Animated documentaries at LIAF 2021

Every year, London International Animation Festival shows a programme of global documentaries in a specially dedicated screening. In last year’s festival, the selection included a wide range of films, from personal, autobiographical independent short films, to branded content and museum commissions. Many of these films are now available online, so here is a short overview of the programme.

Save Ralph (Spencer Susser, 2021) is a darkly comic mockumentary following a rabbit who “works” in the cosmetics testing industry. With a star-studded cast of voice actors and very high production values, the film has much to admire technically and creatively, and a message that cuts through the humour to leave the viewer feeling very uncomfortable indeed. The film ends with a message from The Humane Society encouraging action to help ban animal testing. 

Timeline (Osbert Parker, 2020) is a poetic film commissioned by The Migration Museum. The film weaves together single frames with diverse imagery. From this visual cacophony, the fluctuating image of a single line emerges. This takes us through an abstracted history of migration, from 1620-2020, and beyond, hinting at a possible future of human migration to space. Patterns develop and evolve, punctuated by interjections of stop-motion and mixed media animation. It’s a dynamic piece that stands repeated viewings, as it is easy to miss details on a first watch. 

Heart of the Nation (Tribambuka, 2020) is another film commissioned by the migration museum. This is a more explicit narrative focusing on the contribution that migration has made, and continues to make, on the staffing of the British NHS. It focuses on communicating a clear message informatively, attractively, and persuasively, and achieves its aims in this.

The Train Driver (Zuniel Kim, Christian Wittmoser, 2021) examines the psychological impact on a train driver of the six suicides of strangers that he has been caught up in through his job. Simple blue and yellow tinted sequences develop against a black background, offering an elegant counterpoint to the narrator’s words and allowing the audience to focus on the sensitive story he is telling. 

In Nature (Marcel Barelli, 2021) takes us to the other end of the spectrum. Using vivid and varied colours alongside a cartoony aesthetic, this film playfully demonstrates diverse manifestations of homosexuality in nature. The film is funny and well-paced, full of excellent visual gags, and does a great job of educating without ever feeling preachy or lecturing. 

In the Shadow of the Pines (Anne Koizumi, 2020) is a meditative piece in which a woman reflects on her memories of her Japanese father, and the shame he felt as a child at his culture, character and his job as a school janitor. In the second part of the film, we hear her father’s voice explaining his actions, and how his behaviour was a response to his own traumatic childhood. Finally, we are told that this conversation never really happened; her father died before they could make sense of the past, and of their relationship, together. The film is affecting. Some of the details in the memories are so raw and real that they cut to the bone, and there is a pervasive sense of melancholy throughout.  

Only a Child (Simone Giampaolo, 2020) is a well-executed mixed media animation illustrating a speech made by twelve-year old Severn Cullis-Suzuki at a UN summit. She speaks powerfully on the dangers of climate change, pollution, and mass extinction. At the end of the film, we discover that the words were spoken in 1992, a chilling reminder that the urgent call to action they contained was not heeded, and our environmental crisis has deteriorated in the years that have passed since the speech was made. The film is beautifully animated, with a production process that engaged more than 20 animation directors working on separate sections, and it moves gracefully between styles and techniques.  

The Chimney Swift (Frédéric Schuld, 2020) is a brooding film, with a script drawn from accounts of ‘Master’ chimney sweepers, who sent small children up chimneys in the Victorian era and who had themselves been sent up chimneys as children. A sketchy and stylised, artistic design approach combined with a flowing animation style creates an immersive viewing experience, while the savagery of the experiences described are still disturbing to hear almost two centuries after they were written down – partly due to the final frame, which reminds us that child labour practices still continue around the world.

Darwin’s Notebook (Georges Schwizgebel, 2020) delves into Charles Darwin’s notebook from 1833. He was aboard the Beagle as the ship travelled to return three kidnapped indigenous Alakaluf people of Tierra del Fuego to their home country. The film flows beautifully from one image to the next, with a painterly style combined with impressive, cinematic camera moves. The film follows the kidnapped people, from their previous life in their homeland through their violent abduction and attempts to replace their own culture with contemporaneous European ideals. When they are returned to their home they are adorned with the clothes and materials of the ‘civilised’ world, but these are soon abandoned. The film ends with a title card stating that the Alakaluf people were ultimately destroyed by western disease, persecution, and the deprivation of their natural resources. 

The Torture Letters (Jocie Juritz/Laurence Ralph, 2020) is a New York Times Op-Doc about racism and police violence in Chicago. The voiceover describes the narrator witnessing two young people being stopped-and-searched, an incident which triggers painful memories of his own. The narrator then discusses his research into wider police violence in the city, and tells the stories of Dominique “Damo” Franklin, who was killed at 23 by police taser, and of Andrew Wilson, who in 1989 filed a civil suit which brought down a police commander who had encouraged a culture of torture in custody. The film ends with a broader reflection on discrimination and violence in the US. The film is dense with information, which means it offers more with each viewing, suggesting avenues for further research. The monochrome visuals, moving between literal illustration, symbolic interpretation, and abstract shapes, lead the viewer through the multiple stories.

All Those Sensations in my Belly (Marko Djeska, 2020) tells the story of a young trans woman, her developing identity through childhood and adolescence, and her struggle to find a loving and lasting relationship. The film progresses through a range of visual and animation styles as the lead character moves through stages of life, from the darkest places, to transcendent moments of self-discovery. The sound design adds a strong layer of emotion to the story, ratcheting up the tension at points and at others creating a deep empathy, without resorting to sentimentality. The result is a moving film portraying a complex, vulnerable, resilient, sympathetic and highly relatable character.

One of the striking things about this programme of shorts is how many of the films have strong social and political messages, often accompanied by explicit calls to action. The social issues presented here span discrimination, identity, racism, abuse, migration, climate, mental health, and animal welfare. The creative approaches taken are as broad as the subjects covered, but every film in the selection points clearly to a desire to tell stories that can help us to move toward a better, fairer, and kinder world.

London International Animation Festival (LIAF) is an annual event taking place in November and December across multiple London venues. Full listings for the 2021 festival can be found on the website.

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.

‘What is Animation?’ by Martin Pickles

Martin Pickles is the director of an animated interview with Bob Godfrey titled What is Animation? This was one of two films by Pickles that were screened as part of London International Animation Festival’s animated documentary programme. Martin is well known through his role as the organiser of the London Animation Club, a monthly screening event in Fitzrovia.

roobarb_01

In What is Animation? Pickles animates a snippet of wisdom from Bob Godfrey (1921 – 2013), the British animation hero responsible for creating Roobarb and Henry’s Cat.

When thinking of this film in the context of animated documentary, I was struck by how relevant Godfrey’s words are to one of the larger tensions within the genre: how does a filmmaker faithfully document their subject matter without simply replicating it? Godfrey encourages animators to be whimsical and to forget the limitations of physics or representation.

The key phrase he uses, one which I have heard many times before, is “…if this thing can be done with a live action camera then for God’s sake do it with a live action camera.”

wia_01

While Godfrey wants animators to confront the “absolute freedom” of their medium, animated documentary makers maintain an adjacent balancing act. Our challenge, perhaps, is to find a subject that requires a Godfrey-esque whimsy in order for the story to be documented usefully.

Without wanting to sound pretentious, it’s all very ‘meta’. Not only is this an animation about how animators should animate, this short documentary is also structured around an almost visible feedback loop.

Firstly there is Martin Pickles the director, interviewing his hero Bob Godfrey, who effectively imparts wisdom and instruction to the audience. Then, much deeper in the mechanisms of this film, we can feel Martin tangibly being inspired by Bob’s words and legacy – Martin even credits meeting Godfrey as the stimulus that pushed him to study animation at the Royal College of Art. The next revolution of the feedback loop begins with me, the viewer, inspired enough by Bob’s words and Martin’s film that I chose to write about it. It’s fair to predict that this whole process might inform my own or someone else’s next animation; and so the wheel spins.

Ignoring my theoretical posturing, the true joy of this film can be found in its back-story. Martin Pickles and Bob Godfrey met in Croatia at the Animafest Zagreb festival in 2004. A fan since childhood, Martin sought every opportunity to foster a friendship with Bob. Officially, he found himself in the role of odd-job-man – when they met there was always a light bulb or whatever that needed replacing. Over time, his visits to Godfrey’s ACME studio in Deptford became much more social in nature.

Martin spoke about Bob’s aptitude for story telling and teaching with great affection. One day, as Martin sat opposite his hero, sipping tea, he felt that it didn’t seem right that he was the only one experiencing this. He was struck by the realisation that no one had made the effort to record these pearly nuggets of wisdom. With a real sense of urgency he got his hands an old tape recorder, and with Bob very much enjoying the spotlight, they recorded over two hours of rambling fun from one of the British animation scene’s more charismatic icons.

The two animators started to hatch grand schemes for what to do with the material. Collaboration seemed on the cards until Bob’s health began to suffer. By this point Godfrey was in his late eighties, and with great sadness Martin witnessed his gradual decline. Out of respect the project was put on hold indefinitely. A while after Bob’s passing in 2013, his family and the Bradford Animation Festival released an open call for archival content relating to Bob’s life and work. Following that the rest of the pieces fell into place.

You can read a full transcript of the interview here.