose cinema we can find several things in common.  Tom Little and The Magic Mirror is a Hispano-Cuban coproduction children’s film that reaffirms the Latino-Spanish alliance, an alliance that we could see right through the festival programme.

Fifteen animation movies might seem small number, and it is if we take in to consideration the annual volume of production that uses this medium. But if we take a look at the distribution of these movies across the sections of the programme, and the correct panoramic view of trends and possibilities of current animated cinema, it wouldn’t be that outrageous to say that the presence of animation cinema at the  63rd edition of the San Sebastián International Film Festival was as strong as a significant step as the Golden Bear given to Spirited Away at the 52nd Berlin International Film Festival in 2002. Maybe even more so, as it shows animation as a cinematographic plural language, rich and with a vast future ahead of it.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson