A day at Deptford Animadocs

image.jpg

Deptford Cinema

The Deptford Animadocs symposium took place on a warm July day in Deptford Cinema, London. A converted shop edging the bustle of Deptford Market, the venue, which is run entirely by volunteers, is plastered with cult film imagery and local information, combining the laser focus of film obsessives with the inclusivity of a community space. The event attracted an audience  including animated documentary die-hards as well as newcomers to the form and there was a buzz throughout the day as filmmakers, academics and audience members compared thoughts and ideas.

The day included three programmes of short films. Each had a theme. The first, ‘Borders’, was a harrowing collection of stories of migration, protest, and imprisonment. From the near-invisible modern-day slavery of some foreign domestic workers in Leeds Animation Workshop’s They Call Us Maids to the brutal detention of migrants in Lukas Schrank’s Nowhere Lines: Broken Dreams from Manus Island, the films told urgent stories with a strong social message.

Nowhere_Line_still_10.jpg

Nowhere Lines: Broken Dreams from Manus Island Dir. Lukas Schrank (UK/ Australia)

The second programme, themed as ‘Memories’, was a more upbeat and varied screening, lifted by the humour of Dustin Grella’s Animation Hotline and the lateral charm of Carina and Ines Christine Geisser’s Durrenwaid 8. The programme also featured dark moments, notably Susan Young’s visceral The Betrayal, a film in which she explores a traumatic period from her past in which she was put in the care of a manipulative and destructive mental health professional.

Following this was a screening of the feature animated documentary Another Planet (dir. Amir Yatziv). The film follows the creators of various virtual simulations of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. These worlds have been created by very different people, each with very different motivations: police forensics, game development, museum exhibit modelling. In the film we see the creators of each simulated camp as avatars exploring their own virtual Auschwitz.

This was one of those films that is very difficult to describe or explain, or even to make sense of your feelings about during or after watching it. It’s strange, chilling, depressing, reflective, and at times blackly funny. It asks smart questions not only about its subject but also about the documentary form, leaving the audience unsettled and unmoored, unsure of whose voice we have been listening to.

The final short film programme of the day, ‘Body and Mind’, saw filmmakers looking inwards and making films that dealt with physical and mental illness, and emotional highs and lows. Kate Ranmey’s Lingua Absentia was a powerful story about a young woman with schizophrenia and cancer, told through the eyes of her mother, while Lizzy Hobbs’s BAFTA-nominated I’m OK was a wonderfully fluid, rich and satisfying way to wrap up the screening.

IMOK_Hobbs02.jpg

I’m OK Dir. Elizabeth Hobbs (UK)

The day concluded with a roundtable discussion, with: myself; Susan Young; Terry Wragg and Jo Dunne from the Leeds Animation Workshop; Dr Victoria Grace Walden, who had organised and programmed the bulk of the day; and Dr Bella Honess Roe, who has written widely on animated documentary and who helped programme the event. It was a lively, discursive panel with a very active audience. Earlier in the day both Honess Roe and Walden had made presentations and led discussions, laying strong groundwork for more in-depth debate at the end of the day. It was particularly interesting to hear Young talk about her process of making The Betrayal, which she produced following a period of poor mental health, building a script from fragments of her real medical and legal records:

I had gone through this experience of being someone who had a voice, an animation director, et cetera, and then ending up with a mental health label and suddenly becoming voiceless. And that was totally shocking. So I wanted to explore that, to actually explore what it meant to me, how it felt to be voiceless. Which is why I used the medical records, to subvert them and take control of that narrative.

Most of the words in the film are seen as flashes of typed text, shot so close-up that the texture of paper and ink is visible, illuminated by sudden flashes of light. The doctor’s words are embodied in a disturbing voiceover, voiced by Young herself in audio that was then processed heavily to create a dark simulation of a man’s voice. This literal using of her own voice exemplifies Young’s intention:

it was really, really important to find my own voice again through playing with the voice of this individual who I’d created through his medical records he wrote about me, and also legal records.

It was also good to hear Wragg and Dunne talk about their work with Leeds Animation Workshop and how it has changed over the years. Particularly interesting was Wragg’s opinion that it is harder now to find ways to get a film seen in a good environment with the opportunity for discussion than it used to be. She explains that:

a lot of our films are quite dense and intensively researched and designed to provoke specific questions. They really work best if they’re in a group where people are around to talk about things, and sometimes that’s not as easy as it used to be.

More positively, the panel discussed animated documentary as a space where alternative and diverse stories and storytellers can flourish. Walden commented on how encouraged she was not only by the quantity and quality of submissions that Deptford Animadocs received, but also the diversity of the filmmakers and the stories represented.

Walden also talked about the way that the documentary value of animated documentary is problematised by the subjectivity of the form, the intent that is inherent in animation. While all filmmaking involves construction and decision-making on the part of the filmmaker, there remains a sense that animation is more constructed and therefore less trustworthy than live action. Walden and Honess Roe discussed the fact that while animated documentary is generally considered to be good at representing subjective, internal experiences, these representations are usually mediated by the animator or director, rather than emerging purely from the subject (Samantha Moore’s work within the collaborative frame is an example of a filmmaker addressing this issue).

This Animadocs festival, or symposium, or ‘sympestival’ as Walden calls it, was a rich day for fans of animated and alternative documentary. The programme of films was very strong, favouring high-intensity work packing an emotional gut-punch over information-heavy or highly illustrative films. This made the viewing demanding as well as rewarding, but the frequent breaks, presentations and discussions that peppered the day provided some cerebral and social relief. Walden and Deptford cinema even bought the audience a drink and provided crisps and cheese at the end of the day, which was nice.


To keep up to date with the future work of Deptford Animadocs, join their facebook group here.

image.jpg

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.

‘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.