Chris Robinson, Director of the Ottawa Festival takes a hard look at the relationships between festivals and the international animators' association which accredits them.
This article, by the director of the Ottawa Animation Festival brings to the surface a number of long-standing complaints regarding the relationship between ASIFA-Internatiional and the major international festivals they sanction. As such, we would like to invite comments from all interested parties, whether they agree or disagree with Robinson's point of view.
Since its beginnings in 1960, ASIFA-International has taken great strides in ensuring the continuous development of the "art of animation." Through its sanctioning of festivals, creation of workshops and retrospectives, support and protection of independent animators and their films, the creation of an archive, and a number of other activities, ASIFA has not only established some much needed exhibition venues for animators, but has also shown us just how far reaching animation is as a way of expression for many different cultures. As evidence, ASIFA has evolved from one organization into many, with branches springing up all across the world. Yet some 37 years later in a drastically altered world, ASIFA-International appears to have lost its way. This once active and energetic association has become a bureaucratic "old boy's club," seemingly more concerned with the prestige and benefits of their position than with actively promoting "the art of animation." Gutsy and altruistic initiatives have given way to stagnant diplomacy. For example, recent festival reviews seemed to have been based on the hope of return invitations rather than honesty, and the ASIFA children's rights workshop (children are asked to make films based on issues adults think are important rather than allowing them to express their own opinions), reeks of a stifling political correctness. My recent experiences with the organization, as director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival (one of five sanctioned festivals), have not only reinforced my feelings about its stagnancy, but has ultimately led the festival to consider withdrawing from ASIFA. Despite repeated attempts to communicate with the board in Annecy, Holland and Zagreb, with the exception of a few individuals, it did little to inquire, advise, or assist with Ottawa 96, let alone respond to my concerns about ASIFA's relationship with the festival and its overall role in animation. Just prior to Ottawa 96, ASIFA finally contacted us. Unfortunately, all they wanted was to take advantage of the ASIFA rule that obliges festivals to cover all board members' accommodations and pass expenses.(Rule 7c: "Each festival must invite the members of the ASIFA board (22 maximum) that obliges festivals to cover all board members" accommodations and pass expenses.) Given that, with a few exceptions, board members have done nothing to assist the festival, I found it astonishing that they have the nerve to magically appear and make such demands. This was especially frustrating in light of the severe government cuts that the festival was forced to absorb this year. In anticipation of these cuts, we did our best to avoid letting them affect the quality of our programming. and looked elsewhere for cuts. (E.g., we hired less staff and reduced the size of the Selection Committee from five to three.) When the cut became official, the other obvious area to cut was the board invitations rule. Despite a detailed written explanation to the ASIFA board, one board member remained insistent that he be invited. He immediately called a colleague, who then complained to me and insisted that I invite the board to the festival. So much for artistic mandates.
Now I must say that, in the end, this seemingly disruptive member turned out be very helpful. Nevertheless, I am baffled by the hypocrisy of an association whose mandate is to promote independent animators and the "art of animation." Money that could have been used to maintain ASIFA's "mandate" was instead redirected to accomodate individuals from ASIFA-International and ASIFA-Canada who did absolutely nothing for the festival. Unbelievably, one board member, who upon arrival discovered a minor problem with his hotel started screaming at festival staff and volunteers. Now this might appear to be petty gossip, but in my opinion these seemingly minor actions merely reinforce ASIFA's pettiness and stagnancy. The State of the Rules The second issue is the state of ASIFA festival rules. They exist in theory, but are actually rarely enforced. At Zagreb 96, for example, its organizers, apparently without the Selection Committee's consent, put a couple of dreadful local films in competition to boost the studio's morale. The rules (5E) clearly state that all "[d]ecisions . . . are final and no limitations shall be placed on them for aesthetic, ethical, or political reasons" (a naive expectation, but a rule nonetheless). To make matters worse, an ASIFA board member was on this committee. To my knowledge, nothing has been done to address this flagrant rules violation. But Zagreb is not alone. All ASIFA festivals violate the rules. And this perhaps says more about the rules than the offenders. The ASIFA board recently revised its rules without any festival directors being present. Given that festival directors likely know more about the structure and context of their event then the board, and that the five festivals exist on three different continents, this is simply a ridiculous course of action. You simply cannot create a uniform set of rules for events that are themselves subject to very different social, economic and political contexts. Hence, the transgression of rules. ASIFA-Canada Unfortunately, these problems are not limited to ASIFA-International. ASIFA-Canada, who were slightly more active in assisting Ottawa 96, nevertheless exhibited the same characteristics. Despite having being a member for the past two years, I have, with one exception, never been told when meetings occur. During my one and only meeting with the board, like children writing letters to Santa Claus, they started reciting from their wish lists (i.e., Why don't you do this? Why don't you do that?). These demands were made, without any offers to assist, by people who had no real grasp of the organizational structure behind the festival. Like children at Christmas, they don't care how they get the gift, as long as they get it. And even then they sometimes still find something to complain about. For example, at our expense, we offered ASIFA-Canada a page on our Web site. Within a week, an angry email arrived complaining about some of the errors on the page. A page they wrote. The problems with ASIFA-Canada extend well beyond the festival. What appears to be a national association is in reality a Montreal-dominated chapter that is far too closely linked with the National Film Board of Canada to actually reflect and promote the many independent animators scattered throughout the country. (The recent creation of ASIFA-Vancouver was in part a response to this problem.) There are independent animators in Canada that don't work for the NFB and, if ASIFA mandate has any meaning, their concerns should be a priority over a government funded (albeit decreasing) studio. Added into the mix is the routine ASIFA-Canada/International post-festival commentary, which is generally a naive response that criticizes and applauds the festival without any real context. For example, Ottawa 96 was accused by some of being too corporate. With a fuller of understanding of the difficulties facing us, accusers might have learned that without corporate support, there would have been no festival. (In fact, the success of Ottawa 96 has enabled us to create a much-needed International Student Animation Festival.) This is not to say that Ottawa 96 was perfect, it wasn't. But a more acute grasp on the contexts of each event would make for more informed opinions, positive or negative.
Surving Without ASIFA? At this time, I believe the Ottawa festival could easily survive without ASIFA, and this should be of grave concern to the board. Since Ottawa 88, entry and sponsorship levels have increased each year. While ASIFA certainly assisted Ottawa in its early years, being a sanctioned festival has not played a significant role in these increases. It is doubtful that either of these components will be affected if Ottawa loses ASIFA's approval. In a time of drastic government cuts to the cultural sector, the state of the industry more than anything else determines the success or failure of the festival. If Ottawa is now considered one of the top animation festivals in the world, thanks should go to its staff and volunteers; to the North American companies who have supported us; to the few remaining government supporters who, in the face of massive cuts, continue to acknowledge the national and local importance of the festival; not to ASIFA. Despite these complaints, the relationship between ASIFA and Ottawa carries a long history, and it would be foolish to cut these ties without first attempting to mend them. In response to these problems, Ottawa organizers have come up with some alternatives. For an ASIFA board member (International or Canadian) to receive free accommodations and/or passes, they will have to either find a sponsor to cover their costs, or work for the festival. This work could include curating and organizing retrospectives and/or workshops, or simply working as a staff member during the festival. Secondly, festival directors must have a say (and vote) in the creation or revision of festival rules from the beginning. The ASIFA board is simply not equipped to fully understand the structures, problems and contexts that are unique to each event. Finally, the ASIFA-International board would do well to break up the "old boys' club." This "club" has increasingly alienated the younger generation by not better informing and involving them in the ASIFA process. Most of us have no idea how one becomes elected to the board, let alone when actual meetings occur. The medium is becoming increasingly dominated by a younger generation whose concerns are not being adequately represented. If ASIFA is to be of any service, it must reflect this new generation. These are merely a few suggestions based on my perspectives from the Ottawa festival, I am certain that there are other stories and suggestions. To ensure that these words expand beyond the screen, it is essential that a dialogue be establishedÏamong ASIFA members and interested parties to discuss the future of this association. Ottawa organizers were not overly enthused about creating a more corporate festival, but we had little choice. While other festivals can seemingly do without corporate support (e.g., Zagreb), Ottawa exists in a completely different geopolitical context. If we are to remain the most relevant animation festival in North America, we must reflect both the artistic and industrial nature of this medium. Like it or not, animation consists of art and industry, to ignore one is to deny the entire history of animation. As we approach the end of the century, there is great excitement about the variety of new avenues open to animation. But whether ASIFA will catch up depends on its ability to escape from its 1960s ideals, break free from its bureaucratic tunnel vision, and evolve into a more active, assertive association that truly reflects the diversity of this complex and always changing world. It also depends on you. Chris Robinson is Executive Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the International Student Animation Festival of Ottawa, which will take place in September 1997. In addition to writing articles on film and animation, Robinson organizes a bi-weekly series of underground film screenings in Ottawa.