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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The first AnimatedDocumentary.com Award at FAFF 2016!

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We were thrilled to be part of this years Factual Animation Film Fuss festival: hosting an event, giving our first ever award, and mingling with the great and the good of the UK animated documentary crowd.

The festival is in its second year, run by Daniel Murtha, and hosted at the Genesis Cinema in London, UK. In addition to several programmes of the best new work in animated documentary, a Q&A with film-maker Samantha Moore, chaired by Alys Scott-Hawkins, opened out discussions with a number of film-makers in the audience, including Mary Martins, Emma Calder and Alex Widdowson.

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Still from Truth Has Fallen by Sheila Sofian

The AnimatedDocumentary.com award was presented on the final night of the festival. We were very pleased to have our award sponsored by animated documentary director Sheila Sofian. The winner received signed original artwork from Sheila’s film ‘Truth has Fallen’, a feature length documentary we have featured on the blog. The film is about about people wrongfully convicted of murder and the weaknesses in the US justice system that allowed these injustices to occur. You can find out more about Sheila’s work on her website here.

The winning film was Spirit Away by Bettina Kuntzsch. We thought that the film was a fantastic example of using existing documentary evidence to engage the audience.

We also awarded two Special Mentions: Loop by Samantha Moore and Life Inside Islamic State by Scott Coello. We made a third award for Best New Voice and this went to The Divide by Mary Martins.

Loop by Samantha Moore

Life Inside Islamic State by Scott Coello

The Divide by Mary Martens

‘Silent Signal’ by Animate Projects

“Silent Signal is an ambitious project that brings together six artists working with animation together with six leading biomedical scientists to create experimental animated artworks exploring new ways of thinking about the human body”

Image copyright Samantha Moore ‘Loop’ 2015

Image copyright Ellie Land ‘Sleepless’ 2015

The six animations are currently on a year long tour, with the latest exhibition at Wellcome Genome Campus, Cambridge until September 2016.

You can watch all of the films online on the silent signal website, alongside artist interviews and a useful science guide. Check out the every expanding events section to find out about screenings, public talks and workshops that support the tour.

http://www.silentsignal.org/

‘Health Issues and Animation’ blog posts by Animationstudies 2.0

Over on the Society for Animation studies blog, ‘Animationstudies 2.0’, there are a number of articles written on the theme of animation and health, two of which feature writing about animated documentary.

Samantha Moore’s piece called “Secret Architecture – the construction of  Loop” is about her recent work on the Silent Signal project with Animate! and Wellcome Trust, for which she paired up with scientist Dr Serge Mostowy. The r&d work they produced explored Mostowy’s work with zebrafish models in microbiology. In this article Moore discusses her exploration of the gap between theory and methods in the scientific process and her response to this through animated documentary. We featured the Silent Signal project here on the blog a few months back.

Dr Nichola Dobson in her article ‘From one extreme to another’ writes about two animations which explore genital cutting in women and questions the practice of female genital mutilation. Both of these animations have featured on this blog, ‘Everything was Life’ and ‘Centrefold’ and were directed by me –  Ellie Land.

A quick search for animated documentary on the animatiomnstudies blog, brings up many relevant posts about the topic and the blog covers many more areas of animation. Well worth exploring:

http://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=716

‘Silent Signal’ work in progress website by Animate! Projects

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Image by Samantha Moore for Silent Signal.

Animate! projects with the Wellcome Trust has commissioned six artist/scientist teams to put forward ideas for possible animated works under a project called Silent Signal.

“Silent Signal explores how research into genetics, cell biology, immunology and epidemiology is advancing our understanding of how the human body communicates with itself, how it adapts to fight disease and how environment affects the chain reaction. Six biomedical scientists who are furthering these fields with cutting-edge research are collaborating with six artists who use a variety of animation techniques and new digital technologies in their artistic practice. Through these collaborations audiences will be engaged with the biological processes that their bodies perform with an artistic approach to communicating the science.”

They have published the process on their blog http://www.silentsignal.org/, which is a fascinating insight into the collaborative relationship between the scientists and artists. The site also shows work in progress of various applications of animation  from animated documentary, participatory animated documentary, game art through to interactive experiences using animation.

http://www.silentsignal.org/

http://www.animateprojects.org/

 

‘OwnerBuilt’ by Lawrence Andrews

Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the people of New Orleans slowly began to rebuild homes and lives while trying to process what their community had endured. Lawrence Andrews presents the theatrical retellings of related events by a local man referred to as ‘Noel’. The retelling of his memories are further influenced by the tragic police shooting of unarmed civilians who were crossing the Danziger Bridge six days after the hurricane. This incident left two people dead and four seriously injured. Noel draws upon his personal archive of sound recordings and photographs to prompt a performance of his own narrative, interwoven with those of his community and the bridge victims.

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Initially produced in 2008 as an audio essay, ‘OwnerBuilt’ was redeveloped and released this year as an ‘Animated Performance Documentary’. Andrews appears as a character throughout the 49-minute sequence; narrating, contributing editorial notes and analysing the authenticity of Noel’s accounts. Andrews’ dialogue with Noel becomes integral, his presence noticeably influencing the process of documentation. A misunderstanding concerning Noel’s neighbours sparks an account of their plight along with a strange instance where Andrews witnesses Noel talking about him to the neighbour.

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Andrews is overtly self-aware as a filmmaker. He anchors the film in the context of a post-documentary age. The audience is handed frequent reminders that we are watching a set of illusions. For instance Andrews declares that Noel’s son is responsible for the sound of a cello being practiced. “Well actually it’s my son, his played sax,” the director declares immediately afterwards.

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Sound seems much more integral to this film than visuals. Not only is the sequence entirely dependent on spoken word, the sound design is speckled with effects and textures which construct images in the absence of visual stimuli.  While most animated documentaries attempt to augment a narration by visualising the subject matter, Andrews renders himself and Noel on a darkened stage with harsh spotlights.

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In step with the film’s non-linear structure, surreal aesthetic and confronting subject matter, the characters move with an uncanny jitter. While the lip-synching is often so slight it is barely noticeable, the speakers ceaselessly gesticulate. Their shifting bodies and stiff waving hands swing more vigorously than implied by tone of voice while maintaining rough correlation with emphasis. Lawrence Andrews seems to revel in the artificiality of the medium he has chosen. On occasion characters walk through each other, merging their digital flesh.  While describing the approach of the storm a flock of audience seats spin and float in the auditorium like particles in a snow globe.

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Noel’s speeches are almost lyrical; to me this implies an extraordinary aptitude for improvised speech or the possibility of rehearsal or scripting. Andrews addresses the theatrical nature of Noel’s performance in the blurb provided with the Vimeo link: “Presenting the work in what may be deemed a theatrical form has the potential to de-legitimize and thwart its claims for documentary status, but this is a tension I hope the project explores.”

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Lawrence Andrews’ Vimeo notes offer good insight; despite using the barely digestible rhetoric of academic arts, the associate professor of film and digital media at The University of California, Santa Cruz, explains thoroughly his intentions, raises questions for further exploration and indicates the contextual framework for his practice.

Samantha Moore brought this film to our attention. Moore is a director of animated documentaries whose work has been discussed a number of times on this blog.

‘The Beloved Ones’ by Samantha Moore

Samantha Moore’s 2007 UK Film Council commissioned animated documentary explores problems of stigma and denial in a Ugandan community through the eyes of two women dealing with the effects of HIV/AIDS in their respective families.

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The materiality of this animation technique is charmingly tangible. Two examples are the hut roof fashioned from torn corrugated cardboard and the illusion of perspective constructed through horizontally wrinkled brown paper. Many of the images in this film are complimented by the appearance of textile patterns. They are ever present in the sky, images of water and on the bodies of the chickens we see crossing the screen. I wondered whether this was simply a stylistic choice or did it hold symbolic significance. From an overview the patterns seem to be noticeable in positive contexts, but I feel I might be jumping to conclusions if I was to assert that they represent hope or optimism.

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The most striking moment in this short documentary takes place when we hear Anna recount her husband’s attitude of denial towards HIV/AIDS. ‘He has never taken a blood test, he has lost three girlfriends but still he doesn’t believe.’ As these words are uttered her husband’s body shrivels, metamorphosing into a deathly skeleton. Such imagery is powerful in its simplicity.

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One shot niggled at my animator’s eye; when the memory book is being discussed the camera moves backwards from in the hut and out the door. The cinematic illusion is broken by the visibly pixelated edge of the doorframe. Such a significant loss in resolution is unfortunate.

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In a recent article written for Animation Studies, Samantha Moore discusses audio problems she experienced while filming in Uganda. Moore was forced to use voice actors due to the low quality of the original recordings. Although she had an initial ‘…fear that the documentary status of the film could be compromised by this jettisoning of original sound…’ Moore argues that both the unusable original voice recordings and the audible re-enactment ‘carry the indexical trace of the words’. The choice between the two options was ‘…not aided by an argument about which is more genuine.’

Samantha Moore’s work has been featured on Animated Documentary several times. We look forward to many more films from her.