‘Escapology: the art of addiction’ directed by Alex Widdowson

 

Escapology: The art of addiction is a short animated documentary about addictive behaviour,  which attempts to be non-judgmental while avoiding gritty drug clichés. This film was recently released on Vice Media’s online platforms and received over half a million views in the first week. As a long term contributor to AnimatedDocumentary.com I thought this was a good opportunity to write about my own work, dissecting a project from the director’s perspective.

Having attended two Alcoholics Anonymous open meetings in 2013 when supporting a friend who was struggling, I was struck by how practical the advice was. Their stories and rhetoric helped me understand my own cannabis abuse as a teenager, but also put into perspective my less pronounced addictive behaviours. Part of the focus of those meetings involved encouraging new attendees to acknowledge that their relationship with alcohol was problematic.I connected with notion of ambiguity when defining addiction; if one enjoys a substance with complete clarity it must, on the surface, seem rational to seek it out at every opportunity. However at this point the difference between wants and needs become indistinguishable. Having quit cannabis in 2008 I couldn’t help but adopt a strong anti-drugs policy. Over the years I observed the nuances of those AA meetings being played out in my friends drug use and frequently appropriated the rhetoric when dispensing unsolicited advice.

In early 2016 I was looking for a warm up exercise before enrolling in the inaugural year of the Documentary Animation masters degree at the Royal College of Art. The Philadelphia Association seemed an obvious starting point. I had been working for this psychotherapy organisation as a graphic designer and had come to know many of the therapists. Nick Mercer, before completing the PA training, had worked for decades as an addiction counselor, often in prisons. Nick had struggled with heroin addiction in his youth and entered recovery through the Narcotics Anonymous fellowship.

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Nick invited me to a discussion group on addiction at the PA. His charisma and storytelling abilities were striking. It became clear that NA and AA functioned as a training ground for public speaking. Each member ceremoniously took the lectern in order to transform their fractured and painful experiences into a set of coherent and digestible narratives.

Following the meeting I set up my recording equipment in the PA’s historic library and began our interview. Once I’d whittled down the 2 hour tape to a 3 minute edit my task was to develop a visual translation of his words. There is always a danger that an interview based animated documentary becomes an illustrated podcast. I feel this risk increases the more interesting your interview material is. Thankfully a moment of inspiration split my visual and verbal narratives, helping me to avoid the drudgery of tautology. (Read ‘Show and Tell’, chapter 6 from Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud for more on the interplay between image and text).

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Nick spoke eloquently about the feeling of existing in the moment for the first time when he took morphine. I pictured the excitement of a performer who comes into his own on stage, but as he repeats the process all meaning is lost until he’s just going through the motions. This image brought me back to my heady days as a drug user. I remember boasting to my uncle about my adventures. He responded calmly, explaining that “it sounds like you’re just self medicating. You’ll figure it out eventually.” This short phrase shattered the romantic notions I’d conjured about my rebellious lifestyle. I realised, as Nick says in the film, my life had condensed down to something very conservative.

The narrative arc of an addict also reminded me of Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds, a documentary about the Amazing Randy, whose magic act escalated from simple tricks to incredibly dangerous feets of escapology, until finally he came close to dying live on television while trapped in an enormous milk tank. I was excited by the slightly discordant parallel between an addict and magician. There was enough substance for an audience to draw parallels regarding the excitement of the early days, along with the increasingly extreme self destructive behaviour. I also liked that the links weren’t seamless; the audience would need to do a little work to fit the two sides together.

escapology_01

After the film was animated I developed the audio with a long running collaborator, Vicky Freund: musician, engineer and sound designer. The rich foley, atmospheres and score helped balance the stark black and white aesthetic, transforming the project from an elaborate exercise into a finished film.

Escapology was a watershed moment for my practice. It was partly responsible for my first experience of international recognition. I was invited to  participate in the Au Contraire mental health film festival in Montreal and later recruited as assistant festival programmer. On the back of this project the Philadelphia Association invited me to become artist in residence, culminating in the creation of Critical Living, a film about critical psychiatry and the PA therapeutic communities. Finally, Vice UK licenced the film for distribution online. Today it has been viewed internationally 629,425 times.

 

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Jan Nåls writing on ‘A Kosovo Fairytale’ by Anna-Sofia Nylund, Samantha Nell, Mark Middlewick

A new online journal, the International Journal of Film and Media Arts, launched this year with a special issue dedicated to animated documentary. The articles in Vol 1 can be viewed online, and offer some valuable insights into the field. They include Drawing the Unspeakable – Understanding ‘the other’ through narrative empathy in animated documentary, by Jan Nåls.

Nåls uses A Kosovo Fairytale (2009), an educational film project for which he acted as a supervisor, as a case study to explore how the use of combined animation and live action can encourage empathy for a documentary’s subject. The film tells the story of a family who were forced to leave their youngest child in Kosovo, seeking safety as refugees in Finland.

A Kosovo Fairytale

A Kosovo Fairytale

In the article Nåls discusses documentary within the historically ethically problematic field of ethnography, noting that “documentary representation is fundamentally informed by the challenges of inter- and multi-cultural encounters since it always entails a dialogue between a film-maker and a subject that exists in the world outside of the narrative – a person, a community or a culture.” He views animated documentary as a valuable tool within contemporary ethnography, which can be used to bring breadth and depth to representation of ‘the other’.

A Kosovo Fairytale was made by five exchange students from Africa and Europe. It combines roughly-made animation with live action footage of a Skype call. The lo-fi look of both the animated and live action sections means that the film’s aesthetic is consistent throughout. Nåls notes that although animation is traditionally an expensive and time-consuming process, it is possible to produce a film such as A Kosovo Fairytale on a very low budget and in a very limited timescale (the film was made in less that three months), and for the film to still be successful and well received in some exhibition contexts. In a tradition familiar to animated documentary and famously used by Tim Webb in his groundbreaking A is for Autism (1992), the characters in A Kosovo Fairytale are presented as figures hand-drawn by the real life subjects, and this integration of the participatory self-portrait helps to justify the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic style.

A is for Autism

A is for Autism

Nåls believes that the combination of animation and live action footage can create a particular empathetic response in the viewer. The animation allows an audience to relate to what is being shown as a universal human story. Nåls believes that much of the specificity and complexity of the situation being portrayed is negated through the use of iconic, “naive and minimalistic” characters and backgrounds. In contrast, book-ending the film with stark live action footage reminds us that this is in fact a very specific story; it is not a fairytale, and it has no happy ending. Nåls relates this to the Brechtian concent of Verfremdung – alienation or distancing which disrupts audience immersion in a story, highlighting construction and challenging the viewer to question the action. He sees the combination of live action and animation in documentary as “a technique of alienation… also a technique of persuasion, a way of convincing the audience of the authenticity of the story.”

Nåls mentions the “unique quality of animated non-fiction as a medium to represent traumatic events”, which has also been written about in detail by scholars such as Annabelle Honess Roe. He believes that the juxtaposition of live action and animation can be particularly effective in evoking traumatic experience, a technique also used to great effect in the final scene of Waltz with Bashir.

While many of the concepts put forward in Nåls’ essay have been discussed in existing scholarship, his use of A Kosovo Fairytale as a case study provides a useful lens through which to explore the ideas in practical terms. His thoughtful exposure of the nuts and bolts of the production process behind the film adds an extra layer of meaning to the viewing of it.

A Kosovo Fairytale from Anna-Sofia Nylund on Vimeo.

Vol 1 No 1 of the International Journal of Film and Media Arts also includes work by Paul Ward, Annabelle Honess Roe, Filipe Costa Luz, Pedro Serrazina and M. Alexandra Abreu Lima.

Crowd funding ‘The Last 40 Miles’, a film by Alex Hannaford

Although not claiming to be an animated documentary The Last 40 Miles, ‘a short animated film about life, death and compassion’, is based on a true story. The mixed media animation refers to the real life narrative of a death row inmate whom Alex Hannaford, writer and director, came across while working as a journalist covering the Texas prison system.

Not yet completed, the filmmakers have chosen to use crowd funding to raise the rest of the capital they need to pay the production costs. Crowd funding has become an integral resource for contemporary independent filmmaking. Although not a new phenomenon, the advent of social media and specially designed sights has lead to greater numbers of productions choosing this root.

Often such campaigns offer rewards in exchange for donations, the highest levels of philanthropy resulting in a credit as executive producer. Follow the link below to see how the team have used a short video to pitch to potential donators. Indiegogo, the fundraising platform also allows us to observe their progress.

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-last-40-miles?c=home