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Rendezvous In Annecy: An Interview With Jean-Luc Xiberras

Annick Teninge talks with the current director of Annecy, the granddaddy of all animation festivals, about how and why it has changed over the years.

Translated by Christopher Mason.

Jean-Luc Xiberras has been director of Annecy, the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious of all animation festivals, for 14 years. The festival has long been a pacesetter for the others that followed. For example, it was the first to institute a market. It has also been rumored that it will be held annually (all the major festivals are now held every other year). To find out exactly what's happening about this and other matters, I decided to ask him a few questions about both Annecy and himself.

Jean-Luc Xiberras

What is your background?

I began my professional career in the 1960s as an organizer and director for various cultural associations. My job involved arranging all sorts of arts events for the general public. In the 1970s, I became involved with an even larger organization, which enabled me to organize a whole range of live shows and set up one of the first avant-garde entertainment venues in the alternative arts scene outside Paris--in Haute-Savoie, France, where I arranged screening of films by little-known directors such as Saura, Fassbinder, Wenders and Cassavetes. Then, in the late 70s, I was able to create a special theater for the performing arts (music, theater and dance), attracting international groups such as The Living Theater and the Bread and Puppet troop, as well as worldwide touring operas such as Peter Brook's production ofCarmen.

What was the state of the festival when you first came to Annecy in 1982 and what were the important changes you made?

When I started as general manager, I found myself placed rather suddenly in the thick of things, as preparations for the 1983 festival were well under way. However, I was instantly able to take full advantage of th facilities offered by the new Bonlieu Cultural Center, which replaced the old Casino Theater as the festival's new official venue.

In 1981, the festival attracted between 300-400 film professionals, This was an enormous figure for animation at the time. It is important to realize just how small everything was in those days. There was only one movie theater with only one competition screening per day, complemented by a small number of retrospectives and only one exhibition.

Over the years, Annecy had carved out a special niche for itself as a haven for personal animation, which were invariably short films. Also, first and foremost, it was a venue where animators could meet each other in a relaxed atmosphere over a glass of beer in a street café.

Cannes 1958: Norman McLaren, Joy Batchelor, Paul Grimault, John Halas

The festival itself was organized from an office in Paris in conjunction with the local film society (one of the biggest in France with between 4,000 and 5,000 members). However, the festival board decided to change things and look to the future--the competition category was extended and the organizational headquarters switched to Annecy.

It's interesting to look at what Pierre Jacquier, the president of the festival board, said at the time to realize the full scope of the changes that were taking place "The Film Society and its members were still working as hard as they had always done and the organizers in Paris were still doing their job as well as ever. Yet it was the environment that was changing. I'm talking about audience expectations, the whole scale of production and distribution. The festival was running very smoothly but we were going round in circles. It was becoming a kind of stopgap or refuge for the personal animation film and rather academic. It was missing out on the new developments in animation and new types of cinematography. New technology and the new economic situation were passing it by." The changes, however, were not to everybody's liking and the animation community in France was deeply divided. This was the atmosphere that I came across when I moved into the hot seat.

A view of the city: the Castle and the lake.

At the beginning, I had no real knowledge of animation. However, I immediately sensed that we had to increase the number of movie theaters and use the cultural facilities available in Annecy to full effect. In 1983, films were shown in six different cinemas and the number of competition screenings was increased threefold. I also wanted to make the Annecy Festival more festive and add to the number of tributes, retrospectives (8-9) and exhibitions (4-5). To my own surprise the number of professionals attending Annecy shot up to 1,300. I felt that we had met the challenge and it was time to move in a big way.

The idea now was to integrate all animation techniques, including the much maligned new technologies, into the competition segment. We also began to work on the idea of a film market for an industry that didn't even exist at the time.

Why did you decide to create a market? Was it an economic necessity and were you a pioneer in doing this?

Softimage booth at the MIFA

It was started in 1983. Many people smiled and shook their heads when I mentioned the idea--they thought it was too Utopian.

What happened at the time was that filmmakers would come to Annecy and show their films, but everything stopped there. We tried out a prototype film market in the exhibition hall next to the Bonlieu movie theater. It was pretty much an improvised and informal affair--trestle tables and a few companies selling animation materials (basically pens and gouache) together with a few valiant producers who wanted to meet the filmmakers attending Annecy. However, it enabled us to create the first MIFA [Marché international du film d'animation] market in 1985 with real booths, a 500 square meter exhibition area and a raft of companies who were prepared to take the plunge with us. In setting this up, we were lucky to have backing from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who developed the Image Plan to promote the animation industry. The animation scene did the rest--exhibitors were mainly from France, with a few from the rest of Europe. There were very few TV producers present, as the market was dominated by Japan and the US.

A view of the MIFA.

Since then, both the market and the festival have never stopped growing. For example, in 1987 we were forced to extend the MIFA exhibition area to a marquee in the garden area of the Bonlieu Center; then in 1989 MIFA moved to a 2,000 square meter tent on park land in front of the lake, before finding its current home in the Imperial Palace Conference Center in 1991. In 1995, the tent was expanded to 3,000 square meters to meet the growing demand from the US majors. Not that MIIFA stops there--it encompasses all of the other conference rooms and salons in the conference center itself.

I can understand why so many people all over the world are trying to create thematic film markets for animation--we've been doing it for 10 years now and have seen how so many things have taken off.

How else has the festival grown and changed over the years?

As might be expected, it has changed with the times. In 1985, I felt that it was necessary to consider TV series, advertising and commissioned films for competition. This, in turn, highlighted the need to set up different selection committees for different genres, which we did in 1985, although the competition itself remained open to all categories.

Our next step was to arrange for specific screenings according to genre--shorts, features, TV productions, commissioned films--but we still kept the notion of only one international jury. In view of the incredible difficulty involved in switching from one type of production to another, we thought it was wiser to set up two different international juries, which we did in 1993. Since then, there have been separate prizes for specific genres but only one grand prix.

This worked well in 1993, when both juries agreed on the ultimate prize winner; but in 1995 we ended up with two joint-winners, because one jury was pitted against the other. As a result, we decided to modify the rules of the 1997 festival to make sure that each genre would have its own grand prix and other awards. That's the way things seemed to have worked out and will probably be for the foreseeable future.

If the number of professionals attending Annecy has gone from 340 in 1981 to an estimated 5,000 for 1997, the same can be said for the number of films submitted for competition. Animation certainly seems to be riding on the crest of a wave. We have gone from 350 films entered in Annecy 83 to a staggering 1,236 in 1995, with a big question mark for 1997. That's an average increase of 200 new films for each new edition.

In the middle of all this we felt that it was important to discover and highlight new talent. For this reason, we decided to create a special student and graduation film prize in 1995 and intend to do our utmost to support it.

Outside view of the MIFA.

What do you say to those who criticize Annecy for getting too big?

Obviously, some people feel that there is simply too much going on and feel frustrated at not being able to attend all the screenings, retrospectives and exhibitions. What you have to realize is Annecy's public is as diverse as animation itself. You need to draw up as wide a range of film programs as possible, That's the way we organize programs from relatively little known areas of the world as Albania, India, China, Latin America and South Africa, to name but a few.

Similarly, our exhibitions are specially designed to reveal the multiple facets of animators. Animators are not just filmmakers, they are also artists, painters, illustrators, puppet makers, graphic designers and sculptors. They invent their own techniques, ranging from traditional cel to computer, sand, pin screen, glass etching and plasticine animation. This is what the exhibitions try to emphasize.

Nag Ansorge.

We also feel that it is crucial to organize a complete retrospective and tributes to a specific animator or group of animators at each edition of the festival. For example, in 1995 we organized a whole series of screenings, along with an exhibition and a number of lectures on Gisèle and Nag Ansorge, We even brought out a videocassette of their films and published a monograph on the couple's work. In this way, the film public at Annecy gained a rare insight into Nag Ansorge's experiences with animation in a psychiatric environment.

Of course, Annecy is more than just a festival that takes place every two years. We carry out a whole range of archival activities and have set up a database for animation, together with a museum of animation artifacts.

I agree, Annecy is immense; but it is only as big as the animation world wants it to be. You can't stop people from coming here, nor should you. The festival and MIFA have grown just has animation has grown. It's true that, during festival time, Annecy is one big animation city, throbbing with artists, students, producers, distributors, investors and buyers.

Is Annecy going to become an annual event? [I hope so.] It is exactly what I have been trying to do since 1989! Animation has changed so radically since the festival was set up in the early 1960s, that it is simply inevitable. Thirty years ago, it took months, even years to make a short film lasting a few minutes. Nowadays, you can put out a new 13 x 13 minute TV series in just six months. The animation industry needs an annual gathering in Annecy, with an annual competition which can act as a showcase for the latest and greatest in this branch of the seventh art. The festival and the market, like animated filmmaking and the economics of the industry are inextricably linked. And the rendezvous is in Annecy.

Everything is possible in Annecy--you simply have to try it.. We've got a giant outdoor screen complete with its own fairy tale mountain backdrop, star-filled sky and shimmering lake which provided a magic moment for Fantasia back in 1993! Not only did we have 8,000 spectators nightly, but there was even one filmmaker who organized an impromptu screening of his work on the back side of the screen! Of course, you also get your fair share of drama too; for instance, directors will refuse to show their films in the panorama section, because they had not been selected for competition. But Annecy is fun, with plenty of off-screenings and parties. Can you imagine the effect that 5,000 film professionals have on a town of 50,000 inhabitants? And how is all possible? Through the positive, unflinching support that the festival receives from the animation community. Annick Teninge was, for six years, the Assistant Director of Annecy.

A view of the Imerial Palace where the MIFA takes place.

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