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The Animation Pimp: Finally… a RANT.

The Animation Pimp rants about cookie-cutter, butt-kissing festival reviews.

Illustration by Andreas Hykade. Courtesy of Chris J. Robinson.

Lets be clear about this one: its relatively trivial and contrary to what some of you pugs who think all Pimp columns are rants, this one IS a RANT. My turkey? Festival reviews. You knowyou see them on AWN or on the ASIFA Website or in ASIFA newsletters or in that Korean mag. Animatoon (Animation Magazine doesnt even bother w/ festival content). Enough of them, OK?

These reviews are, in general, useless, lazy, so obviously a take work for hire to see my name in print even though Ive never been to a festival before and didnt go to half the events. These love letters are getting us nowhere. They dont help the readers, they dont help the filmmakers and they dont help festival organizers. Why is it like this? OK well first off most of the reviewers are guests of the festival theyre reviewing. They sometimes get travel and hotel, passes and meal tickets covered by the festival. Do you REALLY believe that these folks are going to give a whole-heartedly subjective POV? Who wants to risk not being invited back to a fest?

Two, what they write is usually just cut and pasted from the festivals own pr material, a grocery list of activities. See its not all that possible to attend EVERY event at a festival so the poor reviewer, already feeling guilty about the fee, hotel, pass and free event snacks, feels theyve got to cover the whole shebang even if they didnt attend and what we get is a bland description of the event they didnt attend under the guise that they did attend. Trois perspective. Every animation magazine/newsletter is guilty of this and, YES, I understand WHY. No one has a budget ala BIG newspapers to send a reviewer to cover an animation festival so they must rely on people they know or people they know who know someone who might be going to said festival. The problem is that in some cases they hire inexperienced people now hold up. I realize that that can be a boon w/ the right person because its good to get the distant/outsider take on our little insular world but unfortunately most times we dont get the right people so the perspective can be naïve and quite limited.

How are they going to know if, for example, Zagreb is any better or worse if theyve never been there before? Maybe that doesnt matter? I dunno. I think it does, Zagreb has a long, rich history. Their organizers are quite passionate and active in the animation world. They travel to festivals, meet filmmakers, generally do what they can do make an interesting festival. You dont see that effort with a lot of festivals anymore.

(The following is a digression). There are so many damn festivals now being organized by people who have no interest, no connection, no awareness of festival history or culture and are solely creating an event so that they can promote their companies, shallow TV pilots and, heck, maybe theyll find some Dickenss kids to exploit along the way.

Reminds me. (Digression #2) I just read a nasty piece in a Toronto paper about the Montreal World Film Festival (big live-action event). Some lady was moaning about the fact that only the public came to the festival AND, get this, that the festival showed too many films by people shed never heard of. Umm lady the VERY point of having festivals in the first place was to showcase neglected, overlooked filmmakers who had few avenues for exhibition to a WIDER audience.

Animation festivals need to remember this. We are not here to lick the toe jam of industry. We exist to introduce new works by new/old voices to new/old viewers. The industry already has exhibition spaces called, umm, the television or the cinema. The industry should be kissing festival toe because w/o festival films, theyd have no one to steal styles from (fortunately, concepts are safe).

My point? The same as always dont close the door to the past. Festivals have a history, had a reason for coming into being and you, as a reviewer/attendee/entrant should be aware of such things. And this is precisely why festival reviews need to be a little bit more w/ it. Or maybe you dont care about such stuffif not, well, bully for you.

Four, rarely do they (reviewers) talk w/ other folks or even organizers. If I were to gripe about the ticket system in Annecy, the terrible opening ceremony at Fantoche this year, or the sometimes stupid projection in Ottawa, Id first approach a festival rep and say, hey man, how come your ticket system is lousy? Whats with that loser slam poet on opening night? Then they can give you some explanation and you can take it from there. Better still just because you hated the ticket system, maybe others liked it. I'm not saying u need to be more critical necessarily.

Fest. organizers (except me) are not consciously trying to be evil so why attack them in print, but at the same time, if there are some fundamental problems people are having at festival, the festival people need to hear this of course. And, hey just because YOU had a poor time because you lack basic social functions or didnt like one to two programs doesnt mean that it was a bad festival or program. Ask other people. Even if you liked it, ask the programmer why they chose what they chose. Ask other attendees what they thought of the tepid student competition. Also be aware of cultural context.

I read reviews by people saying... WHY didnt they do this? Why didnt they do that? Well kids festivals do not exist on equal playing fields. Ottawa doesnt get anywhere near the state support that Euro. Fests like Annecy or Zagreb or even Holland get and so sometimes we (for example) have to make decisions based on those economic realities. And this is where experience goers are a pain in the ass. They go to Annecy or Hiroshima, lets say, and are treated in one way, maybe they get meal tickets or there are a lot of parties (i.e. free grub) and then they start expecting doggie bags everywhere. Hellwe even get people who call us asking if there are any partiesthey dont apparently care about the films (this stems from 1996 when studios dumped a truckload of money at festivals resulting in an orgy of parties).

Point, again, is that you cannot employ the same sweeping critical standards/expectations to all festivals. Why would you? This was the problem with ASIFA festivals of the past. Everyone looked the same. Whats the point then?

Not to contradict myself but there are also dangers when experienced people are reviewing. Take Pat Raine Webbs Annecy 02 review in AWN for example. Pat (a former ASIFA board member) is a good person, goes to animation festivals every year. Problem is that she goes to the same ones all the time and has a particular fondness for Zagreb (perhaps connected with the free hotel and passes that Zagreb provided ASIFA board members w/ for many years). On the whole, Pats review is fine. She briefly talks about some highlights from competition, but its the last few lines that got my goat.

If you want lots of action and don't mind crowds and queuing and more screenings then one human being can handle, then Annecy is the festival for you. But if you want to find the true spirit of animation you have to go to Zagreb!

Ive nothing against Zagreb, nothing angst Pat, but it irks me that she makes this GRAND SWEEPING statement about Zagreb w/o EVER ONCE visiting, not just Ottawa but more importantly, Holland, Fantoche, Anima Mundi or even Tough Eye (granted a young festival). And why hasnt Pat visited these festivals? Because they didnt pander to ASIFA board members? Pats a respected figure and its asinine to make such a myopic statement. Maybe Im overreacting, but the downside of the ASIFA system that existed for so many years (and Ottawa was one of the big beneficiaries of it) is that other festivals who did not seek out ASIFA approval got neglected, pushed aside, ignored.

Holland has been around since 1985 and Id argue that its FAR more relevant and true to the spirit of animation (whatever the fug that means) than Zagreb is today. And lets not forget Stuttgart, a very underrated, well programmed German anifest. A fest that was largely ignored by ASIFA as well.

Do festivals even need these reviews? Theyre written right after the event. Sure I can throw it in the reports that we sent to the government funders, but do people actually use these reviews to guide them the next time the festival comes round in a year or two (thats a question)? Oh and I guess a glowing review earns the reviewer some points w/ the festival organizers.

But really... given that most of these reviews are so sort of superficial, are they really helping the festival improve itself? If not, then what is the point of these reviews beyond being 1,500 word advertisements for a festival? Magazines need to re-think why it is that they are reviewing a festival and what it is they are trying to convey through these reviews. Meantime kids... at least write honestly.

One road is to give us an honest reflection of your experience at the festival. I mean you cant properly sum up the whole experience of the event so at least give us yours and that doesnt mean what you sawbut everything give us the whole kit baby the hangover, breakfast, what was on Croatian TV? Do they still have hard-core porn for free there? What about the local liquor? Is masturbation more exciting in a foreign country? Did you screw around? Was it your first festival? Were you shy? Did you stay by yourself, maybe only going to screenings because you didnt know anyone? Give us the truth man.

How was the flight? Did the festival peeps meet u at the airport? Did you spend a whole day just sitting round the Bonlieu shooting the breeze w/friends and colleagues? What about the city? Did you check out the thermal pool in Baden? Walk along the river? Festivals are not just about films. They are social and cultural experiences, a chance to meet new people and gab about life. All these things are part of a festival experience.

Or make it gossipy a sort of Michael Musto type thing about star sightings, who was being a bitch to whom, who was stumbling drunk. (OK, I know animation is so humble and down to earth that there really is no star system but hey lets create one.) Who was that young girl linking arms with Oscar Grillo? What was said during that tense conversation between Kucia and Schwizgebel? Does Griffin really have a foot fetish? That Dutch festival director was drunk BEFORE breakfast, again. Did you see that Estonian animator getting it on with that Swiss lamb? No, really, I mean a lamb. Now this approach wouldnt be overly useful perhaps but it would sure has heckles be entertaining.

Or heysay you aint into that stuff cause you didnt do much but see films, exhibitions and attend panel discussions. Man, youre dull; youre probably an academic. Ok thenstill I know an academic sort, crazy kook, who wrote what initially seemed like a bizarre, nothing to do w/ Ottawa review of Ottawa. Part of the problem was language. English ain't his first. Anyhow... after I re-read the text for the 5th time I realized hed written quite a thoughtful little piece that expanded beyond the Ottawa festival and embraced the whole of animation. What did the films shown at Ottawa say about the current situation in animation? And he went on to theorize about this, quite passionately, even getting into comparisons between animation and other arts (imagine that!) I didnt agree w/ his takes on stufftoo turn of the century, elitist romantic for mesort of guy who believes there is REAL art and NOT REAL art. Yeah... OKbuddy.

Anyway... what I did like was how he attempted to examine the festival on a larger socio-cultural blah blah blah level. Animation was taken out of its self-imposed cage and introduced to the real world (OKmaybe not real or here or now... but at least ANOTHER world). AWN commissioned this review, but in the end they didnt print it because the writing was not very clear or comprehensible in places and it would require an intense and hefty amount of time to re-work this piece into shape. Its too bad, cause I think that overall it was one of the VERY VERY few useful/meaningful festival analyses.

AWN has published its share of gimp reviews (e.g. check out Kelly Nealls review of the Tough Eye 2003 festival. Has she even seen an animation film before?). Worse still check out the blowings (book and festival reviews) of that SUPERSTAR of animation scholars, Giannalberto Bendazzi. This guy is a show baby. He gushes about EVERYTHING he writes about w/o actually giving you any evidence? Lookthat Cartoon encyclopedia is fine and dandy buddybut umm it does not warrant these incessantly hollow dribbles. Its time to start earning your keep and cease with the wanna please everyone hallmark drippings.

At the same time though, AWN has also published some of the more innovative festival reviews. In 2001, AWN asked animator and all round good guy, Chris Lanier, to write about his experiences as a competition filmmaker at Sundance. Lanier wrote a thoughtful, intelligent sketchbook/diary piece about his experience. Or check out Don Dugas wordless review of the ASIFA East Awards told entirely through sketches. Not a big fan of the sketches per se but I sure do like the idea. AWN has also composed photo scrapbooks of festivals. These are perhaps not as effective but it does give you some visual sense of the environment.

Perhaps AWNs finest moment was Dan Sartos review of SAFO 99. In it he writes about the festivals director: Chris is no stranger to controversy; he can be outspoken, and his straightforward manner doesn't always sit well with some of the crusty veterans on today's animation scene. One thing, however, is clear to me he knows animation, and he knows how to put on a dynamite festival. Whats not to like about those four lines of poetry?

Some other standouts reviewers are Czech writers like Stanislav Ulmer. You can find some of his reviews on http://asifa.net. He often provides a very thoughtful, in-depth analysis of a set of films that stood out for him at a festival.

What are some other ways to improve reviews? Maybe mags should invite a quartet of people from diff. backgrounds to contribute their POVs on a festival or just set up a festival forum discussion group where people can chat about what they saw, what they liked/disliked, problems, etc Actually thatd be a damn good idea. Maybe even invite a festival dir. to do a chat w/people so he/she can get their feedback directly. Then againIve tried this a few times on the AWN café and Animation Nation and I find that when you actually turn things around and ask people what it is that they want from a festival, they havent the faintest idea. How can a festival be good/bad if you dont know what the heck you want from it?

OK... well sbout it. A pretty insignificant and maybe insular rant, although I dunno if youre in animation and dont care about animation festivals then maybe theres a problem w/youor them.

RIP K.D. Just had a limited glimpse. Saw a feisty, sarcastic, bitchy gal who was always real. You were true to yourself and others. No bullshit. Thats what matters. Take care.

Chris Robinson is but a man. His hobbies include squirrel taunting, goat thumping, meat dancing and elderly peeping. You can find the results at http://asifa.net/robinson.