‘That Dragon, Cancer’ by Numinous Games

Ryan Green’s infant son, Joel, is dying from cancer. A developer of apps and indie-games by trade, Ryan and his wife Amy have chosen to tackle their active sorrow head-on by creating a game about their son’s life and suffering. Initially funded by a successful KickStarter campaign, the game launched on 12 January 2016. The painful honesty of this project has made it stand out amongst other gaming experiences. I would go so far as to argue it has more in common with the animated documentaries covered on this blog than with the conventional gaming market.

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I first heard about That Dragon, Cancer on the Reply All podcast. Further investigation revealed an enormous amount of online media coverage. Wired Magazine has published an extract from the first scene that Ryan conceived, viewable at this link. It is a close reconstruction of a terrible night Ryan spent with Joel. He was forced to accept his limited ability to help his son. From this came the idea of a gaming experience where the player is not necessarily granted influence over the outcomes in the story. The significant absence of control leaves the player with no option other than to accept their fate, and that of Joel.

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Christianity strongly influences the Green family’s perspectives regarding Joel’s plight. The game is very much rooted in the tension first articulated in the Book of Job. In essence this ancient text asks why do the innocent suffer? The world being Godless, might seem to be a conceivable answer to a bourgeois atheist like myself, but it is clear that the Green family’s faith and prayers are vital tools that are helping them through this ongoing tragedy.

joel_ipad

From an outsider’s perspective, I would argue that there is something more tangible than prayer helping this family; the power of catharsis. This game is the method chosen by Amy and Ryan to address their pain. Every ounce of personal tragedy evident in the game play, is suffering that they are not going through alone; suffering that they have had to pick apart and understand in order to make it communicable to others. I cannot begin to understand what it would be like to watch your child battle with cancer for three years, but this game is the best that Ryan and Amy Green could do to show me.

That Dragon, Cancer is available for purchase and download here.

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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.

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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.

‘Rocks in my Pockets’ by Signe Baumane – trailer

Check out the trailer for Signe Baumane’s first feature expiring mental illness through the stories of five women in her family – ‘a funny film about depression’.

Upcoming screenings around the world in Sept & Oct 2014 listed here:
http://www.rocksinmypocketsmovie.com/Screenings.html

And a series of ‘making of’ shorts here: http://www.rocksinmypocketsmovie.com/Process.html

Signe’s portfolio site here: http://www.signebaumane.com

‘StoryCorps Animated Shorts’ by the Rauch Brothers

StoryCorps is a US independent non-profit oral history project, charged with the task of recording, sharing and preserving personal stories of American lives. Many of the thousands of stories are broadcast weekly on National Public Radio’s ‘Morning Edition’ while a handful have been adapted into short animated documentaries.

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Image from ‘A Family Man’

The Rauch Brothers co-directed all fifteen of the shorts. The series demonstrates a strong influence from the school of American cartoons; Tim Rauch’s distinctly caricatured personalities inhabit beautifully constructed backgrounds designed by Bill Wray. The off-kilter geometry of the architecture and pastel colour palette is reminiscent of the 1960s-era ‘Pink Panther Show’, while the thick outlined digital character animation has a stronger connection to contemporary Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network kids animations.

Image from ‘Eyes on the Stars’

Image from ‘Eyes on the Stars’

Many of the StoryCorps recordings selected for animation deal with themes of mortality. ‘John and Joe’, ‘Always a Family’ and ‘She Was the One’ commemorate individuals lost in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, where family members recall their last conversations with loved ones. Meanwhile ‘Danny and Annie’, ‘Germans in the Woods’, ‘A Family Man’ and ‘No More Questions!’ deal with natural deaths. In some instances recordings were made with an elderly family member not long before their passing. Every reference to mortality is a celebration of that individual’s life, highlighting their idiosyncrasies and honouring memories of them.

Image from ‘She Was the One’

Image from ‘She Was the One’

Films like ‘Eyes on the Stars’, ‘Facundo the Great’ and ‘Icing on the Cake’ refer to the experiences of racial minorities, including stories of inequality and immigration. They are however told with a stereotypical American optimism and sentimentality. The people involved look back from improved circumstances, mocking the absurdity of racism or displaying awe and wonder for the struggles of their parents’ generation.

Image from ‘Facundo the Great’

Image from ‘Facundo the Great’

Eccentric personalities seems to be another theme which pops up in these films. ‘Sundays at Rocco’s’, ‘Q&A’, ‘The Human Voice’, ‘No More Questions!’ and ‘Miss Devine’ all feature domineering or uncongenial characters. These stories celebrate diversity and highlight the importance of individuality.

Image from ‘The Human Voice’

Image from ‘The Human Voice’

While many of the animations make reference to romantic or family love, ‘To RP Salazar, with Love’ concerns an extraordinary circumstance that leads to a digital age fairytale ending.

Image from ‘To RP Salazar, with Love’

Image from ‘To RP Salazar, with Love’

Occasionally the animation is noticeably clunky, in particular lip-synching feels a little rough. However the character designs are marvellous. The Rauch Brothers have sensitively depicted a variety of ethnic groups without leaning on illustrative clichés. Family members are designed with an appropriate level of genetic resemblance while managing to avoid looking identical and the exaggerated use of body language and posture helps bring the individuality of each character to life.

Image from ‘Miss Devine’

Image from ‘Miss Devine’

The StoryCorps project has now been running for ten years. An archive of the recordings is being collected at the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress. Although we couldn’t embed all the ‘StoryCorps Animated Shorts’ here, I recommend taking time to flick through them on the StoryCorp website.

‘Nyosha’ by Liran Kapel and Yael Dekel

Nyosha is the story of a young Jewish girl who becomes fixated on a pair of shoes as the source of her salvation while her life is ripped apart by the Holocaust. Based on the diary and video recordings of Nomi Kapel, one of the young filmmaker’s grandmother, director Liran Kapel and Yael Dekel have employed both stop-motion and traditional 2D animation to render this harrowing tale.

A certain uncanny charm keeps the viewer afloat in the rippling currents of such a dejected context. Despite the truly terrible nature of the historic narrative, naïve optimism is provided by the child’s perspective. The medium also engages us with a toy like simulacra; for better or for worse this buffer dampens the emotional response to the distressing subject matter.

This towering project is impressive but by no means is it flawless. At times the stop-motion is a tad jerky, the models still have their flash lines and the illusion of scale is not fully realised. That said these are the imperfections that come hand in hand with such a challenging medium: an Aardman production, for example, would be missing a great deal if all thumbprints were removed. Set design on Nyosha is impressive and at times the lighting is too. Particular attention has been paid to attempting tricky post-production effects, like the beams of light that cut through the forest. Despite not always being entirely convincing, the over all atmosphere these create is invaluable.

You can watch a making-of film here:

Nyosha – Behind The Scenes! from liran kapel on Vimeo.

‘Are You My Mother’ by Alison Bechdel

books

In this reflective, self-referential lesson in psychoanalysis, Bechdel sketches out every inch of her conscious and subconscious. She includes immaculately drawn extracts from Winnicot, Freud and Virginia Woolf, cross referencing and applying them to some complicated relationships with the women in her life.  It is impossible not to relate to this brutally honest memoir. It is even more impossible not to devour it in one sitting.

If you’re a graphic novel novice like I was, reading this will have you forever veering towards the comics section of your bookshop.
There are freshly signed copies at Gosh Comics, Soho, London.

See all things Alison Bechdel at http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/