The world's only magical and peculiar floating animation festival is reviewed by oTTo Alder in "A Long Voyage Down the River Dnjeper," which is available in both German and English.
Now for the fourth time, the secretive KROK Festival, which is considered to be the best animation festival of all by the connoisseurs, took place in the Ukraine from August 11-25, 1997.
What is so special about KROK? First of all, one would have to note the fact that the Festival takes place on a ship (named after the Soviet army general Marshall Koshevoy, who was successful against the Germans during World War II) which sets sail from Kiev and cruises down the mighty river Dnieper until it arrives at the Black Sea. Therefore, the Festival is continuously in motion. Not fixed in any one place. A floating festival. It is also floating in the truest sense of the word because its financial, organizational and political state always remains open and uncertain until the very day before the Festival sets sail -- even for the talented Director, Irina Kaplytchnaya.
Also special about KROK is the fact that for the two weeks on the ship one finds only professional guests, such as directors, cameramen, animators, journalists, critics, festival organizers, sponsors, etc., who watch the film programs in the ship's cinema theater. This is also a unique experience, for the animation one sees on the screen acquires a further dimension due to the gentle rocking and swaying of the theater.
Whenever the Festival docks in the harbor of one of the larger cities along the Dnieper, the busy Festival organizers swarm on shore with a good load of animation, which they screen in a jam-packed movie theater for 500 enthusiastic children and parents. At the same time the local press has a chance to interview the filmmakers and organizers. For all of the festival participants who do not have to take part in either of these activities, the festival offers sightseeing trips through the city or visits to museums. Meanwhile back on the ship, industrious hands have set the tables in the restaurant and prepared a meal. And that happens three times a day, for two sittings of ravenous festival participants!
That the Festival is a Ukranian/Russian joint venture which takes place exclusively on Ukranian water and land is a further peculiarity. The international cooperation is symbolized by the two Festival presidents: David Cherkasky is Ukranian and Edward Nazarov is Russian! If all politics were handled in such a fashion, we would have a lot fewer problems in this world. Naturally this bilaterality also demonstrates the thought that animation is an independent art form which knows no borders.
The figurehead for the Festival, Fedor Chitruk, was not able to be present, but he wrote a message which included the phrase: "Animators are a special breed. One reason for this is the art itself, the mystery of which has yet to be solved."
One last peculiarity of the Festival must be mentioned: no other festival that I know of embraces such a wide definition of animation. KROK shows not only a fine selection of artful animation films, but also such a variety of parallel programs (discussions, music, satire, dance, eating, drinking, museums, etc.) that none of the other art forms receive short shrift. KROK is itself an animation!
In order to be a little more concrete, and to offer the reader an insight into daily occurrences at the Festival, I now take the liberty of using my modest, and naturally very subjective, diary notes to give a picture of life on the ship. The following is definitely not what an official news reporter would say about the Festival.
Monday, August 11
By chance I met my friend Paul Bush from London (Still Life With a Small Cup, Great Britain, 1996) at the Zurich airport. We arrive on the same plane in Kiev, where Galina and Alexander meet us. After Chris Shepherd (Broken Jaw, GB, 1997), Pedro Serrazina (The Tale About the Cat and the Moon, Portugal, 1995), and Stephanie Dinklebach (The Imperial Message, Ireland, 1996) arrive a little while later, on a flight direct from London, a festival bus brings us to the Kiev harbor, where the ship "Marshall Koshevoy" is already waiting for us.
Registration and the opening reception takes place on the deck. Here we meet for the first time the more than 300 Festival guests. The weather is mild, and with the darkness approaching, the moon bathes the whole scenery of the Festival with crystalline light. The opening reception dissolves seamlessly into a merry dance under the open starry sky.
The cinema theater on the boat offered a repeat screening of the opening film program, which had already been shown that afternoon in a Kiev cinema to some 600 viewers. The high point of the program is the new film by Andrei Khrzhanovsky, Long Voyages. Tonino Guerra, who for many years was Federico Fellini's scriptwriter, collaborated with Khrzhanovsky on writing it. The film is based on Fellini's sketches. Maestro, the hero of the film, goes to sea in order to reach a magnificent island. Tonino Guerra, who is a guest on the KROK ship, abducts us into the world of Fellini's pictures of women. The film seems as if it were specially made just for the KROK Festival.
The sudden vibration of the ship, and the dance floor, signals to us that KROK has set sail, and left Kiev under a clear, starry night. In the bar, in the cafe and on the deck, people are dancing, singing and conversing until the night passes over into a new day.
Tuesday, August 12
A gentle Russian woman's voice summons me from my dreams to remind me that breakfast is being served, and at 10 o'clock the second competition program will screen. The soft garden chairs deployed in the cinema fit in quite well with the gentle rocking of the ship, and carry us away into Flat World, the new film by the British Daniel Greaves, whose 1991 Manipulation won an Oscar. The technically innovative and narratively wild film about Matt Phlatt, his cat and his greedy fish, sent the overcrowded and completely overheated theater into peals of laughter. Although the message of the film (television is boring and only promotes idiocy) isn't anything new, the audience gladly let it be repeated through this brilliantly animated, highly enjoyable film.
In contrast, the film Under the Waxing Moon by the Belgian Hans Spilliaert, which equates the massive shipment of cattle to slaughter in a rather questionable way to the holocaust, jerked the audience sharply back to reality. To show after that, in the same program, other funny films, like Alexander Tatarsky's Pilot Brothers , simply didn't work, and placed an unreasonable demand on everyone.
The selection for the competition was made by Yuri Norstein, Natalya Loukinykh and Boris Pavlov from Russia, Jiri Kubicek from the Czech Republic, Svetlana Kutsenko and Alexander Shpilyuk from the Ukraine, and Kurine Zereteli from Georgia. From the roughly 380 films submitted, only 120 were shown in the competition.
Approaching clouds, rain and fog drive the Festival guests below the ship's decks. There they could listen to Michael Aldashin playing guitar, accompanying Ivan Maximov's singing. Today there are parties both in the bar and the cafe on the lower decks.
Wednesday, August 13
Despite dancing, singing, laughing and drinking until the wee hours of the morning, the film theater is filled to the last seat for the two competition screenings this morning. Icarus (Hungary 1996) by Geza Toth, a three-dimensional sand animation, visualizes mankind's ancient dream about flying. It's a bit arts-and-crafts, but convincing technically. This film would receive a certificate from the International Jury: Raoul Servais (Belgium), Igor Volchek (Byelo-Russia), Natalya Orlowa (Russia), Monique Renault (Netherlands) and Natalya Chernyshova (Ukraine).
The film E=mc2, also a sand animation, by Ala Churikova from the Ukraine, tells of the birth of love, the world and self-destruction. Actually, it is the parable of two fish who meet, become involved and end up fighting each other to the death.
But the highpoint of the second program for me was the film Golosa (Voices) made in 1995 by two artists from Moscow, Dimitri Rezchikov and Alexander Ratnovsky, in the classic cartoon technique. Both of these directors learned their animation craft in the Moscow Pilot Studio under Alexander Tatarsky. Then in 1994 they created their own studio under the name DEVON. The fact that Russian popular culture is virtually unknown to us must be attributed to our narrow-minded fixation on western culture. Voices is a music video for the song of the same name by the popular Russian singer Nastya Poleva. However, this studio's animated music videos, Acid Wine and Beasts, with their clear concept, far surpass technically, formally and aesthetically the often over-financed products from the West.
Thursday, August 14
The KROK guests don't seem to know anything about sleep. Once again the Festival danced until deep in the morning. The sky over the Ukraine is once again sunny and clear. KROK is docked in the port of Kherson. After the competition screening, a boat brings the entire festival to an island, where we are served a picnic, and everybody goes swimming. Cooled down from this swim, the filmmakers submit to the daily questioning of journalists and critics. At the same time the younger guests are dancing on deck to hard Techno rhythms. The "older" guests hang out in the bar where Ukrainian music is performed live. The pianist and the woman singing don't let their audience leave before five in the morning. In the cafe at the other end of the ship some play cards, others carry on heavy conversations until late that night. In another corner of the same cafe there is hearty laughter.
The 50 staff members of the ship, from Captain to cook, tend ceaselessly to the well-being of the guests day and night. Everything seems to work perfectly.
Friday, August 15
After breakfast, the festival docks in the harbor of Odessa. Paul Bush is dressed particularly elegantly today. Certainly that is a sign that his film is going to be screened in competition this morning. Paul isn't on this ship just for pleasure. He uses every free minute to work on his new film. Since he works in a scratch-directly-on-film technique, his studio (a light table, 35mm film stock and scratching tools) fits neatly in his luggage. His new project is titled The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a visualization and interpretation of the poem written in 1820 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The film will be 15 minutes long, and should be finished by next year. Paul Bush still has 5,000 images to scratch out by then -- no easy task, when one considers that he often works for five hours on one single frame.
Despite beaming sunshine, dark clouds suddenly close in over KROK. One member of the jury, Igor Volchek, has stomach trouble and must be rushed to the hospital. From Moscow comes the sad news that Vadim Kurtchevsky, a brilliant director of many popular Soviet films, died last night. Many of his friends are on board. Sorrow swept over the whole ship, written on the faces of the people.
From the deck one has a perfect view of the long staircase down to Odessa harbor, which Sergei M. Eisenstein made world famous through his film Battleship Potemkin. None of the Festival guests miss a chance to walk up those steps to the city of Odessa. It seems as if the lovely, picturesque Mediterranean-like city of Odessa blows the mourning away from the faces of the Festival guests.
After dinner, the competition screens the German feature Katherina and Witt (100 min., 1997) by Mariola Brillovska and Charles Kissing. With brutal images essentially reduced to symbols, the film tells an adventure, love story about two Interpol agents assigned to solve the largest art theft of all time. This film, too heavy with dialogue and text, tries to level harsh criticism against the commercialization of art, art dealers, and poses many legitimate questions about the "true" meaning of art in today's society. But I'm afraid that Katherina and Witt itself may be an object of the shady art market and its attendant subsidies which it criticizes.
The cultural highpoint of the fringe events must be the recital in the cinema theater by a popular Odessa satirist. The Russian and Ukrainian speaking guests enjoyed themselves immensely, laughing until their cheeks hurt. Unfortunately for me the evidently witty text of the songs remained a complete mystery.
Saturday, August 16
Today's competition screening includes Casting by the old Italia master Guido Manuli. The gags have all been seen before in other places. Hard as I may try, I just can't find women's large breasts waggling funny anymore. Although technically unobjectionable, this film, which lacks any originality, failed to arouse laughter.
Quest by Tyron Montgomery and Thomas Stellmach really deserved to win the Oscar. Nevertheless, the film doesn't hold up after several viewings. The story is set up so flat that actually after the second time it loses its punch.
Bristol, England's Bolexbrothers head Richard Hutchinson presented in competition Mike Booth's The Saint Inspector. Hutchinson confided to the nightly press conference that he had already been able to sell the film to more than 16 television broadcasts worldwide. Likewise, he used the opportunity to screen spontaneously for the public the latest commercial (with a budget of £120,000) from his firm for Carlsberg Beer. The 20-second spot, directed by Dave Borthwick using 3D model animation, shows a Snowman in a refrigerator who sees a handsome young couple drinking beer in a fresh summer meadow. Lured by the advertised product, the Snowman leaves his frosty life-supporting environment to go out in the meadow where he devotes himself to the cool drink and .....
The highlight of today's program was the retrospective of the films of Igor Volchek. Volchek, who revealed himself to be a talented pianist and entertainer at some of the earlier KROK Festivals, studied piano at the Minsk State Conservatory and then participated in the Advanced Courses for scriptwriters and animation film directors in Moscow. It was there that he acquired an adeptness in animation under the tutelage of Chitruk, Norstein, Nazarov and Khzhanovsky. Today, he is the artistic director of Belarus Film Studio in Minsk where he teaches animation. Capriccio (1986), his most personal and most autobiographical film, represented the climax of the festival for me and it underlined his expertise as an author and director. He is an animation artist who has yet to be discovered internationally.
KROK also offers more special programs which I will not be able to attend. Amongst these there are retrospectives of the work of Monique Renault, Natalya Orlova Chemyshova, Fedor Chitruk, Vyacheslav Kotionochkin and Eugen Sivokon. Other programs include a retrospective of Ukrainian animation, a program on the theme of "Cinema about Cinema," "Eros and Anima," "Computer Animation from SIGGRAPH," and more. In other words, a diverse festival program is offered.
Sunday, August 17
We arrive at Sebastopol. We reach nearby Khersones by ferry, where directly on the banks of the Black Sea one can visit Greek ruins. This tour through the ruins is crowned by a refreshing swim in the sea.
Today Paul Bush has invited those who are interested in his production methods to visit his improvised studio which he has installed in his cabin. The general interest in his work is great, possibly because until now his scratch technique has hardly been seen in Russia, the Ukraine and Byelorussia.
After the competition there is a presentation of the "Moscow Animation Project" in the cafe. For the 850th Centennial of the city of Moscow, the city council has put up U.S. $2 million for this project. Under the direction of creative director Michael Aldashin, 40 short films will be produced before the end of the year and will then be compiled and shown in cinemas and on television. Besides Aldashin, Yuri Norstein and Alexander Tatarsky, to name but a few, are also involved in the project. Moreover, non-Russian artists will also be invited to participate.
Afterwards, Nathalya Loukhynik presented the KROK childrens' workshop. In June, a short animation film had been completed by twenty children. Within the framework of the KROK festival, the professionals present expanded and added to this film. The result will be shown to the public at the end of the festival.
After the press conference, we returned to the bar. This form of nightly entertainment was aptly termed "the Re-animation Club" by the festival.
Monday, August 18 My time at KROK is coming to an end. The ship docks at Artek. Directly after breakfast we take a boat to Yalta. For the first time in my life I am visiting this beautiful town that is overrun by tourists, of which I am one. Afterwards I participate in a so-called mass swim which takes place in the inviting waters of the Black Sea.
The final screening of the competition turns out to be the most impressive. Pink Doll (Valentin Ohlsvang, Russia), End of the World in Four Seasons (Paul Driessen, Canada), Clocks (Kerstin Winter, Germany), Bird in the Window (Igor Kovalyov, USA) and Many Happy Returns (Marjut Rimminen, GB) are such outstanding films that they recompense us for the partially weak selection in the other categories. There were just too many films in each program and therefore, the programs were overly lengthy. In this same program we get to see the newest commercials by the Russians Konstantin Bronzit, Rinant Gazizov and Alexei Karaev. For the last several years, the commercial area has become a very welcome field of activity for Russian artists. Many animators and directors are able to earn a good living this way. The high quality of these commissioned films is notable.
Artek is a recreational center for young people and children. The festival organizes a workshop for children and supplements the holiday program for the young visitors by providing open air screenings. The motto of the festival is, "The best films of the world for the children of the Ukraine." Both showings in Artek are crammed full of spectators who follow the program with great enthusiasm. The gigantic screen of one cinema is erected directly on the beach of the Black Sea, lined on both sides by acacias. Diagonally above, the moon hangs cheekily, filling the balmy summer night with its milky haze.
On the footpath along the beach leading back to the ship, I can faintly hear the dance music and the joyous shouts of the enthusiastic dancers in the distance. Without getting a moment of sleep, I dance until the early hours of the morning. Now the rising sun sadly ends the KROK magic. Just a day before the final prize awards are announced and a week before the end of the festival, a morning bus takes me to the airport at Simferopol. In the bus I realize that KROK is a sheer indescribable festival, a marvel. Thank you, KROK!
oTTo Alder is the former program director of the Stuttgart International Animation Film Festival. In 1995 he was involved with the founding of the Fantoche Festival in Baden, Switzerland. Since 1993 he has been responsible for the animation program at the Leipzig Festival in Germany. He has also served on the juries and selection committees of numerous festivals, and is working on a documentary film about the Russian animation artist Fedor Chitruk.