Animated documentaries at LIAF 2021

Every year, London International Animation Festival shows a programme of global documentaries in a specially dedicated screening. In last year’s festival, the selection included a wide range of films, from personal, autobiographical independent short films, to branded content and museum commissions. Many of these films are now available online, so here is a short overview of the programme.

Save Ralph (Spencer Susser, 2021) is a darkly comic mockumentary following a rabbit who “works” in the cosmetics testing industry. With a star-studded cast of voice actors and very high production values, the film has much to admire technically and creatively, and a message that cuts through the humour to leave the viewer feeling very uncomfortable indeed. The film ends with a message from The Humane Society encouraging action to help ban animal testing. 

Timeline (Osbert Parker, 2020) is a poetic film commissioned by The Migration Museum. The film weaves together single frames with diverse imagery. From this visual cacophony, the fluctuating image of a single line emerges. This takes us through an abstracted history of migration, from 1620-2020, and beyond, hinting at a possible future of human migration to space. Patterns develop and evolve, punctuated by interjections of stop-motion and mixed media animation. It’s a dynamic piece that stands repeated viewings, as it is easy to miss details on a first watch. 

Heart of the Nation (Tribambuka, 2020) is another film commissioned by the migration museum. This is a more explicit narrative focusing on the contribution that migration has made, and continues to make, on the staffing of the British NHS. It focuses on communicating a clear message informatively, attractively, and persuasively, and achieves its aims in this.

The Train Driver (Zuniel Kim, Christian Wittmoser, 2021) examines the psychological impact on a train driver of the six suicides of strangers that he has been caught up in through his job. Simple blue and yellow tinted sequences develop against a black background, offering an elegant counterpoint to the narrator’s words and allowing the audience to focus on the sensitive story he is telling. 

In Nature (Marcel Barelli, 2021) takes us to the other end of the spectrum. Using vivid and varied colours alongside a cartoony aesthetic, this film playfully demonstrates diverse manifestations of homosexuality in nature. The film is funny and well-paced, full of excellent visual gags, and does a great job of educating without ever feeling preachy or lecturing. 

In the Shadow of the Pines (Anne Koizumi, 2020) is a meditative piece in which a woman reflects on her memories of her Japanese father, and the shame he felt as a child at his culture, character and his job as a school janitor. In the second part of the film, we hear her father’s voice explaining his actions, and how his behaviour was a response to his own traumatic childhood. Finally, we are told that this conversation never really happened; her father died before they could make sense of the past, and of their relationship, together. The film is affecting. Some of the details in the memories are so raw and real that they cut to the bone, and there is a pervasive sense of melancholy throughout.  

Only a Child (Simone Giampaolo, 2020) is a well-executed mixed media animation illustrating a speech made by twelve-year old Severn Cullis-Suzuki at a UN summit. She speaks powerfully on the dangers of climate change, pollution, and mass extinction. At the end of the film, we discover that the words were spoken in 1992, a chilling reminder that the urgent call to action they contained was not heeded, and our environmental crisis has deteriorated in the years that have passed since the speech was made. The film is beautifully animated, with a production process that engaged more than 20 animation directors working on separate sections, and it moves gracefully between styles and techniques.  

The Chimney Swift (Frédéric Schuld, 2020) is a brooding film, with a script drawn from accounts of ‘Master’ chimney sweepers, who sent small children up chimneys in the Victorian era and who had themselves been sent up chimneys as children. A sketchy and stylised, artistic design approach combined with a flowing animation style creates an immersive viewing experience, while the savagery of the experiences described are still disturbing to hear almost two centuries after they were written down – partly due to the final frame, which reminds us that child labour practices still continue around the world.

Darwin’s Notebook (Georges Schwizgebel, 2020) delves into Charles Darwin’s notebook from 1833. He was aboard the Beagle as the ship travelled to return three kidnapped indigenous Alakaluf people of Tierra del Fuego to their home country. The film flows beautifully from one image to the next, with a painterly style combined with impressive, cinematic camera moves. The film follows the kidnapped people, from their previous life in their homeland through their violent abduction and attempts to replace their own culture with contemporaneous European ideals. When they are returned to their home they are adorned with the clothes and materials of the ‘civilised’ world, but these are soon abandoned. The film ends with a title card stating that the Alakaluf people were ultimately destroyed by western disease, persecution, and the deprivation of their natural resources. 

The Torture Letters (Jocie Juritz/Laurence Ralph, 2020) is a New York Times Op-Doc about racism and police violence in Chicago. The voiceover describes the narrator witnessing two young people being stopped-and-searched, an incident which triggers painful memories of his own. The narrator then discusses his research into wider police violence in the city, and tells the stories of Dominique “Damo” Franklin, who was killed at 23 by police taser, and of Andrew Wilson, who in 1989 filed a civil suit which brought down a police commander who had encouraged a culture of torture in custody. The film ends with a broader reflection on discrimination and violence in the US. The film is dense with information, which means it offers more with each viewing, suggesting avenues for further research. The monochrome visuals, moving between literal illustration, symbolic interpretation, and abstract shapes, lead the viewer through the multiple stories.

All Those Sensations in my Belly (Marko Djeska, 2020) tells the story of a young trans woman, her developing identity through childhood and adolescence, and her struggle to find a loving and lasting relationship. The film progresses through a range of visual and animation styles as the lead character moves through stages of life, from the darkest places, to transcendent moments of self-discovery. The sound design adds a strong layer of emotion to the story, ratcheting up the tension at points and at others creating a deep empathy, without resorting to sentimentality. The result is a moving film portraying a complex, vulnerable, resilient, sympathetic and highly relatable character.

One of the striking things about this programme of shorts is how many of the films have strong social and political messages, often accompanied by explicit calls to action. The social issues presented here span discrimination, identity, racism, abuse, migration, climate, mental health, and animal welfare. The creative approaches taken are as broad as the subjects covered, but every film in the selection points clearly to a desire to tell stories that can help us to move toward a better, fairer, and kinder world.

London International Animation Festival (LIAF) is an annual event taking place in November and December across multiple London venues. Full listings for the 2021 festival can be found on the website.

ANIDOX:LAB by The Animation Workshop & Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Did you know that the Anidox Lab was involved in the R&D process for the animated documentary Flee?

Here Michelle Kranot gives us some insights into the process of working on animated documentary ideas in the early stages:

“We salute the team of FLEE for their hard work and conviction. ANIDOX are proud to be engaged in the early development of this project, when director Jonas Poher Rasmussen joined our ANIDOX:LAB. We helped him make his first teaser, and ‘matched’ him with the Animation production studio SunCreature. We also followed the process closely and consulted whenever it was useful.

We hope others feel as inspired by this film and as energized as we do – We believe that more filmmakers, artists, journalists and producers will now consider this unique marriage of animation and documentary – and that audiences become more open and curious.

Applications for ANIDOX:LAB 2022 are open until 20.4.22

‘Flee’ by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Flee tells the story of Amin Nawabi as he grapples with a painful secret he has kept hidden for 20 years, one that threatens to derail the life he has built for himself and his soon-to-be husband. Winning many awards and accolades including the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, this film has garnered much critical acclaim since its release in 2021.

Told to director Jonas Poher Rasmussen under an alias, we witness the life-threatening, heartbreaking journey undertaken as a child refugee from Afghanistan. The animation is interspersed with archive footage from Afghanistan, punctuating the memories with indexical images; the sequences striking a resemblance to events currently unfolding in Ukraine. This is further heightened by the plight of the refugees trying to find a way through systems to safe places, which in this story took many years. Alongside this is the sub storyline of Amin’s sexual identity and his coming of age as a displaced refugee.

Flee was initially developed as part of AniDox Lab.

https://neonrated.com/films/flee

‘Perinatal Positivity’ by ForMed Films

Still from Perinatal Positivity

This is an Animated Documentary and wrap around campaign to raise awareness and talk about some of the mental health wellbeing difficulties parents may face during pregnancy, birth and after. The aim is to emotionally support parents and enable them to find support. First hand testimonies along with animated characters and storylines open up conversations and experiences that are often difficult to start or hear. This film is directed by Emma Lazenby through ForMed Films, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company.

Rosa Fisher wins the FAFF AnimatedDocumentary.com award for best film

London’s fifth annual Factual Animation Film Festival was hosted at the Cinema Museum on 8th December 2019.  21 short animated documentaries were screened across two programmes. Between the screenings there was a discussion panel featuring Rory Waubly-Tolley, director of There’s Something In The WaterDiana Gradinaru, director of What Is Consciousness?, Simon Ball, director of Do I See What You See?, and Haemin Ko, director of No Body.

The AnimatedDocumentary.com team are delighted to announce that the FAFF best animated documentary of 2019 has been awarded to Rosa Fisher director of Sent Away.

Sent Away explores the psychological impact that attending boarding school had on Rosa’s father, Tom. The film addresses the atmosphere of punishment, obedience and isolation that led each pupil to develop a hardened exterior. The film concludes by speculating how this emotionally traumatic cultural practice, common among Britain’s political elite, has shaped the UK. Sent Away, despite focusing on the childhood of a middle-aged man, is prescient in the lead up to the UK’s general election.  One of the candidates for prime minister forged his identity in the competitive toxicity of Eton, the UK’s most elite boarding school. The other did not.

FAFF was organised by festival director, Daniel Murtha, with help from Marina Belikova, project leader for FAFF Berlin, and me, Alex Widdowson, panel host.

FAFF 2019 Programme
Programme 1, 12pm
1 There’s Something In The Water 7 Dinosaur Blues
dir Rory Waudby-Tolley 2019 UK dir Oleon Lin 2019 China
There are two types of lakes in the South: them that’s got giant salvinia, and them that’s about to. In urban China, a man makes plasticine figures of popular characters.
2 No Body 8 What Is Consciousness?
dir Haemin Ko 2019 UK dir Diana Gradinaru 2019 UK, Romania
An autobiographical experimental animated poem on the director’s immigrant experience. Classic cartoon tropes are manipulated in this nightmarish story about memory.
3 Passage 9 Do I See What You See?
dir Asavari Kumar 2019 USA, India dir Simon Ball 2018 UK
An Indian woman revisits her immigration journey through the illusion of the American Dream. How do changes in the brain cause us to see differently?
4 A Letter To Myself At 16 10 Patchwork
dir Claire Tankersley 2019 USA dir Maria Manero 2018 Spain
Five years after her sexual assault, there is so much that she wishes she’d known when she woke up the next morning. The story of a 60 year-old woman’s liver transplant, as told by her donor.
5 Embraces & The Touch of Skin 11 Solos
dir Sara Koppel 2019 Denmark dir Gabriella Marsh 2019 UK
An animated poem about the vital need for embraces and contact with other beings. A portrait of a day in a single square in Barcelona.
6 My Dad’s Name Was Huw
dir Freddie Griffiths 2019 UK
Freddie’s late alcoholic father left behind a number of poems through which we might understand his experience.

 

FAFF 2019 Programme
Programme 2, 2pm
1 Bloomers 6 Gambler
dir Samantha Moore 2019 UK dir Michaela Režová, Ivan Studený 2018 Czechia
Animated fabric brings the story of a lingerie factory in Manchester to life. In urban China, a man makes plasticine figures of popular characters.
2 Sent Away 7 The Elephant’s Song
dir Rosa Fisher 2019 UK dir Lynn Tomlinson 2019 USA
A child sent to boarding school must contend with the trauma of abandonment. The sad but true story of Old Bet, the first circus elephant in America.
3 Fifteen-Two 8 The Children of Concrete
dir John Summerson 2019 UK dir Jonathan Phanhsay-Chamson 2017 France
The filmmaker’s mother recalls her parents’ indomitable relationship, strengthened by their love of games. An immigrant child’s conflict with ethnic and national identity.
4 O Hunter Heart 9 Eadem Cutis
dir Carla MacKinnon 2019 UK dir Nina Hopf 2019 Germany
Nature and domesticity collide in a dark take of love and loss. A person’s attempt to frame their conflict with dysphoria.
5 The Drip 10 1 Minute History of Image Distortion
dir Leonie Ketteler 2019 Netherlands dir Betina Kuntzsch 2017 Germany
You’ve never seen Chlamydia in quite this way before. Material resistance in film history.

‘Chris the Swiss’ by Anja Kofmel

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Directed by Anja Kofmel and screened during Cannes International Critics Week in 2018, this feature length documentary ,which fuses a mix of live action, archive and animation, is a remarkable investigation into the death of war journalist Chris, Kofmel’s late cousin.

This personal story, rich with emotion explains how the death of Kofmel’s cousin has impacted her entire life. Chris travelled to the Croatian War of Independence in the 90’s, and much of the film is set in and around Zagreb. Kofmel appears herself in the film both as a child in animated form and as an adult in live action. We see her visit the places Chris had been, such as hotels and battle grounds and talk to the people he met, such as fellow journalists and ‘soldiers’, in an attempt to discover why and how he died. I thought the inclusion of the animation production process as part of the film was a nice touch, the storyboarding and concept sketches forming part of her search.

The animation is spellbinding, black and white 2D and created in TV Paint, there is the feeling of movement and texture in the drawings as the ink  bleeds into the ‘paper’ whilst images are formed and animated. The depiction of Chris and other characters is very clear, the characterisation of them and Kofmel’s direction holding up well against any photos or live action of those people. In particular the key characters, not alive today to give testimony, the animation is adding and ‘filling in’ for the missing live action that we require in order to tell Chris’s story. But the animation is not merely a device for the live action. It brings a new level of understanding to the documentary in the way in which it morphs, transcends time and geographical boundaries. There are symbolic themes in the animation, such as that of the animated lines that denote the lines in Chris scarf, or the black painterly marks that follow Chris, which instantly make me think of death. These devices guide us through the narrative, and act as signifiers of important events. The animation explores memory, loss and emotion and through it’s movement is evocative of all these states.

A wonderful film, truly deserving of its critical acclaim. In my opinion, this is a fine addition to the animated documentary genre.

http://www.christheswiss.net/

 

‘Nowhere Line’ by Lukas Schrank

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An important Animated Doc featuring the voices of Asylum Seekers detained on Manus Island, whilst en route to Australia. This animated doc is available on 99.media, a free platform broadcasting documentaries in 6 different languages.

“In July 2013, the Australian Government introduced a controversial immigration policy, transferring asylum seekers arriving by boat to remote offshore detention centres on foreign Pacific islands.

Seven months later, the Manus Island centre erupted in violence when police and guards put down protests with sticks, machetes and guns, and 23 year-old asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed.

We spoke to Behrouz and Omar, who are currently detained on Manus Island.

https://www.99.media/en/nowhere-line-broken-dreams-from-manus-island/

Selected Films at London BFI Film Festival 2018

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Image credit: DOOZY by Richard Squires

Coming up from the 10th – 21st October is the London BFI Film Festival, featuring a brilliant selection of feature films, amongst which you can see two films of note; ‘DOOZY’ by Richard Squires and ‘Irene’s Ghost’ by Iain Cunningham. We will feature a review of the festival on animateddocumentary.com

DOOZY (UK, 2018), the debut feature from UK artist-filmmaker Richard Squires, is a creative documentary that employs ‘Clovis’, an animated antihero, as a means to explore the particular “voice” casting of cartoon villains in the late 1960s. Through the lens of one of Hollywood’s hidden queer histories, DOOZY contemplates the psycho-social relationship between villainy and hysterical male laughter; the use of voice as a signifier of ‘otherness’ and the frequently uneasy symbiosis of character and actor.

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Image credit: Irene’s Ghost by Iain Cunningham, animation by Ellie Land

Irene’s Ghost is the debut documentary film from Iain Cunningham and features animated segments directed by Ellie Land. follows a son’s search to find out about the mother he never knew.
The birth of his own child inspires a journey to discover the truth about Irene, who passed away when he was a child. Piecing together fragments of the past to make sense of the present he uncovers a long held secret. Using animation mixed with filmed footage Irene’s Ghost movingly rebuilds a lost life.

Motivations for Animated Documentary Films by Lawrence Thomas Martinelli, Lecture as part of Anima Festival 2015

A few years ago now, but none the less, a fantastic lecture by academic Lawrence Thomas Martinelli, Uri Kranot and Soetkin Verstegen.

Martinelli introduces us to the various motivations for making animated documentary, through a series of case studies, whilst Kranot and Verstegen round up the lecture with some insights into the practicalities of making such animated films.

Martinelli investigates the “re – creating and re -constructing” of animated documentary, he talks about filmic hybrids and the need to complete in complete material, which is one of the motivations for using animated documentary.

Martinelli is also the founder of DOCartoon, Animation and Non Fiction Comics festival, Italy. http://www.docartoon.it/

A brilliant watch, rich with content – I know I will be sharing this with my students in their studies of animated documentary.