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Cinanima 2005: Portugal’s Animation Oasis

Sharon Katz traveled to Espinho, Portugal, for the 2005 Cinanima and reports with a bit of background on the international animation event and what it had in store for fans this year.

Cristina Teixeira, an animation teacher and a jury member at Cinanima looks for charme in the competing films. Courtesy of and © Cinanima.

Before leaving for Espinho, I compared the list of films in competition at Espinho with those that made the Ottawa International Animation Festival 05. Only three films apparently made both festivals. The rest of the Cinanima list I had never seen before. I left Ottawa on a blistery, cold day completely intrigued.

In order to understand the Cinanima selection and to uncover its flavor, we need some backstory. This is not a simple tale of enthusiasm for a modest art form. At the heart of the festival is a team comprised of many determined individuals including Antonio Gaio, director for the last 25 years. Now in his 80s, his influence still commands tremendous respect among the new generation of young Portuguese directors. And there is a very good reason for it.

In 1928, the ruling democratic republic of Portugal was thrust aside by the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled the country with an iron fist for forty years. This was no benign dictatorship. Artists and intellectuals were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and murdered without legitimate cause. The PIDE, Salazars secret political police, raided homes and meetings searching for those who dared to criticize the government.

U.K.'s Lucy Lee won the Best Animation in a European Film award for her work The Gates of Heaven. Unless otherwise indicated, all images courtesy of Sharon Katz.

In the 1960s, in this terrifying atmosphere, the young Antonio Gaio along with others ran the Cine Clube of Espinho. Many of the screenings were shut down by the PIDE, but Gaio persevered in showing films. Animated shorts were particularly sought out, especially those from eastern Europe, because while on the surface they looked innocent enough to get past the PIDE, they were actually subversive films with powerful political messages for those who could read them.

In addition to rigidly imposing his dictatorship on the people of Portugal, Salazar kept his military tied up policing the Portuguese African colony of Angola. Young men were carted off to fight a war that had no meaning for them; artists, intellectuals and journalists lived in terror of arrest; everyone dreamed of freedom. Underground the news spread throughout the country: when a particular song is played on the radio, it will be the signal to begin the overthrow of the government, to march on Lisbon. On April 25, 1974, the armed forces, backed by the people, overthrew the dictatorship in a bloodless coup and established democracy.

The mission of the festival, according to Pedro Perez, a long-time member of the organizing team, is to receive the people well.

Immediately after the revolution Antonio Gaio and others became involved in the creation of a cultural cooperative, Nascente. In the early years the organization put out a newspaper; ran a theatre, a cooperative supermarket, a library, a choral group, and Cinanima. At first taking on the role of editor of the newspaper, Gaio quickly returned to his first love, the drawn image, and two years after its establishment became the director of Cinanima. Initially a showcase for cartoons and comic books, in 1977 it screened a retrospective of animated films from the Czech Republic.

The 1986 Cinanima catalogue has a wonderful introduction by Alves Costa describing the founding of the festival and a conversation he had with a German festival director who was very skeptical that they could successfully get the funding and organization together to create an international animation festival in small, out-of-the-way Espinho.

That is the way things are done in Germany quite professional but we are in Portugal. We are poor, we have to (pass over) many needs with a certain dose of daring, with a lot of voluntary effort and some wit But youll see that, with a lot less financial and human resources, and even with a precarious organization (my interlocutor seemed pessimistic) the project will go ahead. My interlocutor was repeating: It isnt possible give up this madness. He wasnt smiling any longer. And he meant every word. I kept my smile and insisted, Youll see how wrong you are. The first Cinanima will happen. The Portuguese way. And it will be good. Youll see.

Phil Mulloy (left), the subject of a retrospective that included new work, also served as a jury member. Here he catches up with Ulrich Wegenast, artistic director of the Stuggart International Festival of Animated Film.

And that, in addition to a lot of hard work and sheer determination, more or less brings us to November 2005 and the 29th annual Cinanima festival. While in Espinho I sought out one of the selection jury members to ask if they could describe the kind of films the jury was looking for. Cristina Teixeira, a young woman who teaches animation, was available. She parked her young son with family and joined me to discuss the festivals preselection. What were you looking for in your selection? I asked.

Some young Portuguese animation directors recently asked me, she replied, if its possible to have charme with the new technology. Charme in Portuguese would most closely translate into the English work heart. Cinanima, she continued, promotes the poetic things. I asked how she defines poetic. Texture, she replied, the textures, the materials, the colors come together like in a painting to give you that genuine feeling of charme.

Day or night, the ocean lured festival attendees.

The mission of the festival, according to Pedro Perez, who has been a member of the organizing team for the past 18 years, is to receive the people well, both the locals and the guests from abroad. Directors of festivals (from as far away as Hiroshima, and Kiev this year), animators and students of animation choose to come to this festival because of its genuinely relaxing, warm and generous atmosphere.

Those coming from abroad are ferried to and from the nearby Oporto airport, housed in the small number of local hotels, and fed at the many inexpensive, family run restaurants. An organized tour of the countryside halfway through the festival, punctuated with a sumptuous spread of local fare at a restaurant in nearby Ovar, gave us the opportunity to get out of the screening rooms and into the sunlight, and to see a bit of the local color.

During the six days of events at the festival there were seven competition screenings, three panoramas, a competition of feature films, and a retrospective (actually presenting the newest work) of Phil Mulloy who was in attendance. For the local population, for whom this festival is clearly an institution, there were fully attended screenings for primary school children through to teenagers; workshops, retrospectives including a presentation of the current work of young Portuguese directors, debates and separate screenings for the aged and the disabled.

The residents of Espinho are proud of their longstanding relationship with animated film. While many outsiders have sought to move the festival to the larger centers of Porto or Lisbon, Antonio Gaio and the residents of Espinho insist on maintaining its presence at home.

Parties and barhops punctuated the evenings and went on late into the night, often into the hours of early morning, as people caught up with friends and news, argued and debated the competitions and the selection, and generally took in the midnight air. In Espinho one leaves behind big city anonymity and loneliness. The local people are friendly and kind, and I found it quite safe to wander the town even late at night the biggest risk, in fact, seeming to be the trains that run right through the towns center at high speed.

In fact many local people are still awake and wandering along the boardwalk at 2:00 and 3:00 am, gazing at the waves crashing onto the beach and watching the lights of the local fishermens boats bob far out at sea. Food and drink are inexpensive and plentiful, the Porto wines a treat, and the many varied and rich desserts a serious hazard to ones waistline. Our hosts were gracious and generous, and went to every effort to make us feel very welcome.

The night before we departed I, and several other filmmakers, had a unique opportunity to have dinner with a number of young Portuguese directors and animators and we spoke at length about their work, their plans and their struggles.

Is Antonio Gaio still a deep influence on your work? I asked. Very much so, they replied. He risked a lot, almost everything really, he was very courageous and strong to show animation during the time of the PIDE, and we still hold the memory of those terrible times. Our own parents were involved in the revolution so it is still alive for us. Also he brought us the films. When we were young, every year we would go to Cinanima, all the schools would come, to see the films. If it wasnt for Mr. Gaio and Cinanima we wouldnt have grown up with animation.

These young directors want their work judged, not as conventional because they celebrate the poetic and the meaningful, but as a celebration of their countrys hard fought struggle for freedom of speech. They, along with the organizers of Cinanima, arent looking just for rarified innovation though freshness of form is important to them but for artistic works that genuinely celebrate ones culture and identity; in effect, a marriage of innovation, imagination and poetry.

Sharon Katz is an independent animator who lives and works in Ottawa. Her recently released animated short film, Slide, is now traveling more than she is.