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Cartoombria: Anime and Independent Animation

One of Italy's most popular festivals took on a serious subject this year. Chiara Magri offers her insight.

Luca Raffaelli, Cartoombria Director, and Pierluigi De Mas, ASIFA Italia President. Photo courtesy of Chiara Magri.

As if organizing an animation festival in Italy is not difficult enough, this year Cartoombria, which ran from November 27 to 29, also had to deal with the threat of earthquakes which hit the Umbria area for more than a month.

But not even natural disasters could stop Luca Raffaelli, director of the Festival, from offering a program containing a wide range of animation from a variety of productions. The setting for Cartoombria is the magnificent old Pavone Theater, where the spectator can watch the screenings, meetings, presentations and debates on a wide range of themes, types, styles and applications from morning until late at night. Each section of the Festival is hosted on one particular day rather then being divided into daily blocks as in most festivals. This scheme creates interesting contrasts and couplings, and obliges a stimulating reflection on the language of animation in all its multicolored facets.

Osvaldo Cavandoli next to the Cartoombria '97 festival poster which he designed. Photo courtesy of Chiara Magri.

Fostering Understanding

The Cartoombria `97 poster, designed by Osvaldo Cavandoli, presents a horrible Japanese-style cartoon robot showing a metallic fist, beneath him is the artist's famous character from La linea (The Line), responding in an inequivocable rude gesture. The poster sums up in a comical, rather than an aggressive way, the underlying theme of the Festival: the often difficult meeting ground between Japanese and independent, artistic film in Italy. This apparently contradictory position provides a very piquant and useful premise for the analysis of the role of animation in communication and entertainment, and its possible development. In both cases, in fact, one can see how animation is tending to break out of the confines of children's productions to meet the needs of the adult world or to express an independent art form. In Italy, as in the majority of western cultures, Japanese animation does not receive critical acclaim. Commercial broadcasters have tended to fill their schedules with these cartoons; buying them in bulk without any specific criteria and cutting them up to fit in with other children's programs which are already made to very low standards. On the other hand, Italian animators have, until very recently, been excluded from the television market and have nearly always shown aversion, or at least indifference, to the relatively poor Japanese product which is seen as an unwanted competitor.

Cartoombria has bravely attempted to close the distance between these two worlds. It was a great pleasure to see the enthusiasm of the young Japanese animation fans, while the connoisseurs and filmmakers suddenly discovered the extraordinary variety of Japanese productions.

Cartoombria Festival Poster '97

Complete versions of the Sailor Moon series were seen along with the feature thriller Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kan produced by Mad House Studios. The Italian premiere of the epic series Neon Genesis Evangelion by Hideaki Hanno took place as well. Sailor Moon drew the attention of both the public and media with absurd worries about "political correctness" which is very fashionable with Italian broadcasters at the moment. Worries of covering up the really rather innocent young warrior's buttocks with gleaming diamonds are misplaced when compared to the barbaric cuts and re-edits of the original, leaving it without the soundtrack and reduced to a disconnected incomprehensible sequence of events with no rhyme or reason.

The Competition

Cartoombria has made a significant leap forward this year in the independent short films category with a new international award, in addition to the traditional award for Italian films. The jury was made up of: animation historian and director of the British Animation Awards, Jayne Pilling, the Argentinean illustrator and multimedia director Oscar Chiericoni and Lorenzo Mattotti, one of the foremost Italian illustrators.

The Grand Prix went to Craig Welch's How Wings are Attached to the Backs of Angels, a dark, complex work on the subject of disturbing psychic mechanisms which was produced by the National Film Board of Canada. The Special Jury Prize went to German Solweig Von Kleist whose Le Roman de Mon Âme uses bright acrylic paintings to flick through a variety of female memories and imaginings. The Jury decided to exclude two medium-length features which were "very important high-quality works, Flatworld by Daniel Greaves and La Vieille Dame et Les Pigeons by Sylvain Chomet, since they totally differ from other works both in terms of context and production means."

Italian competition winner Ursula Ferrara. Photo courtesy of Chiara Magri.

One could argue at length about this decision and the difficulties Festivals encounter when defining the term "short film," but this is not the best place to do so. Suffice it to say, that this problem should be considered for the Italian competition but for very different reasons. In fact, the Jury had few problems deciding the Cartoombria Italy award which was given to one of the most modest, tenacious, inspiring animators in Italy. The film was the brief and intense Quasi Niente (Almost Nothing) by Ursula Ferrara, who has for years solely produced moving fragments of daily life. The award confirmed the talent, recognized both in Italy and abroad, of the author and, in addition, underlined the dramatic scarcity of Italian short films. The complete Italian shorts competition lasted 40 minutes in all, not completely due to the lack of productions but simply because of their extreme brevity. We saw many young filmmakers present interesting styles and themes in just a few seconds, but unfortunately, they cannot develop them further due to budget limitations. In Italy these difficulties are traditionally enormous because animation is virtually excluded from state aid or incentives and from universities, schools and art colleges. There is just one single film school capable of producing animation, the Experimental Film Center (Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia) which did not present a film at this year's festival. These obstacles have been heightened by the fact that nearly all the Italian animation studios have been working on producing series following a change in broadcasters' policies in Italy which has led to an increased investment in this sector. The independent short risks disappearing altogether, or at least being limited by the means and schools available to help students.

Quasi Niente (Almost Nothing) by Ursula Ferrera. Photo courtesy of Chiara Magri. ©Ursula Ferrera

Tributes and Other Events

This year the Cartoombria tributes centered on a pair of artists who represent two very different facets of independent animation. One tribute was dedicated to the Italian Osvaldo Cavandoli who won both public, when able to reach them, and critical acclaim by using inventive and amusingly burlesque graphics and sound. The other was dedicated to the Dane Leif Marcussen, a visionary magician and a sophisticated, ingenious manipulator of shapes. There were long applause for both. Our Cavandoli was especially moved. (Probably, I believe, by the applause from the Japanese cartoon fans.) Unfortunately, Leif Marcussen was not able to take part for health reasons, but he was warmly applauded and wishes for a fast recovery were sent.

Cartoombria also gave a look at television series. Concerned with censorship and politically correct themes the spectators were shown a real gem, the American series South Park by Trey Parker and Matt Stone produced by Comedy Central. The public enjoyed it not only for the outrageous stories but also for the "primitive" animation technique and graphics which are rightly reduced to the bare essentials. Another treat was the series pilot of Cocco Bill, a spaghetti western and cult figure in Italian comics by Jacovitti, which at last reaches the screen with a version by Pierluigi De Mas.

Among the children's programs, Eugenio was greatly appreciated. It is a television special about a sad clown from the wonderful illustrated story by Lorenzo Mattotti, directed by the French Jean-Jacques Prunès and distributed by EVA Entertainment. The feature film, Joe's Apartment by John Payson, produced by Geffen Pictures for MTV, was also a great success. Italian distribution decided to exclude this film from the cinema circuits and distribute it only on video. Let's hope that Cartoombria helps to show that the Italian public is ready for certain products.

Translated from Italian by Guy Watts.

Chiara Magri has worked in animation since 1984. She coordinates both cultural activities and professional training courses for ASIFA Italy. She was responsible for the programming of the International Festival of Animated Film of Treviso. Since 1993 she has been teaching a course in animated film history at the Instituto Europeo di Design in Turin. Since 1989 she has edited and published the monthly ASIFA newsletter, the only specialized publication on animation in Italy. Recently, she has carried out an in-depth survey on the production sector of animation in Italy for RAI, the Italian national broadcaster, which is soon to be published.