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.

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‘Tea and Consent’ written by Rock-Star-Dinosaur-Pirate-Princess, produced by Blue Seat Studios

Tea and Consent is a public information animation which is used with permission by Thames Valley Police to address and clarify issues of sexual consent as part of the Consent is everything campaign. This simply rendered Flash animation draws a parallel between sexual consent and the intuitive etiquette associated with offering someone a cup of tea.

In essence you can offer someone tea but it’s not acceptable to pressure or force him or her to drink it. The elegant metaphor behind the short film originates from a blog post written by the feminist blogger Emmeline May, a.k.a. Rock-Star-Dinosaur-Pirate-Princess.

tea_and_consent_01b

When exploring this work in the context of animated documentary it is important to recognise that this film does not comfortably fit with Annabelle Honess Roe’s 2013 definition of the genre, which follows a few rules:

Firstly, is it animated? Yes.

Secondly, does the animation reflect an imagined world of an auteur or ‘the world’? This is not as clear. The film primarily addresses a hypothetical scenario, which raises an ethical sexual dilemma. This dilemma is explored explicitly through a metaphor. It is also a distillation of the controversial social and political ideologies of the feminist writer, Emmeline May.

However, I don’t believe these points suggest the film is about an imagined world. The issues addressed clearly reflect a very real problem, while the ideology that is represented considers a majority perspective of our Western society and is supported by the legal system. It is also fair to suggest that theoretical or allegorical devices are a key part of the animated documentary language and help shed light on reality rather than an imagined world.

Finally, was it the intention of the filmmakers to create a documentary? I believe not. I would argue that it was the intention of Blue Seat Studios and Emmeline May in making it, and of Thames Valley Police in their use of the film, to change behaviour rather than observe and capture it.

Tea and Consent sits more comfortably amongst the state sponsored animated propaganda of the mid 20th century than contemporary animated documentary discourse: ‘Animation has historically been used as a tool for illustration and clarification in factual films… [It’s advantage over live action] led to an ever greater uptake of the medium by the US government in the Second World War.’ (Honess Roe, 2013)

Nonetheless, animated educational and propaganda films were an essential evolutional stage in the development of contemporary animated documentary and clearly still have a useful role to play.

tea_and_consent_02b

While the issue of consent is often received as a grey area topic, Tea and Consent proposes that it is a simple one. The analogy is powerfully robust. This very strong foundation facilitated the exploration of ambiguous and horrifying sexual conduct with incredible clarity and humour. It has not however been disseminated across the Internet with universal praise.

Comments on the film’s Youtube page have now been suspended, but I can testify that I was startled by the sexual aggression and anti-‘political correctness’ sentiments expressed in some of the comments posted previously. Sadly Youtube has a reputation for providing a platform for the vitriol of anonymous misogynists.

The simplistic Flash animation lends itself to easily rendered parodies. The two I’ve seen awkwardly contort the tea/consent analogy either for ‘comedic value’ or as a counter argument. The first version pushes the concept to an absurd extreme, suggesting that it is never safe to drink tea without lawyers present. The second explores an ill-conceived comedic inversion in which a “slut” wants tea in all scenarios. Neither of these spoofs deserves viewer hits so forgive me for not sharing their links.

tea_and_consent_03b

My bias is clearly highlighted by the fact that I feel naturally suspicious of the people who are offended by this film. I wonder if those who are most threatened are also individuals who would benefit most from its message. I suspect this argument is a little reductive and extreme.

The Internet is a breeding ground for such conflict after all and I resign myself to this. I neither have the energy or the skill to engage and attempt to change the minds of those I mistrust, unlike the makers of Tea and Consent.

Notes:

Honess Roe, A. (2013) Animated Documentary, London: Palgrave Macmillan. p.5&9

Animation courtesy of Emmeline May at rockstardinosaurpirateprincess.com and Blue Seat Studios. Copyright © 2015 RockStarDinosaurPiratePrincess and Blue Seat Studios. Images are Copyright ©2015 Blue Seat Studios.