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The Tough Eye International Turku Animated Film Festival

Kelly Neall finds the Tough Eye Animation Festival in Turku, Finland excels at bringing old and new animation together in a great setting and well worth a visit.

Courtesy of Tough Eye Animation Festival. Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Tough Eye.

Courtesy of Tough Eye Animation Festival. Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Tough Eye.

A heated discussion broke out during a press conference held at the Tough Eye Animation Festival in Turku, Finland. Gerrit and Celia Van Dijk (I Move, So I Am, Quod Libet), festival programmer Otto Alder and others bemoaned the lack of quality venues for independent animation. One of the most rich and innovative forms of art today remains obscure primarily because it is not easily made into a commodity. Animation festivals, really the only place to see much of this work, have tried to incorporate high art animation into the commercial realm. Without this connection, most of the festivals themselves could not exist. They work to sell themselves as trade shows and sometimes force their programmers to play it safe in order to attract their corporate supporters and the general public.

Visiting Tough Eye was a revelation, because here is a festival that has set out to respect these animations as important, individual artistic works. What a great pleasure to simply see art as art. Of course, the organizers are lucky because without strong government support, this would just not be possible.

Turku Arts Academy Polytechnic, one of the top animation schools in the world, contributes to Tough Eye's success as a festival. Courtesy of Kelly Neall.

Turku Arts Academy Polytechnic, one of the top animation schools in the world, contributes to Tough Eye's success as a festival. Courtesy of Kelly Neall.

Turku, Finland is a bit off the beaten track, at least for North Americans, but it turns out to be a great place to visit. Calm, organized, great food and a surprisingly high number of people speak English. The festival itself is amazingly well organized thanks to a dedicated staff.

In the very long hallways of an old rope factory lies a crucial contributing factor to success of Tough Eye -- the Turku Arts Academy Polytechnic. Its one of the top animation schools in the world and a hive of creative activity. The head instructor of the program is the legendary animator Priit Pärn who, along with the programs administrator, Eija Saarinen, are two of the main forces behind Tough Eye. This year at the festival, Ülo Pikkovs film Bermuda a film completed at the Turku school in 1998 was awarded a jury prize. (More about why a film from 1998 won a prize later.) The next wave of Turku grads have also produced some accomplished films. Many Complained of My Form (Moni Moitti Muotesni) is a collaboration between animator, Leena Jääskeläinen, and Finnish songwriter, Sanna Kurku-Suonio, that brings to life a haunting poem about solitude. Some students, Christer Lindström, Aino Ovaskainen and Aiju Salminen are finding success with their cutesy film Treevil, which was shown at Annecy this year.

Jury Prize winner Ülo Pikkov.

Jury Prize winner Ülo Pikkov.

This festival, which ran May14-18, 2003, was actually the second edition -- the first was held in 2001 and, since it is biennial, the next will be held in May 2005. The thing that makes Tough Eye stand out from other festivals are its many gutsy curatorial decisions. Otto Alder, who is a veteran festival programmer, explained the philosophy behind them.

1. Tough Eye allows any independent animation to be entered regardless how old the film is.

How does the perception of a film change over time? A film that once won many awards might not have any relevance today, or a film that was ignored 10 years ago may find a voice in a current climate. The festival employs a team of students to do the selection process. This unusual move theoretically ensures that fresh eyes will view all the films entered as equals.

Jury members, Koji Yamamura (left) and Andreas Hykade.

Jury members, Koji Yamamura (left) and Andreas Hykade.

This years Grand Prix winner was the 1991 film Swamp (Gil Alkabetz) which expresses the danger of the weighty armor that mankind inflicts upon itself. The films profundity is made all the more powerful given the political climate of 2003. Jury members Heikki Jokinen (Finland), Ruth Lingford (U.K.), Janno Põldma (Estonia), Andreas Hykade (Germany) and Koji Yamamura (Japan) picked award winners that expressed both depth and sincerity. In addition to Bermuda, other special jury prizes went to Andrei Svislotski (Igor Kovalyov, 1991), Camouflage (Jonathan Hodgson, 2001) and Flux (Chris Hinton, 2002).

Heikki Jokinen (left) and Sayoko Kinoshita also served as jury members.

Heikki Jokinen (left) and Sayoko Kinoshita also served as jury members.

2. Tough Eye has single presentation screenings, which feature only one short film.

Short films are made to be viewed and considered on their own. To combine them together in a viewer friendly 90-minute package is to change how they are perceived. In a bold step to remedy this or at least make people aware of the problems of the compilation screening the festival presented the films Little Lilly (Mati Kütt, 1994), Rigoletto (Barry Purves, 1993), Bravo Papa 2040 (Susanne Horizon-Fränzel, 1989) and Tango (Zbigniew Rybczynski, 1980). Each film is given its own essay in the program book, and the screening is followed by a discussion.

Showing the newest animation is one way for festivals to market themselves but the consequence is that, aside from retrospectives, many films get buried and are never seen again. Bringing older films up for examination benefits those who may have never seen them before and allows older festival attendees to view them with a new perspective.

3. Whats with the weird festival name?

The idea was to have a festival that would challenge attendees by forcing them to really look at animation art, and, in doing so, to examine their own opinions and beliefs. The festival curators would also seek innovation and diversity in their programming. The idea is to take a tough look at things. OK, it is still kinda a weird name, but we can attribute that to the surreal humor of Priit Pärn.

Priit Pärn came up with the unorthodox name for the film festival. Courtesy of Kelly Neall.

Priit Pärn came up with the unorthodox name for the film festival. Courtesy of Kelly Neall.

So, apart from all the high-minded innovation going on at this festival, there were also many outstanding special programs and retrospectives.

Alder presented a number of programs filled with new animation that he had selected himself. Some highlights included Faces (Vuk Jeremovic, 2002), Home Road Movies (Robert Bradbrook, 2001), The Red Gates of Rashomon (Alexander Tatarsky, 2002) and the unnerving puppet animation Having Sou l (Riho Unt, 2002).

The multi-talented artist Kilian Dellers did handstands during the opening of his retrospective. His non-narrative works are full of change, movement and a sense of joy in expression. Dellers was everywhere at the festival -- his artworks were displayed at the festivals headquarters, and he played his trumpet at a jazz presentation.

Gunnar Strøm of Norways Volda University College screened a series of amazing but obscure animated Norwegian commercials for a packed house. These artful pieces for mostly cigarette companies were directed by animation legends such as Oskar Fischninger. One of the few examples of commercial work in the festival, it appropriately demonstrated an ideal collaboration between animation artists and corporate clients.

The festival delved into the world of Japanese animation. Retrospectives showcased the work of puppet master, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Renzo Kinoshita, Yoji Kuri and Osamu Tezuka. Jury member Koji Yamamura was also showcased in two sold-out retrospectives.

Dellers plays trumpet. Photo by Dino Azinuro.

Dellers plays trumpet. Photo by Dino Azinuro.

Naturally, Finnish animation was prominently showcased. The current jewel of Finnish work is Mire Bala Kale Hin -- Tales from the Endless Roads. Directed by Katariina Lillquvist, this artful puppet series tells the story of the Romany (Gypsy) people across Europe. This is a project obviously made out of love, and the attention made to small details really shows through. The engaging stories are interesting ethnological documents that appeal to both children and adults.

Finland has an emerging commercial industry, which was present at the festival with Yellow Giraffe, produced by Epidem Zot and animated by Turkus brand new Aboa Animation Studio. The series, created by Jaana Wahlforss and Antonia Ringbom, has an original and appealing style.

Antonia Ringbom, creator of Yellow Giraffe at work. Courtesy of Kelly Neall.

Antonia Ringbom, creator of Yellow Giraffe at work. Courtesy of Kelly Neall.

Tough Eye also had a whole lot of art exhibits (Roland Topor, Mikko Ijäs, Christer Lindström and a collection from the Arte Assoc.) and a great nightclub where everyone came to meet and drink Finnish beer. There was an impressive array of local bands and DJs performing, which added to a sense of collaboration between different artists, writers and venues to make this event an all-round success.

Organizers hope that a larger percentage of older films will be entered in Tough Eye 2005. Also, while there were many sold-out shows and lots of guests from Finland and surrounds, it would be great to have more international artists attending. Tough Eye is a real haven for filmmakers, and Turku is an interesting destination. With a festival this well put together and thoughtfully curated, hopefully more international visitors, with a strong interest in art rather than trade shows, will be attending the next edition.

Kelly Neall does her bit to promote independent animation as the managing director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Before OIAF, she was the general manager of the Ottawa-Hull Film and Television Assoc., helping to produce the Ottawa Region Production Guide, The REEL Awards and many other events and publications. She is editor of the Canadian Animation Directory.

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