Here at animateddocumentary.com, we want to celebrate Black History Month by highlighting some excellent animated documentaries by Black filmmakers and animators. Some of these films have been posted on the blog before, and some are brand new!
Each Monday this October we will share an animated documentary by a different Black filmmaker, four from here in the UK and one from the USA. We’d also love to hear about any of your favourite films by Black creators so feel free to share in the comments below.
The United Kingdom’s Black History Month was founded more than 30 years ago, in 1987, to recognise the contributions made by people of African and Caribbean backgrounds in the UK. Today, however, the remit of the project has expanded to include the history of Black people from all backgrounds. You can read more about Black History Month on bbc.co.uk.
Be sure to check out the official website for Black History Month in the UK, here.
Nicola Destefanis‘ 33 second short ‘Quit Smoking’ is a personal project. Having had his final cigarette, Destefanis turned to animation to help distract from the cravings and symptoms that came along with quitting smoking. A loop of animation was made every week for nine weeks to help express how he was feeling. The result is a beautiful short which is expressive and vibrant.
The limited colour palette is bright and contrasting, and each reel is striking. Along with upbeat music, the film gives a sense of hope and triumph, despite the negative symptoms and emotions it conveys.
Watch the full film below, and see more of the behind-the-scenes process here.
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.
The 7th Edition of Factual Animation Film Festival was held at Queen Mary University of London’s Hitchcock Cinema on the 16th October 2021. The festival programme was also made available online until the 24th October. For full details visit factualanimation.com
The programme consisted of curated screenings and a series of interviews with animation directors conducted by Holly Murtha, festival director, and Alex Widdowson, festival producer.
The Beauty of Mathematics, an interview with Sarah Gorf-Roloff
In Absentia, Interview with Adriana Monteforte
I Want To Be Bored & The Things Around Us, interview with Magda Kreps
Skeleton of A Moth, interview with Emma Kay Smith
Moosehide Slide – Interview with Dan Sokolowski
There were two awards presented at FAFF this year: Best Student Film and Best Animated Documentary Film
The award for Best Student film went to Magda Kreps for I Want To Be Board
The award for Best Film went to Laurent Leprince for Waka Huia
This is an Animated Documentary and wrap around campaign to raise awareness and talk about some of the mental health wellbeing difficulties parents may face during pregnancy, birth and after. The aim is to emotionally support parents and enable them to find support. First hand testimonies along with animated characters and storylines open up conversations and experiences that are often difficult to start or hear. This film is directed by Emma Lazenby through ForMed Films, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company.
We’re super-excited to share details of our upcoming panel discussion with three film-makers working with autobiography, in partnership with Animate Projects and British Council:
Our next Animation Salon is programmed by Alys Scott-Hawkins and Ellie Land from Animated Documentary, is on 4 November. It’s our second in partnership with Animate Projects. The animated documentary genre continues to grow, featuring in a variety of formats: shorts and feature films, explainer videos, interactive documentary; and showcasing an array of techniques such as the autoethnographic film, the investigative film, the call-to-action and reconstruction films, to name just a few. Animators Mary Martins (UK), John Summerson (USA), and Signe Baumane (Latvia/USA) will share their insights and experiences with us, alongside some clips of their work.
Animation Salon/Accelerate Sessions Animated Documentary 18:00 (UK time), Wednesday 4 November Zoom More information here. Free. Register here. Spaces are limited – please join early to make sure you get in. Supported by Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund. Still: My Love Affair With Marriage, Signe Baumane, 2021
Next Accelerate session coming up…
12 November Animation and VR With Tom Higham (York Mediale), Liz Rosenthal (Venice Film Festival), Juergen Hagler (Ars Electronica), Helen Starr (Mechatronic Library), and Ulrich Schrauth (London Film Festival Expanded). More details soon.
While still in production, there was a lot of talk among art lovers about the 2017 animated documentary Loving Vincent. ‘It is completely hand-painted’, ‘an army of artists has been employed for its production’, ‘it will look like a moving painting’ (see Frizzell, 2017; Mottram, 2017; Vollenbroek, 2017)… I was in suspense for its release and fascinated by all the hype surrounding it. When I finally got to watch the film, I could not help but feel a bit let down. Yet, I could not understand the reasons behind this disenchantment. The imagery imitated van Gogh’s style flawlessly, the storyline dealing with the circumstances of the artist’s death was interesting enough, and as far as I could tell, the acting was good. What was it then? Why was I feeling like I wanted to see more?
Part of me felt that my art education was to blame, an education that was perhaps wrongly distinguishing and discriminating between art and craft. I could not see the point behind this repetitive exercise of recreating an art style whose value lay in being different, in being original and unique. The recreation seemed like a copy, an imitation and therefore to me, of less value. It seemed no further away from art than a printed reproduction of the original painting. It seemed almost futile, unnecessary, a bit kitschy. The story could hold its weight without the hand-painted stylization, and the stylization might have had a stronger effect without a storyline. However, I remembered how art students and apprentices used to study images –and still do to some extent– by copying the masters. This film employed over one hundred artists who worked painstakingly to recreate the footage in Van Gogh’s style. Keeping in mind this tradition of learning art, it seems like Loving Vincent acted as an apprenticeship for them. An homage to the technique of this master of modernism. To me, it is a performance that pays tribute to this great artist, not so much in its completed form, the final film, as by the painstaking process of its production. And that change in perspective elevates a rather good film to a masterpiece.
Loving Vincent. Dir. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.
In her short film I’m OK, Elizabeth Hobbs (2018), took a completely different approach in depicting the life and work of the Austrian Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka. Despite some loose references to his work here and there, Hobbs did not try to emulate Kokoschka’s style, nor did she have a script and employ actors and rotoscoping. Using expressive, playful lines and bright colours on paper, the animator highlights aspects of Kokoschka’s life. She specifically focuses on the time when the artist volunteered for service during WWI, after being rejected by a lover. Although Hobbs communicates well the message of heartbreak, war and pain, unless a viewer is already familiar with the life and work of Kokoschka, it is unlikely that they would gain an education of the artist merely by watching the film. This, however, does not seem to be the priority of the short. Instead, it acts as a loose interpretation of the life of an artist.
I’m OKDir. Elizabeth Hobbs (U.K. and Canada)
These two examples are very different approaches to document the life of an artist through animation. Both films take advantage of the medium to simulate an aspect of creation that van Gogh and Kokoschka were using. Loving Vincent partially employs rotoscoping in the form of hand-painted live action footage but remains confined within the indexical qualities of the recording. It takes advantage of van Gogh’s painterly aesthetics and simultaneously maintains a strong relation to ‘reality’. I’m OK, on the other hand, does not involve the tracing over live-footage and without this strong and recorded initial connection to the world, it recreates Hobbs’ own version of it from scratch. I’m OK applies an expressive approach with emotive brushstrokes, music, use of colour and symbolism to tell a story while highlighting the animator’s unique perspective and is without any pretence of presenting ‘the real’. Hobbs refers to Kokoschka’s style not by directly emulating his art, but by adopting a similarly expressive aesthetic while maintaining her artistic voice. Hobbs’s film is not only an homage to an artist. It is much more than that, as it is, at least in my humble opinion, a work of art in its own right.
The AnimatedDocumentary.com team are delighted to announce that the FAFF best animated documentary of 2019 has been awarded to Rosa Fisher director of Sent Away.
Sent Away explores the psychological impact that attending boarding school had on Rosa’s father, Tom. The film addresses the atmosphere of punishment, obedience and isolation that led each pupil to develop a hardened exterior. The film concludes by speculating how this emotionally traumatic cultural practice, common among Britain’s political elite, has shaped the UK. Sent Away, despite focusing on the childhood of a middle-aged man, is prescient in the lead up to the UK’s general election. One of the candidates for prime minister forged his identity in the competitive toxicity of Eton, the UK’s most elite boarding school. The other did not.
Mary Martins is a London based filmmaker making animated documentaries and experimental films. Her short film The Divide won the Mother Art Prize in 2017 as well as the Best New Voice award at the Factual Animation Film Fuss in 2016.
The Divide from Mary Martins on Vimeo.
In 2018 Martins was commissioned by the BFI and BBC4 to make the short film Childhood Memories, based on her memories of a holiday in Lagos as a young girl. The film combines archive footage with stop-motion and 2D animation to build a rich and evocative picture of a time and place remembered. The narrative for the film emerged from a poem that Martins wrote, which also led the visual development.
Discussing her process, Martins tells me “I turned my memory into a poem to create the rhythm, and that led the animation, so the animation flowed from the rhythm of the poem”. Her decision to use a mixed media method was driven by both tonal and storytelling needs. “The reason why I chose the puppets was because I wanted to create that feeling that it was a real person going back in time” she explains. “I think you can capture that well with puppets, you can really bring them to life. And then there were bits that I couldn’t quite get from the footage no matter how much I edited it, and that’s where the hand-drawn came into it. To kind of fill in the missing gaps, between the visuals, the footage and the actual memory itself – the narrative”.
Childhood Memories (2018)
Martins is set to study for a Masters at the Royal College of Art from September, as part of their animated documentary pathway, and sees it as an opportunity to develop her own distinctive voice. “My work is always going to be very experimental” she predicts, “I still don’t know if I have my own style yet, I hope going to the RCA will help me get closer to that… I see my work as a personal journey and really want to work on discovering myself through my work”.
On July 13th Deptford Cinema in London will be hosting a day of film and discussion exploring and celebrating Twenty-First Century animated documentary. The event includes:
An international programme of 16 animated documentary films
Introductions by academics working in animation studies
Roundtable discussion with filmmakers and scholars
Speakers include: Dr Victoria Grace Walden (University of Sussex), Dr Bella Honess Roe (University of Surrey), Dr Nea Ehrlich (Ben-Gurion University, Israel TBC), Susan Young (Royal College of Arts), Carla MacKinnon (Arts University Bournemouth), Terry Wragg (Leeds Animation Workshop).