One Divided By Two: An Emotional Equation

Emru Townsend reviews Joyce Borenstein's new film that captures the pain of divorce through children's eyes by using both live-action and animation footage.

Download a Quicktime movie of a scene from Joyce Borenstein's short animated film, One Divided by Two. © Joyce Borenstein. 1.3 MB

One Divided by Two depicts, through illustration, the reversed role in which children of divorced parents often find themselves. © Joyce Borenstein.

There was a time, it's been said, when divorces were rare and people married forever. Times, of course, have changed. Divorce and separation have become more acceptable, to the point where it's not unreasonable to suggest that everyone has either been through a divorce or knows someone who has. We see and hear about divorce all the time; alimony payments, remarriages, and custody battles are the stuff of news, celebrity gossip, and stand-up comedy. In fact, the NBC sitcom Veronica's Closet milks the divorce proceedings of the title character to no end.

But somewhere amid all the laugh tracks, we know that divorce isn't funny. Two people who planned to build a life together find themselves at odds, and end up trying to salvage what they can as they simultaneously break down what they endeavored to build.

Or so you'd think. What many people forget is that divorce isn't always about two people; sometimes it's about three, four, or five. Most people don't mention that children are often lost in the shuffle when it comes to divorce; when they do, it's rarely more than the platitude that divorce is hard on children.

Joyce Borenstein's latest film, One Divided By Two, provides an antidote, giving us a unique look into the lives of children affected by the divorce of their parents.

An Animated Documentary

The 24-minute film began life as three short stories written by Edeet Ravel. Based on her own divorce, the stories were a fictionalized version of her child's perspective of the experience. Ravel brought her stories to Borenstein, who contacted Rhona Bezonsky-Jacobs, a psychotherapist who specializes in children who have lived through their parents' divorce. Together, the three decided to make a film, interviewing dozens of children between 8 and 18 for their source material.

In One Divided By Two, thirteen of these children offer their points of view on their parents' divorces. Loosely organized by subject matter - for example, anxiety over losing a parent, fear of not being in a "normal" family, or dealing with being "shared" by divorced parents - live-action footage of the children's comments are intercut with longer stories being presented as animation. Borenstein, who similarly combined live-action and animation for her short film The Colours of My Father which received an Oscar nod in 1993, sees nothing incongruous in creating a documentary based on real events through animation. "I wanted to erase all boundaries between genres," she says. "Or at least try to."

A Simple Style Tells All

The animated segments, essentially rewritten composites of interviewed children's stories, are the heart of the film. Borenstein brings these experiences to life using simple, elegant images that evoke a child's simplified world view. The style was born of both aesthetic consideration and economic necessity. Says Borenstein, "I tried to simplify as much as I could, to get the essence. It creates a certain style that I like, but it's [also] very efficient, and it's economical. I had a limited budget and time, and... it was a very small crew, so I had to think of simplifying the visuals and one way was to leave the non-essential things out. I worked at the beginning of the project to hone the designs down to just the essential lines. Most of the line tests, which were just pencil on paper, became final artwork, which we just cleaned up."

Borenstein tackles emotional subject matter by combining reality-based live-action interviews and voice tracks with imaginative animated sequences. © Joyce Borenstein.

This economy of style also aided one of the film's most entertaining and sometimes poignant aspects: the imagery freely alternates between literal and metaphoric depictions of events, with people, objects and perspectives changing shape from moment to moment. For instance, when a boy comes home to find his divorced mother crying for reasons he can't understand, he assumes the role of caregiver, suddenly growing in size to cradle his mother in his arms.

One of several underlying themes in One Divided By Two is, according to Borenstein, that "there are as many different divorce situations as there are people." Although the film's visuals are unified by the illustration style and consistent use of vibrant colored pencils, the differences in the stories are partly reflected by the variety of color schemes and shifts in technique. However, the most striking element that identifies each story is the use of intricate textures to fill parts of the foreground and background. Though the textures look time-consuming, they fit into Borenstein's method of keeping it quick and simple. "I did the artwork, and then this company transposed them onto metal plates, with embossed areas. What was black on the artwork became embossed on the plates. The textures are actually rubbings of Prismacolor pencils on the paper which is lying over the metal plates."

Borenstein achieved rich textures in her illustrations by rubbing over embossed metal plates with colored pencils. © Joyce Borenstein.

A Glimmer of Hope

In theory, One Divided By Two is intended for children who are going through the pains of their parents' divorce. Meant to be watched in a classroom or with a parent, the film actually feels warmer on the video screen, in the smaller and more intimate setting of the living room or classroom. Although the idea is to create a dialogue between children and adults, One Divided By Two is also a gentle eye-opener to those whose lives have not been touched by divorce. In revealing the inner workings of children's minds, we find not only a profound sadness and sense of loss, but also a certain optimism: the sadness can be overcome, and some family ties are even strengthened. In finding hope among the ashes of divorce, One Divided By Two displays its real magic.

Emru Townsend is a freelance writer who won't stop talking about cinema, animation, and computers. He is also the founder and former editor of FPS, a magazine about animation.