Heikki Jokinen reviews the Tampere Festival in Finland,a unique short film festival that makes sure to integrate animation intoall of its programs.
"It's incredible! The Tampere Short Film Festival has a wider program of animation than some of the actual animation festivals," said one of the first time visitors I met at the XXIX Tampere International Short Film Festival in March. Tampere is a traditional industrial town in Finland, Northern Europe, inhabited by 175,000 people and covered with a lot of snow in March. It's not the most likely place to find an almost 30 year old annual short film festival, which is often referred to as one of the leaders in its field in Europe, and even the world. The name of the small town 15 kilometers away, Nokia, is without a doubt known much better, though for other reasons. Finland has the highest density of mobile phones in the world, and as a result, one can get the daily festival program on his phone screen as a text message. A Special Festival The first-time visitor's observation is correct: Tampere has a strong animation tradition. Other European short film festivals have different kinds of preferences. For instance, Clermont-Ferrand in France is the place for short fiction and Oberhausen in Germany is known for experimental films. Tampere presented Japanese animation as early as 1983 with the presence of Renzo Kinoshita, founder of the now well known Hiroshima Animation Festival. Other retrospectives in the '80s were dedicated to Estonian Priit Pärn, Yugoslavian Bordo, Polish-French Jan Lenica, Czechoslovakian Jan Svankmajer and pinscreen animators Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker. In the '90s we have seen programs from Estonian Rein Raamat, Russian Yuri Norstein, the British Brothers Quay, Japan's Kihachiro Kawamoto and Osamu Tezuka, Aardman Animations, Russian Andrei Khrzahanovski and Czech Jiri Trinka, not to forget Tex Avery.
In the days of the Cold War, Finland's proximity to Eastern Europe was a strong suite for the Tampere Film Festival. Though a western country, Finland had good relations with the Soviet Union and this helped to bring many films not seen anywhere else to Tampere. This was especially the case with the international competition. Priit Pärn's masterpiece Eine murul (Breakfast on the Grass) began its successful tour of world festivals by capturing the Tampere Grand Prix 1988. This is perhaps the only time in my life that I've been at a festival where no one complained that the wrong film had received the prize -- the decision was unanimous. In 1997 Tampere screened a major retrospective of Chuck Jones, which was honored by the participation of the maestro himself. The rest of the Americas were not forgotten either. In that very same festival we saw the Cuban animated feature Vampiros en la Habana (Vampires in Havana, 1985) by Juan Padrón and a retrospective of Argentinean animation.
Retrospectives and Special Screenings
This year's festival ran from March 10-14 and presented the films of Canadian Frédéric Back, plus a major retrospective of Russian animation from the '90s. It also included a special screening of films by Russian Garri Bardin. Both Back and Bardin participated in the festival. Garri Bardin commented to his audience that he hadn't seen so many fine films as in Tampere for a long time. "I myself even wonder at how much I've done!" Bardin showed his sense of humor several times, both in and outside of his films. When asked about the role of humor in his films, Bardin said it's a necessity: "Without humor one couldn't do animation now in Russia." Frédéric Back, widely beloved for his film L'homme Qui Plantait des Arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees, 1987), charmed the audience by telling about his own farm in Canada, purchased 30 years ago. There, with his family he planted 15,000 trees, and will plant 10,000 more this spring. "There are never enough trees," Back said in his humble and firm manner.
The comprehensive Iranian short film retrospective included a lot of animation, even the feature length puppet animation Gheseha-ye bazar (Tales of the Bazaar, 1995) by Abdollah Alimorad. This collection of Persian fairy tales even contained an episode showing how an animation studio comes to life. Animation is also a part of the U.S. artist Pat O'Neill's films. In his retrospective one could trace the origins of today's video clips, experiments and strong visual sense. The past and future met nicely in the screenings of Lotte Reiniger's Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926) and the computer animation Prix Pixel winners fresh from Imagina. Reiniger's unique silhouette animation is the first feature-length animation in the world.
The International Competition
The cornerstone of the festival is, however, the international competition. Sixty-nine films from 25 countries were selected from more than 2,000 fiction, documentary and animated short film entries. The level of animation is usually very high, and this year was no exception. A sign of the festival's good reputation is the fact that over 40 of the 69 chosen film directors from all continents arrived at Tampere, even though the festival is only able to offer accommodation. Moreover, Tampere is not exactly located at the crossroads of the world either! Some of the competition films have already toured the globe, like Orly Yadin and Silvie Bringas' touching Silence and the winner of this year's animation category prize, Norwegian Pjotr Sapegin's Huset på Kampen (One Day a Man Bought a House).
The Finnish director Katariina Lillqvist presented a brand new film Ksenia pietarilainen (Xenia of St. Petersburg). This puppet animation set in 18th century St. Petersburg was one of my personal favorites. The legend of Xenia still lives in St. Petersburg, where she is seen as a saint for poor people. Lillqvist tells her story from the glory of the royal palace to the vodka-filled last years in lousy inns. Lillqvist has a warm heart for the poor and the city of St. Petersburg, as she looks critically behind the official truth of the church which declared Xenia holy in 1986.
The debut film Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square from Chinese-Canadian Shui-Bo Wang was also a most interesting film. The half-hour animated documentary depicts his life as an artist in China and the events that led up to the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The film combines the Chinese visual world to our European world by using animation in an imaginative way. The Whole Picture Raimo Silius, Tampere Film Festival Program Director for over 25 years, has a superb knowledge of short films in all genres and a special love of animation. He integrates animation into almost every theme the festival features, like Kafka and Short Film, Edgar Allan Poe, and Night of the Vampires, as well as country retrospectives like Mexico and Iran. This reminds all spectators that animation is clearly a part of the culture and history of the moving image and cinema. Watching animation in a general film festival gives it, without a doubt, a new dimension even for animation specialists. Now, what did the foreign visitors like the best? Without a doubt: the sauna party. Tampere is the only international film festival where guests have the opportunity to try a real Finnish sauna. Those who do it for the first time will remember it for years to come -- especially if they follow the local habit of plunging through a hole in the ice of a nearby frozen lake for a swim immediately following their time in the sauna. Heikki Jokinen is a freelance journalist and critic living in Helsinki, Finland. He is president of ASIFA Nordic, the ASIFA regional body for the five Nordic and three Baltic countries. In his lifetime, Heikki has spent a total of two and a half months at the Tampere International Short Film Festival.