LIAF 2015 – animated documentary programme review

London International Animation Festival’s Animated Documentary screening returned to the Barbican in London in December 2015, showcasing a diverse selection of animated docs from around the world.

Many films of the selected films did not include any live action elements, and featured voiceovers which were obviously scripted and acted – raising questions about what makes a film a documentary at all. All these films were both presented and received as documentaries, but in many their claim to real world truth rested on trust – there was no ‘evidence’ presented in the film that what we were witnessing was real.

This is an interesting quality of the animated documentary – one which sets it apart from most live action work and which can, when successful, elevate it. This programme of films offered a rich variety of perspectives; not only on the world but on the documentary form itself.

The screening kicked off with Everyone is Waiting for Something to Happen, a mixed-media piece by UK-based animator Emma Calder. Calder’s film used the social media posts of one of her acquaintances to create a portrait of him over the course of a critical time in his life – his cancer diagnosis and treatment. The film offers a light-hearted look at the images we project of ourselves on social media, and the audiences we do not always know we have, who observe these.

Everyone is waiting for something to happen (Official Trailer) from Emma Calder/Pearly Oyster on Vimeo.

The Beast Inside by US filmmaker Drew Christie is a portrait of a homeless young person, determined to live a compassionate, creative and optimistic life in spite of his circumstances. The film is upbeat, with a lively, musical pace, but has moments of deep pathos that make an impact, such as when the protagonist is refused a job at a fast food joint because – he is told – he looks as if he would steal money or scare the customers. The young man’s hurt at the apparent indifference that the general public has towards the fate of those on the street, also provides a moving and memorable perspective.

The Beast Inside from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Drew Christie’s second film in the programme is Psychedelic Blues, an animated interview with ‘freak folk band’ Holy Modal Rounders which explores their formation and early days. This is a non-stop, acid- and amphetamine-fuelled celebratory rollercoaster of music and absurdity. The characters move fluidly between their old and young selves, caught up in moments that they’d never forget, if only they could remember. The gonzo glory of the memories is tempered by a twinge of sadness, evoked by the fragility in the voice of the ageing, drug-saturated narrator, allowing an openness in terms of how the film can be received.

Psychedelic Blues from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Baba is a colourful and entertaining short by New Zealand filmmaker Joel Kefali, in which his grandfather describes his experience of arriving in the country as a Turkish immigrant many years before. The film successfully captures the experience and character of an exuberant man, baffled by certain cultural oddities but ultimately filled with humour and joy of life; able to take the world on and adapt to his strange new environment.

BABA from joel kefali on Vimeo.

A Portrait by Greek filmmaker Aristotelis Maragkos is another film about a grandfather, but this one has a very different tone. In this piece, the film-maker’s grandfather is seen from the outside through the memories of his grandson. It is a sensitive portrayal of a complex relationship. The film touches on ugly and violent elements the man’s mysterious past, of which the film-maker only knows fragments – which lead him to fear what potential for darkness may lie inside his own genetic material. This sense of violence is undercut however by the clear love that the narrator has for his grandfather, and the tension between these two perspectives is elegantly brought out in the very short film, making it a moving and memorable work which brought depth to the programme.

Food, by US/China based Siqi Song, is a bizairre and compelling take on the talking heads interview format – in which the talking heads are in fact foodstuffs, discussing their own food choices. A plucked chicken describes its decision to go vegetarian, while a loud-mouthed burger extols the virtues of meat-eating. “I think maybe healthy is overrated” he says, his bun flapping open to reveal a tongue-like slab of meat and cheese as he speaks. The film is comically grotesque and, while the interviews themselves do not tell us anything very new, the delivery certainly makes for compelling viewing which adds a new dimension to the issues discussed.

FOOD from SIQI SONG on Vimeo.

The theme of food was returned to later in the programme with the visceral Canadian production Table D’hote, which combines an attractive illustrative style with repulsive and disturbing imagery, reflecting on the industrial savagery of meat production.

Me and My Moulton is an NFB-supported film by Torill Kove. It tells the story of a young girl growing up in Norway and coming to terms with her unconventional parents and her place in the world. The film takes an unhurried approach to storytelling and paints an engaging picture of this girl’s life and the everyday issues she deals with. It balances humour with nostalgia, conjuring a picture of a childhood world that is, while not untroubled, ultimately safe and filled with love.

Me and My Moulton (Trailer) from National Film Board of Canada on Vimeo.

Ode to Joy by UK-based filmmaker Martin Pickles is a tribute to hugely influential but near-forgotten animator Joy Batchelor, affirming her rightful place in the canon of British Animation.

Ode To Joy (2014) from Martin Pickles on Vimeo.

Elsewhere in the programme another film by Pickles, What is Animation?, is an insightful meditation on the nature of animation wrapped up in a portrait of British Animation legend Bob Godfrey. You can read more about this piece here.

In Last Words by Yuwen Xue, the filmmaker interviews hospice residents at the end of their lives, creating imaginative visual representations to capture these characters, and broadening the scope of the film beyond the individual sounds captured to wider thoughts and feelings. The visuals play experimentally with live action and animation, conjuring a fantastical space between life and somewhere else. Fascinating insights into the artist’s process can be found on Yuwen Xue’s production blog.

Words are again the focus in Arlene, by UK filmmaker Farouq Suleiman. This film is a portrait of a woman who suffers from Aphasia, a brain condition affecting language. Her difficulty with words is expressed with strong visuals including the memorable image of letters of the alphabet falling from a tree like autumn leaves.

CIvdvbXWIAAp9p-

Still from Arlene

Hora, by Israeli filmmaker Yoav Brill, is a longer piece exploring same-sex love in Tel Aviv through reflections on public hand-holding. Interviewees discuss the practice of hand-holding, what it means to them and how the meaning changes when it is observed. There are some truthful and tender insights here, delivered with slick and engaging visuals; making for a film that carries you through smiling.

Still Born, by Swedish filmmaker Asa Sandzen, was the most hard-hitting film in the programme, in which a pregnant woman describes the experience of discovering that her 18-week old foetus has serious heart defect, and making the devastating decision to end the pregnancy. The film does not shelter from the painful process of this, taking the audience through the whole physical and emotional journey of late abortion and delivery. The film is made to feel very real by the small but affecting details that are recalled about the medicalised termination process and the disturbed thought process that takes place in parallel. Ultimately this is a raw and truthful film about the pain of loss, that is as disarming as it is memorable.

Advertisements

‘Table d’Hôte’ by Alexandra Levasseur

A Vimeo user named Surreal Magicalism needed just two sentences to effectively sum up this unconventionally abstract approach to animated documentary. “Simultaneously subtle & brutal indictment of meat production/consumption; brilliant! The animation style, pace & sound design are all incredibly strong.”

Somewhat subtler than Morrissey’s declaration that eating meat is worse than pedophilia, Alexandra Levasseur  represents her anti-meat message through metamorphic visual poetry, semiabstract narrative and masterful sound design.

A fly functions as a discordant device; it evokes a creeping notion of disgust while the viewer is presented with clinical images of meat preparation and consumption. This, I assume, is the central goal of the film.

TH2

The title ‘Table d’Hôte’ refers to a ‘set menu’ in restaurant terminology. A situation with little choice may refer to the decadence of a society that insists on consuming meat as a norm, despite the agricultural inefficiency, environmental costs and ethical ambiguity.

TH3

I am intrigued by the inclusion of a horse. Levasseur, a Montreal based student, may not be aware of the recent meat adulteration scandals in Britain. Maybe she references an animal that is normally revered and rarely consumed to highlight the perceived absurdity of accepting the industrial scale slaughter of some animals over others. Hopefully this isn’t simply explained by my ignorance of French Canadian livestock practices.

The illustrative style is confidently minimal, aided by a consciously fleshy colour palette. I observed a few careless animation glitches; the flickering line above the cow’s eye distracts from what is otherwise a powerful image.

TH4

The sound design, despite being very simple is genuinely intriguing. The glimmering digital base track acts as a bed for all manner of thoughtfully selected sound effects. We are struck by silence in the final scene as the horse collapses into a pile of meat. Only an invisible fly is audible, reengaging the viewer’s disgust instinct once again.

Awarded the Vimeo Staff Pick, ‘Table d’Hôte’ is the second student film made at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema to grab my attention in so many months.

‘Just a Mess’ by Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart, an animation student at Concordia University, recorded her grandmother during the 2012 winter holidays. Of the many stories she heard about life on Prince Edward Island in Eastern Canada, ‘Just a Mess’ stood out.

jam1

Gentle banjo plucking is sprinkled behind this playful and charming claymation. The use of a folding map to tackle a set-design dilemma is an efficient and enjoyable solution.

Jam2

Occasionally the animation is a little jerky, the character design a little simplistic and the illusion of life size scale is never quite achieved, however any short comings pale in significance when considering the kind humour and delightful ease of the story telling.

Jam3

An extraordinary shot where the grandmother inhales fumes from the rotting skunk snouts stood out. The green wool tears its way up her nostrils as we watch at an uncomfortably close angle.

Jam4

Although there is a slight flippancy regarding animal welfare issues, Stewart’s job was to merely represent her grandmother’s story and not drag the historical tale through a complex of contemporary ethics.

Jam5

Laura Stewart continues to study Film Animation at Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University. Her progress is well documented on her blog.

‘The Chaperone 3D’ by Fraser Munden

The Chaperone 3D Trailer from Thoroughbread Pictures on Vimeo.

Something new here – I’m fairly certain this is the first animated documentary made in stereoscopic 3D that we’ve featured! Is this a new movement in animadoc film-making? It’s definitely one that I didn’t see coming.

Just the trailer available to view on Vimeo at present. The film has recently been premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. We look forward to reading reviews. It sounds intriguing…

“When told that bikers once invaded a middle school dance in a Montreal church basement, Neil Rathbone couldn’t believe it.

I said ‘No way that’s true. That’s the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard,’ he recalled.

The story is told by Ralph Whims and Stefan Czernatowicz, who were the teacher/chaperone and DJ at the dance.

Rathbone said the film includes live action Kung Fu segments, puppets and exploding piñatas.

“It has a strong comedic flavour,” he said.

More from the interview with Rathbone here:
http://www.thespec.com/news-story/4070910-burlington-grad-s-animated-short-premieres-at-tiff/

‘The History of Typography’ by Ben Barrett-Forrest

Ben Barrett-Forrest has constructed a charming introduction to the field of typography. This topic, which over the years has enthralled a certain type of graphic designer, has also left the rest of us puzzled as to what all the fuss was about.

THOT1

Forrest’s short educational film provides a carefully measured level of insight; not so much detail that a newcomer to the field feels overwhelmed but enough substance to make them appreciate they are learning something.

THOT2

As Ben is the only name credited in the film it is fairly safe to assume this was a solo experience. Whilst the cut out paper technique employed is engaging in its simplicity, the addition of pixillated hands certainly must have complicated the production process. The result being the film exists just beyond what one could imagine achieving single-handed.

THOT3

‘The History of Typography’ has functioned as a promotional tool for Forrest Media, Ben Barrett-Forrest’s graphic design practice. The animation has received over 500 000 views on Youtube and a further 74 000 on Vimeo, as well as being featured on mainstream North American online media. It is rewarding to see how independent animation can function as a vehicle to generate business in this way.