The Local Saviours By Tomislav Sakic
In a way, this year’s Cracow Film Festival needed two local greats to save the competition. Among 57 films screened in the International Competition, documentaries were completely kidnapped by TV format (30 or 50 minutes, with no exceptions), shot in lo-fi DV quality, their differentiation from TV standards being only the absence of a spoken commentary. (But of course, voice-over of the person that was the subject of a picture and some talking heads did appear on the screen.) What’s worse — and the real (and burning) question is: is this documentary selection the current state of European documentary (there were almost no non-European ones, but there were European productions dealing with Canadian, U.S. and Asian issues), or is it simply a (misjudged?) perspective of Polish selectors?
Almost all the documentary pictures (dokumenty) dealt with, it seems, almost one single issue: aging after the fall of Communism. The documentary selection was flooded with images of elderly people, left behind by the new Post-Communist society, by the young; old people from the former Eastern Block, survivors of Communism and victims of transition, confronting the idea of spent lives, be it in Russia (Shell— Rakushka, by Dmitry Lavrinenko), in Hungary (The Prayer — Imádság, by Sándor Mohi), in Belarus (Focal Distance — Fokusnoe rasstoyanie, by Andrei Kutsilo and Roman Romashka; Maria by Victor Asliuk), in Ukraine (Radunitsa, by Darya Averchenko), or in Romania (Humoresque — Humoresca, by Diana Deleanu).
The latter was the best movie in this thematic circle, as its director put an ironic, but still melancholic and somewhat pathetic, crowd-pleasing overlay onto a very desperate life (and love) story. How to Save a Fish From Drowning, by Kelly Neal, depicted an aging, dying American town in the middle of nowhere, where there is nothing left to do but to wait for death. And that’s exactly what all those people over 70 or 80 are doing. That death is the main thing to confront was confirmed by the British documentary Second Sight, by Alison McAlpine) about — well, it was already so obvious in this year’s documentary selection — aging and waiting for the final act to happen. Juxtaposing the shots of mystic Scottish landscapes, mostly misty, rainy, and in which people, if they appear at all, are all elderly, with their almost incomprehensible talk about ghosts in Scottish-English (not subtitled) and Gaelic (with English subtitles), this weird contemplation achieves a hypnotic, even metaphysical, dream-like atmosphere, particularly when we understand that “second sight” is the capacity to see ghosts (all the people they once knew, appearing in places of their tragic deaths). While the camera doesn’t show that there’s anything particularly unnatural outside, we come to an understanding that it’s death they’re looking to.
Anyhow, in the flood of such similar documentaries and, also, short fiction films (fabuly), which weren’t capable of complying with their short format (i.e. to achieve a concise story in approximately 15 minutes), in the last moments the festival was taken over by local artists. Namely, the only short fiction film that achieved a concise story and received an audience response was Aria Diva, by Agnieszka Smoczynska, produced by the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing (Mistrzowska Szkola Rezyserii Filmowej Andrzeja Wajdy). It was a good 30-minute exercise which showed that its director is capable of a feature-length fiction film, while the best short fiction — that means, loyal to its format, done without a feature-length movie in mind — was Solomon’s Secret (Le Secret de Salomon, by David Charhon), which was a funny but still serious piece of cinema. It told the story of an “invisible man”, invisible due to his Jewish heritage and his family history (Holocaust), who is led into a series of amusing adventures, the top one being sitting unnoticed in the Louvre and finally getting the secret of the Mona Lisa’s smile.
The short animation section showcased in Cracow was an example of always being loyal to the art itself, mostly dealing with inner landscapes, or simply being a good joke. Of the latter, Sleeping Betty (Isabelle au bois dormant, by Claude Cloutier) won the audience over easily, with its familiar but witty parody of a well-known fairytale (based on confrontations of the medieval and the contemporary, showing that fairy tales are out of place nowadays, even if the Prince on the White Horse does look like Prince Charles).
A Sunny Day (Ein sonniger Tag, by Gil Alkabetz) depicted a day in the life of the sun, from dawn to sunset, and from rejection through depression to recognition. It was done wittily, in children-style drawings. But other animated shorts dealt with their material in a more serious and darker way, many of them being artistically and visually original while — in terms of the story — incomprehensible. In any case, maybe that’s of less importance to the art of short animation, as these films showed animation attached more to the fine arts (paintings, drawings, experimental art) than to film as popular fiction, just as the best short animation from Eastern Europe has always been. Anhalter (by Daniel Höpfner), for example, depicts the impressionistic, personal stream of consciousness surfacing from a character who enters the Berlin Kreuzberg train station, reshaping the Kafkaesque outside world through the inner world, the world of private memories and emotions. NFB’s Madame Tutli-Putli (by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski) is similarly dark and artistic, this time the film’s more traditional stop-animation building a weird, horror-filled world, surely influenced by the work of the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz. In its expressionistic means and dark and apocalyptic theme, Time Is Running Out (by Marc Reisbig) wasn’t far from Kafka either.
In this competition, the winners were two Polish animated shorts, made under the tutorship of Jerzy Kucia. Edyta Turczanik’s Everything Flows (Wszystko plynie), and the FIPRESCI winner, Wiola Sowa’s Refrains (Refreny). While the first contemplates the idea of “the eternal flow” of life, from childhood to old age, in a vivid and optimistic way, the second was much less light, contemplating the idea of repetition, depicting — in its cinematic contribution to écriture féminine — the shallow lives of three women, three generations of the same family. It does so in a visual way loyal to traditional animation (paintings, mostly pointillist in their graphics), dealing with private memories and common female experiences (emotional ones) in a subtle, emotional and empathetic way, helped strongly by the great piano accompaniment by Leszek Mozdzer.
The best art of animation was — and still is — that which is radical (if not even militant in a way) in its fundamental world view, in a way that doesn’t recognise the world and the values outside of the world and values of the art itself. In the second half of the 20th century this kind of artistic ideology (and ideology it is) was — particularly in Kucia’s homeland — a way of inner resistance, and nowadays it’s of the same importance. Despite the commercial and crowd-pleasing siren call, Kucia’s students have learned to follow their inner pulse, their inner, artistic consciousness. Of course, they’re still dealing with the outside world, but its logic is comprehended through somebody’s own perspective. Good examples are Refrains and Cyanosis — Sianoze, by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghamithe — an Iranian documentary about Jamshid, a neglected street artist, whose inner thoughts and dark visions are told through animated sequences of his Van Goghian-cum-Baconian paintings. That’s what short animation is keeping us from forgetting: that the art of film has to remain art in the first place.