A day at Deptford Animadocs

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Deptford Cinema

The Deptford Animadocs symposium took place on a warm July day in Deptford Cinema, London. A converted shop edging the bustle of Deptford Market, the venue, which is run entirely by volunteers, is plastered with cult film imagery and local information, combining the laser focus of film obsessives with the inclusivity of a community space. The event attracted an audience  including animated documentary die-hards as well as newcomers to the form and there was a buzz throughout the day as filmmakers, academics and audience members compared thoughts and ideas.

The day included three programmes of short films. Each had a theme. The first, ‘Borders’, was a harrowing collection of stories of migration, protest, and imprisonment. From the near-invisible modern-day slavery of some foreign domestic workers in Leeds Animation Workshop’s They Call Us Maids to the brutal detention of migrants in Lukas Schrank’s Nowhere Lines: Broken Dreams from Manus Island, the films told urgent stories with a strong social message.

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Nowhere Lines: Broken Dreams from Manus Island Dir. Lukas Schrank (UK/ Australia)

The second programme, themed as ‘Memories’, was a more upbeat and varied screening, lifted by the humour of Dustin Grella’s Animation Hotline and the lateral charm of Carina and Ines Christine Geisser’s Durrenwaid 8. The programme also featured dark moments, notably Susan Young’s visceral The Betrayal, a film in which she explores a traumatic period from her past in which she was put in the care of a manipulative and destructive mental health professional.

Following this was a screening of the feature animated documentary Another Planet (dir. Amir Yatziv). The film follows the creators of various virtual simulations of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. These worlds have been created by very different people, each with very different motivations: police forensics, game development, museum exhibit modelling. In the film we see the creators of each simulated camp as avatars exploring their own virtual Auschwitz.

This was one of those films that is very difficult to describe or explain, or even to make sense of your feelings about during or after watching it. It’s strange, chilling, depressing, reflective, and at times blackly funny. It asks smart questions not only about its subject but also about the documentary form, leaving the audience unsettled and unmoored, unsure of whose voice we have been listening to.

The final short film programme of the day, ‘Body and Mind’, saw filmmakers looking inwards and making films that dealt with physical and mental illness, and emotional highs and lows. Kate Ranmey’s Lingua Absentia was a powerful story about a young woman with schizophrenia and cancer, told through the eyes of her mother, while Lizzy Hobbs’s BAFTA-nominated I’m OK was a wonderfully fluid, rich and satisfying way to wrap up the screening.

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I’m OK Dir. Elizabeth Hobbs (UK)

The day concluded with a roundtable discussion, with: myself; Susan Young; Terry Wragg and Jo Dunne from the Leeds Animation Workshop; Dr Victoria Grace Walden, who had organised and programmed the bulk of the day; and Dr Bella Honess Roe, who has written widely on animated documentary and who helped programme the event. It was a lively, discursive panel with a very active audience. Earlier in the day both Honess Roe and Walden had made presentations and led discussions, laying strong groundwork for more in-depth debate at the end of the day. It was particularly interesting to hear Young talk about her process of making The Betrayal, which she produced following a period of poor mental health, building a script from fragments of her real medical and legal records:

I had gone through this experience of being someone who had a voice, an animation director, et cetera, and then ending up with a mental health label and suddenly becoming voiceless. And that was totally shocking. So I wanted to explore that, to actually explore what it meant to me, how it felt to be voiceless. Which is why I used the medical records, to subvert them and take control of that narrative.

Most of the words in the film are seen as flashes of typed text, shot so close-up that the texture of paper and ink is visible, illuminated by sudden flashes of light. The doctor’s words are embodied in a disturbing voiceover, voiced by Young herself in audio that was then processed heavily to create a dark simulation of a man’s voice. This literal using of her own voice exemplifies Young’s intention:

it was really, really important to find my own voice again through playing with the voice of this individual who I’d created through his medical records he wrote about me, and also legal records.

It was also good to hear Wragg and Dunne talk about their work with Leeds Animation Workshop and how it has changed over the years. Particularly interesting was Wragg’s opinion that it is harder now to find ways to get a film seen in a good environment with the opportunity for discussion than it used to be. She explains that:

a lot of our films are quite dense and intensively researched and designed to provoke specific questions. They really work best if they’re in a group where people are around to talk about things, and sometimes that’s not as easy as it used to be.

More positively, the panel discussed animated documentary as a space where alternative and diverse stories and storytellers can flourish. Walden commented on how encouraged she was not only by the quantity and quality of submissions that Deptford Animadocs received, but also the diversity of the filmmakers and the stories represented.

Walden also talked about the way that the documentary value of animated documentary is problematised by the subjectivity of the form, the intent that is inherent in animation. While all filmmaking involves construction and decision-making on the part of the filmmaker, there remains a sense that animation is more constructed and therefore less trustworthy than live action. Walden and Honess Roe discussed the fact that while animated documentary is generally considered to be good at representing subjective, internal experiences, these representations are usually mediated by the animator or director, rather than emerging purely from the subject (Samantha Moore’s work within the collaborative frame is an example of a filmmaker addressing this issue).

This Animadocs festival, or symposium, or ‘sympestival’ as Walden calls it, was a rich day for fans of animated and alternative documentary. The programme of films was very strong, favouring high-intensity work packing an emotional gut-punch over information-heavy or highly illustrative films. This made the viewing demanding as well as rewarding, but the frequent breaks, presentations and discussions that peppered the day provided some cerebral and social relief. Walden and Deptford cinema even bought the audience a drink and provided crisps and cheese at the end of the day, which was nice.


To keep up to date with the future work of Deptford Animadocs, join their facebook group here.

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Video essay on ‘Waltz with Bashir’ by Digging Deeper


[edit 16th May – this video’s been taken down due to a copyright issue but we’ll let you know if it comes back online.]

“Waltz With Bashir is a documentary film that exists in a rare category (along with films like Close-Up and The House Is Black) in that it bends the generic conventions of its format, ultimately creating an experience that is truly unique. Its idiosyncratic blend of animation, music, and recorded interviews makes it a documentary that is both a sensory spectacle and an emotional journey. In our essay “Echoes of a Forgotten Past” we explore how director Ari Folman uses the seemingly contradictory elements of the animated documentary format to comment on the ethics of filmic representation and the cycle of historical trauma.”

More info here about Digging Deeper “a two man team that likes looking at a film and trying to see if something else is lying beneath its surface.”
https://www.patreon.com/diggingdeeper?ty=h

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.

Review of ‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’

Graham Chapman, in his own voice, leads the audience through his bookish youth at Eton, confused sexuality at Cambridge and the early days of success with Monty Python, but this is not a narrative of glory. The deceased narrator also provides a cutting analysis of alcoholism and the vacuous existence of fame.

The feature is divided into 17 scenes, animated by 14 different studios in the UK and abroad. This proves to be a huge challenge in terms of continuity. Often the feel is that of a stream of well-curated short films. Without the ever-present voice of Chapman himself cohesion could be lost entirely.

One way to look at this is as an anthology of contemporary British animation. In these terms there are many diamonds to be cut from the rough. Matt Layzell directs a sumptuous journey through space and celebrity. We encounter abstracted polygon caricatures of Graham’s peers as he drifts though a swirling cosmos in search of famous guests to attend his party.

The aesthetics of alcohol withdrawal are successfully encapsulated in the sweating glow of the oil on glass technique employed by Arthur Cox director George Sander-Jackson. The intricate free hand texture lends itself superbly as a luminous expression of suffering. The fiery sepia glow goes so far as to suggest a sort of hell on earth.

The glassy veneer of Los Angeles was captured in all its transparent glory by Matthias Heogg. Rendered digitally, the Beakus director made every component see-through to emphasize the falseness of Graham’s life at that point. This superb visual metaphor is both beautiful in its simplicity of concept as well as its formal execution.

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Sadly one or two of the scenes were behind the quality of the others and stood out in contrast. Mr & Mrs Monkeys, a gathering of 3D primates each representative of a Python member, were not appealing. The look of the scene was visually underwhelming; textureless with a muddy colour palette, while the character design was at the level of the most basic of caricatures.

Such a plethora of styles has it’s pros and cons. A certain excitement is built up when waiting to discover the next scene regardless of the narrative arc. Some say a change is as good as a rest, however I must admit this may not be true for 17 changes. Being exposed to a new visual language every few minutes was at times draining, but more concerning it distracted on from the narrative and drew attention to the frame.

Nick Park of Aardman speaks of around 200 people working on any one of their features, but he emphasises the studio would always make the effort to create the illusion that this all came from one person’s mind. This cohesion is so clearly disrupted in A Liar’s Autobiography. The unique selling point of dividing labour between studios, despite all its richness, shouts of practical reasoning. Potentially it is more affordable to ask many animation houses to complete relatively short sequences in exchange for a modest fee and the chance to contribute to a feature film.

I must emphasise that despite a disordered formal composition the film is thoroughly enjoyable, visually fascinating and witty. The feature is propelled forward by the sheer quality of its source material. Graham Chapman lived life like a shambolic rock star while maintaining dignity, self-awareness and a self-deprecating tone which is unique to British comedy.

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. The trailer can be watched here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbW842eMNtI

Review of animadoc at DOK Leipzig 2012

Dok Leipzig is now finished for another year, and as always the festival has done the animated documentary community proud with its programmes on anima doc. For those that didn’t know Leipzig is the first festival to curate a programme solely for animated doc, and has been championing the genre for over 15 years.

I attended the ‘Schicksale’ programme, which means ‘Destiny’ in english. The highlight for me was ‘Paper box’ by Zbigniew Czapla (a still from his film features above), a mesmorising animated document of his family photo album, ruined by flash flooding in his home town. The photos, decomposing with mold over time during the animated film, are framed and chosen by the mould initiated by water damage. The director remarked that ‘nature was the director in this film.’

Another three films of note are ‘Nurse Gretal no.2 Escap’e and ‘Nyosha’, both films feature real emotional testimonials about survival during World War 2 from a German and a Jewish perspective. Also a film called ‘Reality 2.0’ about drug trafficking in Mexico, featuring rotoscoped images of provocative youtube footage.

When the films become available online, we will feature them, but for now you will have to keep an eye out for them on the festival circuit.

http://www.dok-leipzig.de/

Animated Awareness: a review of ‘Centrefold’

Here’s a review of the launch of ‘Centrefold’, Ellie’s new film, which was premiered last week at the Wellcome Trust in London. Friend of the blog Bella Honess Roe was there and here are her thoughts.

You will be able to watch the film on the Centrefold site from Friday. Watch this space and we’ll keep you posted…

Animating Documentary

Last week I went to the launch of Centrefold, at the Wellcome Trust in London.  The film, directed by Ellie Land (one half of the team behind this great animated docs blog), is about female genital cosmetic surgery and aims to provide a non-judgemental look at labia surgery and ‘encourage informed discussion’ on the topic.  It certainly provoked debate at the Q&A session after the screening last week, with a panel made up of Dr Phil Hammond, the director, consultant gynaecologist Sarah Creighton, consultant clinical psychologist Lih-Mei Liao, artist Jamie McCartney and psychoanalyst Susie Orbach.  In particular, things got heated around whether the film was balanced and the reasons that motivate women to have this surgery.

I was interested in the points made by Jamie about using animation, and art in general, to tackle tricky subjects and Ellie’s comments that animation helps you get closer to


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