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Espinho 96: Small Is Still Beautiful

Ron Mann, Sue Shakespeare, Space Jam Directors, Tony Cervone and Bruce Smith.

Cinanima 96 concluded on November 10. It celebrated 20 years of bringing animation to this small seaside town in Portugal. In just 5 days the Festival showed why this form of cinema remains the freest, the funniest and the most touching, able to explore areas that real life action cannot reach.

Here are some highlights and lowlights, in my opinion, for those who weren't able to enjoy the screenings that took place within the sound of the Atlantic pounding the beach only a few hundred yards away. Rather than day by day, it seemed a good idea to present the films by country.

Tight Little Island

England, England, what has Maggy Thatcher done to your youth? The Royal Schools of Art in particular seem to have been affected and depressed during the reign of the iron lady. Button by Alan Highfield and Daniel Walls was a grim parable set in a forlorn lighthouse in which a husband destroys any child his lonely wife manages to create, even if it is made of rags and has a button for an eye. Crapston Villas by Sarah Ann Kennedy is a savage portrait of city people who seek some form of love and find only derision and ugliness. The characters have energy enough but lack hope; none of them would you like want to cuddle up to.

Films like The Lacemaker by Lizzie Oxby and Touchwood by Vivienne Jones, as well as Asperger and Proud by Molly O`Nell dwell on human psychology, obsessions and death using excellent skill but in a less than happy vein. Nick Park with his Close Shave proved that there is still some humor and compassion left for human beings, men, women and dogs, no matter how unglamorous they may be.

The United States showed a certain amount of extremism too. For sheer wanton ugliness it would be hard to beat The Lizard Whomper by Tennessee Red Norton, where a repulsive man dispatches lizards in the most revolting, raw meat and bloody chunk manner imaginable. He gets his comeuppance but it is hard to care one way or another. All this in 2 minutes and 14 seconds.

So it was nice to see the Chicken From Outer Space by John Dilworth continue on its wacky way to spoof the menaces from out there with its unlikely hero, the Cowardly Dog, to defend Mom and the lonely Kansas homestead.

Ah, the Russians! They surprise you as they go from the gloom of Dostoyevsky in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man by Alexander Petrov (not in competition) to the puckish fantasies of Puss in Boots by Gary Bardin. Both films are about dreams, one of madness and resurrection, the other about poor men drenched in vodka who wreck any form of happiness when they find it. The young hero goes to the court of a French king, meets elegance and admiration, even love, before losing everything. The cat himself, with his Americanisms in deep Volga accents, is worth meeting and having for a friend.

How short can sweet be? Home Sweet Home by Vitaly Bakunovich and Rudan Sirachor from Belorussia, lasts only five minutes to prove that there is no place like home, even if home is a dented empty beer can. The hero, an adventurous bug, finds this out the hard way.

Surprises From Germany and Switzerland

Germany came through with two prize-winning films. The Quest, a first film, by Tyron Montgomery, where we see a desperate search for water through a sterile world of paper, stone and iron. Nice to watch and it has suspense. The other prize-winner, for commercials, was Free Fall that takes only 35 seconds to have 2 people on vacation meet, fall in love and out of the plane carrying them, and be saved by a rubber parachute that protects them not only against falls but, that's right, AIDS.

From Switzerland, and more specifically from small studios in Geneva, came The Release, a first film by a young woman, Severine Leibundgut, that was sparse, tight and funny where a woman constructs herself from a single line into a fashionably dressed, sexy lady in 1 minute and 40 seconds.

The Grand Prix of the Festival was also from Geneva, The Year of the Deer by Georges Schwizgebel and is already a minor classic. Bold painting tells a short but complex tale of how dangerous it is to try to correct some of the cruelties built into nature.

Other Voices

Spain presented a short film by Mercedes Gaspar called Las partes de mi que te aman son seres vacios, translatable as Those Parts Of Me That You Love Are Empty. In sequences reminiscent of Schwankmeijer, love is reduced to an exchange of anatomical parts. Another Spanish film, that won the series prize, was La Buey Negro (The Black Ox) by Calpurnio Pison. It is fine if you know Spanish. Done with stick figures and muchas palabras, it spoofs the themes of love, death, revolution and pistol play in Viejo Mexico. If you don`t know Spanish, you might want to skip it.

Belgium had a serious film, Sarajevo November 1992 by Stejepan Mihaljevica, but also An Angel Passes by Benoit Feroumont, where the intervention of an angel and a devil transforms an unloved wife's existence. It was fast, funny and had some surprises.

France contributed a tough minded film, The Egotist by Jean Luis Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, about a man in love with himself and his reflection in a lovely woman's eyes until injured in a car crash. Words in the Air was a sugary contrast, where a man throws paper gliders from his window to carry words of love to a lady that fall into other windows and warm everyone's hearts in a too typical, Year in Provence French village. But an unexpected pure pleasure was The Great Migration by Iouri Tcherenkov, a sort of shaggy dog tale about a dumb bird who can't get its directions straight during the annual migration. I also liked Cosmology by Maurice Benayoun that evoked our expanding, mysterious universe in a dreamy style, but I may be a bit lonely in my opinion.

Italy was present with a competent film by Bozzetto called DNA about what trying to create a perfect man genetically could lead to, and Fight da Faida by Vincenzo Gioanola that uses rap music and fast pacing to arouse the public against the gangrene of the Mafia.

Only in a festival, alas, might you have the luck to see a thing of beauty like the Song of the Sand by Hungary's Ferenc Cako. The sand told only a vague story but had a wonderful series of compassionate metamorphoses.

Summing Up:

There were the films, long and short. There were the awards. There were differences of style and opinion. The one thing everyone there in Espinho could agree upon was that animation in all its forms was alive; healthy corpuscles are running through its colored veins and we all want more of it.

Nedd Willard is a former Senior Information Officer at the WHO, who is currently freelancing in Geneva.

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