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.

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‘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.

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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.”

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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.

‘Acts of Terror’ by Fred Grace

‘Acts of Terror’ portrays the U.K Police force as an intimidating manifestation of growing state control. The 2005 Terrorism Act comes under scrutiny in this real life account of one woman’s careful navigation of the murky waters of police regulation and the U.K. legal system.

The film is commendable for the incredibly clear construction of its narrative. We are led through what must have been a complex set of legal procedures with a crisp sense of simplistic clarity. The animation follows, possibly less successfully, a similarly minimal motif. On occasion one is left with the feeling that a few extra frames were needed or wondering if the thuggery of police officers may have been better expressed than by giving them homogenised slanting closed eyes. However the court battle, where the style of an early 90’s close combat game is adopted, is where the writing, animation and sound design most successfully harmonise. This simple witty metaphor illustrates the ultimately futile struggle the protagonist felt in seeking justice.

acts of terror

‘Acts of Terror’ is an engaging campaign-based animated documentary that is charming and informative. It left me with the great hope that if, one day I found myself in the specific circumstances of the protagonist armed with the knowledge this film imparts, thus allowing me to personally triumph over a police officer when exercising my civil right to film them.  I will just need to make sure there is no way they can suspect me of terrorism.

I first watched this film at the London Animation Club where the organiser, Martin Pickles, proudly stated the club’s role in connecting the film’s makers. Gemma Atkinson, Adam Ay and Fred Grace of Fat Rat Films gave a presentation at LAC proposing that an animator come on board. Following this they met Una Marzorati, who animated the entire film, and Tom Lowe who designed the soundtrack. Collaboration forums are exciting environments to observe and participate in. We wish the film-makers the best of success in spreading their message and hope for many more years of networking at the London Animation Club.