Roger Ross Williams‘ feature film ‘Life, Animated’ is based on the book ‘Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism‘ by Ron Suskind, which tells the story of his son, Owen, and his experience with autism. At the age of three, Owen became non-verbal but Suskind and his wife soon came to understand that Owen would use Disney animated movies as a way to connect and communicate with the world.
The film is comprised of the Suskind family’s home video clips, present-day interviews, and animation. Disney animation is a huge part of Owen Suskind’s life, and the animation in ‘Life, Animated’ has echoes of movies we know such as ‘The Jungle Book’ or ‘The Little Mermaid’. The fluid movements and expressive characters also have an organic, hand-drawn element to them which brings the animation closer to reality. The colourless palette also lends further emphasis to the real-life interviews and recordings which are included in the film, putting Owen and the story he has to tell at front and centre. Allowing Owen to share his own story was William’s main concern, “All too often in films about people with disabilities, the narrative gets taken away from them.”
The trailer gives us a glimpse into this personal and heartfelt film, and the insight it give us into the lives of those like Owen who struggle to understand and connect with the world around them in a conventional way.
Eternal Spring, Jason Loftus’s feature-length largely animated documentary about the 2002 hijacking of a state TV signal in China by members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, is currently playing at Bertha Dochouse in London and at other cinemas across the world. The film chronicles a small group of Falun Gong practitioners, whose aim through the hijack was to counter the government’s narrative about their practice at a time when Falun Gong faced growing pressure and persecution.
The film uses the surviving hijackers’ memories as material through which scenarios are visualised by artist Daxiong, also a Falun Gong practitioner, who was forced to leave China as a result of the government crackdown following the hijacking. The design includes elaborate architectures and environments, through which the camera travels revealing characters and scenarios. As the action progresses we are introduced to a group of characters who come together as a community of activists, and are subsequently torn apart by the repercussions of their activism.
Eternal Spring does not completely get away from some of the problematic elements of animated reconstruction (and indeed of any reconstruction or reenactment), whereby richly detailed scenes are presented without the audience having full access to the knowledge of which details of the action and environment come from rigorous research, memory or record, and which come from the imagination of the filmmakers and designers.
However the film does constantly work to legitimise its representations, by adopting the reflexive technique of showing the research and development process through the eyes of Daxiong. The artist reflects on his own life and memories at the same time as talking to surviving hijackers and reconstructing theirs.
This process of making what Daxiong describes as ‘art based on a shared memory’ forms the spine of the film, with reconstructions emerging from live action interview scenes in which Daxiong is sketching as interviewees are describing their memories. At other times we see interviewees looking at designs and work-in-progress animated scenes, and responding to them, before we are plunged into the fully rendered glossy scene itself.
The visual design of the animated scenes gives the action, including scenes of physical abuse, a comic book / gangster heist quality. Gangster film tropes are also referenced in the cinematography, down to freeze-frame character introductions and even a dolly zoom in a diner, à la Goodfellas. This use of cinematic language can add drama in certain moments – the hijack itself gets quite tense – but gives it also gives the film a genre sheen that can be distancing at times.
The film also breaks with this design at moments, including a beautifully fluid expressionistic sequence at an emotional climax, in which a character’s psychology is represented through more abstracted images and action, leaning into symbolic imagery and evocative sounds, in an inky black-and-white aesthetic. Moments such as this elevate the film, heightening emotion and exploiting animation’s ability to do more than merely reenact.
Eternal Spring focuses its action almost exclusively around the run-up to and the fallout from the 2002 hijack. The absence of a wider contemporary context for Falun Gong has led some reviewers to view the film with notes of suspicion. The absence of any reference to the movement’s links to far right US media, for example, raises eyebrows in otherwise positive reviews in Indiewire and The Guardian. But this is a film that is honestly and unashamedly one-sided. It tells the story from the point of view of the hijackers – their experience of persecution, and of the sometimes exhilarating, ultimately tragic, events that changed the course of their lives. It’s an absorbing watch, a polished production, and essential viewing for anyone with an interest in the animated documentary form.
Coming up from the 10th – 21st October is the London BFI Film Festival, featuring a brilliant selection of feature films, amongst which you can see two films of note; ‘DOOZY’ by Richard Squires and ‘Irene’s Ghost’ by Iain Cunningham. We will feature a review of the festival on animateddocumentary.com
DOOZY (UK, 2018), the debut feature from UK artist-filmmaker Richard Squires, is a creative documentary that employs ‘Clovis’, an animated antihero, as a means to explore the particular “voice” casting of cartoon villains in the late 1960s. Through the lens of one of Hollywood’s hidden queer histories, DOOZY contemplates the psycho-social relationship between villainy and hysterical male laughter; the use of voice as a signifier of ‘otherness’ and the frequently uneasy symbiosis of character and actor.
Image credit: Irene’s Ghost by Iain Cunningham, animation by Ellie Land
Irene’s Ghost is the debut documentary film from Iain Cunningham and features animated segments directed by Ellie Land. follows a son’s search to find out about the mother he never knew.
The birth of his own child inspires a journey to discover the truth about Irene, who passed away when he was a child. Piecing together fragments of the past to make sense of the present he uncovers a long held secret. Using animation mixed with filmed footage Irene’s Ghost movingly rebuilds a lost life.