Animafest 2023’s most prestigious category, Grand Competition Short Film, will screen 42 works from 34 production countries. They were selected from among almost 900 candidates by Daniel Šuljić, Margit Antauer and Marina Kožul, and Croatia is represented by four films (Family Portrait by Lea Vidaković, The Following Season by Natko Stipaničev, Y by Matea Kovač and Eeva by Lucija Mrzljak and Morten Tšinakov). The encounter between tradition and modernity this year is reflected in the exceptional number of literary inspirations and black-and-white techniques on the one hand, and the still cautious use of artificial intelligence (e.g. the French PLSTC and the Croatian The Following Season) and the current issues of young people on the other (Zoomer-ish The World’s After by Florentina Gonzalez or the Tinder-ish Love Me True by Inés Sedan). Several storylines are inspired by real events, including one about the children of the war in Ukraine (Mariupol. A Hundred Nights, directed by Sofiia Melnyk).
Compared to previous editions, there is a noticeable greater interest in combining form and content, which sometimes drags the authors into metacinema, i.e. dealing with the medium of animation and film in general (e.g. the French eye candy A Kind of Testament by Stephen Vuillemin, the Korean stop-motion of Muybridge’s photographs Chamber of Shadows by Seyoung Ok or Olivér Hegyi’s Hungarian The Garden of Heart about a young painter’s entrance exam). Among the socially engaged titles we have environmental topics, women’s experiences (Xie Li’s Chinese Fragile Love seems to be made entirely of AV interference, static and white noise, but the absurd story about a woman who turns into glass at night is actually about an oppressive marriage), criticism of the superficiality of contemporary life, the problematisation of the boundaries between public and private (i.e. the penetration of ‘foreign bodies’, regularly politicised, into the intimate sphere, as in Varya Yakovleva’s Oneluv), the racial issue (It’s Nice in Here, dir. Robert-Jonathan Koeyers) and historical and cultural reviews of China (Mao’s Mango Cult, dir. Kayu Leung, about an unusual episode from the Cultural Revolution), Taiwan (Compound Eyes of Tropical, dir. Zhan Zhang Xu), Iran (the intimate No. 28 by Zahra Salarnia in its ‘split screens’ also touches on the Islamic Revolution) and Russia (Sasha Svirsky’s The Master of the Swamp revises Peter the Great).
The number of family films is still constant (Ethan Barrett’s autobiographical etude Rosemary AD (After Dad) about paternal dilemmas, emotions and visions of the future, carried out in an appropriate ‘childish’ style of crayons, is perhaps their best representative), as well as those with a classical appearance (pencil, charcoal and sand by Susanna Jirkuff, ALIMO and Naomi Van Niekerk), but one gets the impression that contemporary animation is moving away from the psychological solipsism characteristic of earlier years. Even though some of them are very personal, this year’s films regularly carry universal aspirations.
Authors of the younger and middle generation prevail, but it is worth welcoming the return of the true legends of world animation, and of course Animafest – Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis. With The Flying Sailor, the famous Canadian authors have just competed for the Oscar for the third time, and they also keep the Animafest Grand Prix, the Palme d’Or and the Crystal of Annecy, and the Winsor McCay Lifetime Achievement Award in their showcases. The Flying Sailor is an artistic reinterpretation of the real experience of Charles Mayers, who was blown up by a ship explosion in Halifax in 1917, leaving him, unlike around 1,800 casualties, with only superficial injuries. Tilby and Forbis used a hybrid of computer and classic animation, as well as documentary footage and photographs, to depict the terrible destruction and Mayers’ incredible 2 km flight. For the masters of the ‘old ways’ it was a new challenge that perfectly fit into the oeuvre marked by a compassionate and humorous approach to details, moments, coincidences and the fragility of existence.
João Gonzalez’ Ice Merchants was also nominated for the Academy Award. The film about the unusual craft of a father and a son relies on the original ‘parachute’ premise and perspective, as well as beautiful animation in orange, brown, beige and blue tones, which, along with brilliantly executed shadows, sounds and original score, successfully creates a mountain atmosphere. Although it can be understood as an allegory of single fatherhood, the feeling of loss and the cyclical survival ‘on the edge of the abyss’, this film also contains a strong environmentalist warning in a tense and poetic twist that strikingly connects with individual destiny. Perhaps the best representative of the purely ecological group of films is the animated documentary The Waiting (dir. Volker Schlecht) about the American biologist Karen Lips, who was the first to attribute the disappearance of frogs from the forests of Central America to chytridiomycetes. Styled as an investigative work, The Waiting is evoked by fluid transitions between transformative and associative, nevertheless realistic and precise drawings.
A film from the shortlist of Oscar candidates and from the list of nominees for the European Film Award The Debutante by Elizabeth Hobbs was created from a paper collage and pictures painted with wet ink and colour, filmed with a trick camera, as an adaptation of a short story by the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. And the storyline, set in 1934, bears the hallmarks of that style in the portrayal of a heroine from the British upper class who, instead of social status, chooses friendship and exchange of identity with a hyena. It is a feminist metaphor for free choice and an advocacy of avant-garde subversion of formal opportunities. Engaging and poignant, but at the same time considerate and gentle film about police violence and racial injustice It’s Nice in Here, which from its world premiere in Cannes also ended up on the short list of Oscar candidates, presents two contradictory but parallel confessions of full-blooded protagonists – a girl and a police officer. The pseudo-documentary film illustrates the subjectivity and fragmentation of memory and points to the unsustainability of the existing treatment of the problem it deals with.
If not one of the aforementioned Oscar-nominated works, or big names like Atsushi Wada (the miniature Ikimono-san: Turtle), the real question is which new film will deserve the Animafest Grand Prix for 2023, and with it the chance for the gold statue in 2024. Perhaps it will be the Belgian The Marrons Glacés (dir. Delphine Hermans, Michel Vandam), which skilfully animates the reminiscences of an old woman lost in the hospital corridors, and which mostly revolve around girlhood, sex, childbirth, motherhood and a departed husband. The Estonian puppet-film Dog Apartment, a free association and a realised metaphor of Andres Ehin’s verses, which depicts a failed, unshaven and alienated ballet dancer who survives in everyday life of the gnawing suburbia by dancing for dairy cows, is not without a chance either. His life is ‘dog’s’, and so is his apartment, for which he pays rent in sausages, but one thing is certain – this performance of Swan Lake, as well as the Moldovan schlager that frames the film, will not be easily forgotten by the audience.
Hugo Weaving is the voice of Don Ritchie in the movie Teacups (dir. Alec Green, Finbar Watson) about a man who saved hundreds of people from suicide on Sydney’s The Gap cliff with a simple human conversation.
A Kind of Testament is indeed a film about animation, but above all about life decisions and the artistic appropriation of private photos from social media – part mockumentary, part bizarre SF with a somewhat mysterious but deeply relevant narrative. In addition to the author’s strong comic background, critics also found reflexes of Kon’s classic Perfect Blue in this fruit of seven years’ work, considering the body horror and the motif of two women. The impressive Brazilian collage horror Cactus (dir. Ricardo Kump) was inspired by a short story by Argentine writer Santiago Dabove about a man with a nervous system disorder who, after falling from a horse, finds himself immobile in a desert environment. In portraying the main character, the work skilfully uses the suggestion of ‘cracked’ colours from classic painters’ canvases or the surface of dry earth. Joseph Pierce’s new rotoscoped film about addiction, Scale, is an adaptation of a short story (by British writer Will Self). In a hallucinatory work of unusual proportions, ellipses and non-linear storytelling, with which Pierce breaks an almost decade-long creative break, the protagonist copes with visions induced by morphine and codeine, while the shifted self-ironic ending of the film is full of strange dignity.
Created using digital and analogue painting techniques based on inkjet prints, the film Almost Forgotten (dir. Dimitri Mihajlović, Miguel Lima), with its masterful transitions within retro-aesthetics and dynamically varying conductive motifs that fly through the unstable contours of memory, draws the viewer into heroine’s vague but traumatic memory of her grandfather and home. The film by the BAP-Animation studio is expecting its world premiere in Zagreb, in front of an audience that has followed and loved these Portuguese creatives for years. Stephen Irwin, one of the leading artists of raw animation, is also a regular guest of the festival. His new work World to Roam, in a combination of 2D and 3D with hand-drawn and coloured elements as well as narration and classical music scores, leaves, however, the impression of not only an extremely hybrid, but also a very thoughtful form in which it allegorises parental anxieties about the child’s ‘leaving the cradle’.
The horrors of war are represented by the work Mariupol. A Hundred Nights (dir. Sofiia Melnyk), inspired by the real fate of a girl who wakes up on the day of the Russian invasion. Thoroughly carried out with digital drawing that goes into real photographs of burning and destroyed buildings, the film also contains a sequence derived from authentic children’s artwork. The song Kolesa from the opera Stus: Passerby by Volodymyr Rudenko to the lyrics of Vasil Stus gives the film a special rhythm and an ominous-wistful intonation. On the other hand, Sasha Svirsky, in his recognisable poetics of a dynamic combination of techniques with a piercing ironic hint, brings a revisionist vision of Peter the Great (The Lord of the Swamps) that emphasises absolutism and paternalism instead of the usual enlightenment, revealing even today the unfortunately dominant flip-side that is outlined in blood-red on to the body of despised peasants compressed into a collective machine.
The stop-motion adaptation and reinterpretation of the Southeast Asian folk tale Compound Eyes of Tropical is realised in the characteristic paper-mache technique of Zhan Zhang Xu, which we remember from his earlier grotesque Si So Mi. Compound Eyes of Tropical is a significantly more ambitious film about the drama and dance of nature, an exploration of perspective, identity and performance, rooted in the ceremonial costumes of Taiwanese folk dancers and enriched with other materials such as glass. With excellent sound, haptic suggestiveness and a drumming rhythm that accompanies the trance of life and death, the film is an unmissable cinematic experience at least as much as the new work of experimental animation painter Shunsaku Hayashi, Our Pain. Here, Hayashi makes his well-known mixture of stop-animated painting, drawing, claymation and rotoscopy thematically and formally concrete by dealing with a clearly defined content of psychological and physical wounds and allowing a certain figuration into the work.
There is no shortage of humour in the offer of genre films, mostly cloaked in SF or horror. The hilarious Spanish satire, multiverse SF Fonorama (dir. Alex Rey) parodies telecommunications marketing, smartphone mania, and general cliches of the genre in a persiflage of historical and contemporary New York filled with hints for film lovers. The harrowing but witty Spanish and Brazilian horror films Parallel (dir. Sam Orti) and La Pursé (dir. Gabriel Nóbrega, Lucas René) confirm, on the other hand, that stop-motion animation remains the most fertile ground for animated horror.
The Austrian film Where I Live by Susanne Jirkuff reveals a psychological analysis of the passivity of the bourgeois mind and existence behind the paradoxical, fantastical assumption about an apartment that, in addition to its appearance, changes its location in the building. The adaptation of the eponymous story (1955) by Ilse Aichinger, based on author’s post-war experience, was carried out by a combination of the traditional black and white charcoal technique (also an important motif of the story) and digital animation through a dominant first-person perspective, functional in achieving the impression of cyclicity and seamless transformation of outlines. An adaptation of Fyodor Sologub’s A Tiny Man (dir. Aude David, Mikaël Gaudin) was also made with charcoal and graphite powder, but here with a hint to the chubby heroes of Joanna Quinn, with a basically comical premise of a plan that turns against the husband who aims to make his wife ‘slimmer’, which is however in atmosphere closer to German expressionism, and its message is closer to a fairy-tale parable.
South African artist Naomi Van Niekerk is also recognisable for her literary (and musical) inspirations and (also black and white) sand animation – the film Box Cutters is the confession of a survivor of violence from the streets of Johannesburg, inspired by Ronelda Kamfer’s song. Fluid, ‘as if blown away by the wind’ montage clips and expressive details on the border between sleep and waking are functional in the depiction of a traumatic event and the disinterest of everyday life that goes on uninterrupted. Among the lesser-known animated film ‘destinations’, Saudi Arabia also catches the eye. On the global stage it is still more the exception than the rule, but Juxtaposed Land, was actually authored by the Japanese-Estonian artist, historian and animation theorist ALIMO in the traditional pencil technique. The author’s theoretical education is more than visible in this reference-filled work that relies on Plato, Barthes, Borges, Ruskin, photographs, graffiti and numerous literary and cinematic works, among which Koji Yamamura’s should perhaps be highlighted. The philosophical work requires an above-average amount of reading, but it offers a meditation on the beautiful landscape drawings with which the author simultaneously remains faithful to his poetics of medieval tableaux and abandons the earlier fairy-tale playfulness. The motifs of Meinrad Inglin, a Swiss writer of passatist and anti-modernist tendencies, are brought to life in glass painting technique in Greylands. In the late, foggy and snowy mountain autumn, the hunting season begins, which juxtaposes the contours of animals and people. Despite the title, in the film we find more (desaturated) colours and evocative sounds of the countryside and nature, but also a tragic twist.
A casual apocalypse with an ecological subtext and a comment on internet addiction and the precarious job of a delivery person in The World After in fuchsia colours, finds two hipster-Zoomer, sentimental ghosts in an oceanic theme park on the eve of a big storm. Inspired by Genndy Tartakovsky and Paul Auster, Argentinian author Florentina Gonzalez humorously and casually narrates an encounter, friendship and the imminent end of the world. In her work, Inés Sedan is also interested in the unfulfilled longing for love in the modern world – this is also the case with the adaptation of the reportage Love me Tinder by Alain Lewkowicz created for the needs of Sonia Kronlund’s French podcast Les pieds sur terre under the title Love Me True. A colourful and playful mix-media creation, sometimes humorously, and sometimes seriously, follows the lamentations of a woman who is desperately looking for closeness on dating apps, while developing an addiction to her phone and a certain toxic man.
Varya Yakovleva’s film Oneluv has an extremely syncretic, non-unified and disproportionate approach to the design of characters and backgrounds, punkish disregard for the dividing line between imagination and reality, but is seriously interested in depicting the rape of private space and violence in general, as well as the strong female and weak, sleazy male principle. This nightmarish banquet includes the abuse of power, i.e. it represents a complete fresco of the moral decay of society. A puppet film about an 18-year-old Finnish Kosovar who goes out in public for the first time with glam makeup and is afraid of visiting his old homeland, Blush – An Extraordinary Voyage (dir. Iiti Yli-Harja), is styled as a space mission into the unknown, and based on documentary recordings. Along with the film by Matea Kovač, who in Y uses the nudes drawn by Darko Bakliža to portray lesbian love, it is the only explicitly LGBTQI+ film of this year’s Grand Competition. Besides Y, eroticism is also explicitly present in the slow and subtly animated poetic Danish Spring (dir. Pernille Kjaer) about the awakening of nature, the country house and the body. Rooted in the folklore of Jutland, the film was created in Martina Scarpelli’s studio, and is distributed by the Croatian Bonobostudio.