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Zagreb 2004: The Perfect Animation Festival

Greg Singer visits the biennial Animafest in Zagreb, Croatia to see what all the excitement is about.

16th World Festival of Animated Films in Zagreb, Croatia. All images courtesy of Animafest © 2004.

16th World Festival of Animated Films in Zagreb, Croatia. All images courtesy of Animafest © 2004.

Zagreb is the unassuming capital of Croatia, an Eastern European nation of four million souls, and has hosted the ASIFA-sponsored Animafest every two years since its inception in 1972.

Everything you have heard about Zagreb is true, and, if you haven't yet heard anything, you should consider yourself welcome there. With the unhesitating hospitality of managing director Margit Buba Antauer and the tireless support of her volunteer staff, Zagreb 2004 (known loquaciously as the 16th World Festival of Animated Films) was both inspired and inspiring. There is so much animation being made in the world, so much beauty patiently laid down, frame by frame. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the selection committee, who culled together a wonderful collage of films from 57 countries, festival guests not only enjoyed the camaraderie of artists from across the globe, but also glimpsed a variety of animated visions that we so rarely get to see.

Admittedly, after a weeklong marathon of watching films (June 14-19), the sight of moving images makes my eyes itch, and just the thought of watching more films makes me want to nap. However, given hundreds of movies with origins as varied as Uzbekistan, Iran, Cuba and Zimbabwe, there is a very real satisfaction in having experienced the breadth and warmth of the global animation community. Equally rewarding was the nightly support of thousands of Zagreb's locals. To be sure, Zagreb is a city steeped in artistic culture, which is made palpable in its many historic buildings, public sculptures, museums and galleries. It was a delight to meet lawyers, economists, architects, agronomists, and students of theater and literature who turned up to the animation screenings simply out of appreciation, enjoyment and respect for the art form. A few persons, with whom I spoke, seemed a little surprised to learn that their homegrown festival is so well regarded among academics and professionals, and that filmmakers were arriving from all over the world to celebrate and compete.

Every animation that made it to the projection booth was a small miracle, a triumph of creative stamina, and each short film was accorded its accolade from the audience. Even so, when local Zagreb animators Marko Mestrovic and Davor Medurecan were honored with a special distinction for their poetic work Ciganjska (2004), the award was accepted to thunderous applause.

But that is getting ahead of ourselves, as part of the closing ceremony. Really, how might I distill the essence of Zagreb 2004 in a handful of pages? What follows is a whirlwind tour through my tangled memory of the festival, a hodgepodge of half-formed highlights and sleepy snapshots based on actual events.

Monday (More or Less)

It is early morning. Not even the pigeons are awake. Guests and authors amble into Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall. There is a small theater showing the first program, titled Animania, a collection of short films not part of the official competition but that the selection committee felt was noteworthy to exhibit. Appropriately, the first day is framed in remembering the past; finding context and orienting ourselves to what has come before. Perhaps in recognition of the animator's godly fascination with ministering minutiae, one film opines that time holds so still, it's scary.

A 90-minute animated documentary, The Animated Century (2003) by Irina Margolina and Adam Snyder, chronicles the worldwide history of animation with clips from 160 films. Examples include animation using pinscreens, carved wood and bamboo, glass figure puppets, folded paper, and sand and oil on glass, among other techniques. We see that animated filmmaking, without market pressures, pursues experimentation and expression for its own sake. With some state-sponsored films, animation walks a fine line of paradox and irony, exploring themes of censorship and artistic freedom. Meanwhile, in other cultures, the stylistic intent of animation may aim to integrate, say, the artist's sensuality with meditative peace.

The animated documentary itself extends from Winsor McCay's The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) to something as recent as Paul Fierlinger's biopic Still Life with Animated Dogs (2001).

Among the screenings during the first half of the day, Släkt & Vänner Family & Friends (Jonas Odell, Sweden) was a semi-autobiographical film remembering people and places that may never have existed, and Plasticat (Simon Bogojevic-Narath, Croatia) told the story of a casual walk in the city turned into an epically comic struggle of conscience. In both cases, we see how our imagination often remembers more vividly than our memory.

Festival director Margit Antauer (center) enjoying the company of animators Raoul Servais (left) and Bob Godfrey (right).

Festival director Margit Antauer (center) enjoying the company of animators Raoul Servais (left) and Bob Godfrey (right).

As evening descends, we gather in the large upstairs theater for the opening ceremony and to begin the five days of the festival's grand competition. Michael Dudok de Wit was the festival's first honorary president, having won the Grand Prix award for Father and Daughter during Animafest 2002. Later in the week, Dudok de Wit would sit down for an impromptu discussion with visiting student filmmakers, but in an early conversation with the festival's artistic director Josko Marusic, he notes that the life of an animator is bloody hard work. I'm always warning students about this before they decide to become professional animators, he said. Doing a funny film can take some years, and it's not like you sit at your desk giggling all the time. You are happy in the sense that you are determined to make your film and you enjoy it. With regards to earning a livelihood, Dudok de Wit says, You do commercials because you have to survive. But it's okay to live with insecurity, because it pushes you.

Hayao Miyazaki, in absentia, was honored with a lifetime achievement award for his inspirational work, a stubborn compromise between personal artistic expression and universal appeal. Sen to Chihiro no kamikakush (Spirited Away) (2001) had its Croatian premiere at the end of the evening, while other weary guests supped on white wine and chocolate strawberries in the concert hall lobby.

Another award went to historian Donald Crafton for his outstanding contribution to the theory of animation. His book, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928, has had considerable influence in changing the way animation is regarded within film studies, as well as defining the dialectical unity of American and European animation. (As an aside, Giannalberto Bendazzi was the first recipient of this new prize in 2002.)

Lastly, the ASIFA lifetime achievement award for significant promotion and preservation of animation art went to Raoul Servais. ASIFA president Noureddin Zarrinkelk spoke of Servais as a philosopher of our time whose language is animation, and offered thanks for his graceful way of observing the world.

Tuesday (Give or Take)

The second day is mercifully quiet. Guests continue to arrive and find their groove. In addition to the morning and afternoon Animania screenings (complements of the selection committee), the competitions among children's films and student films add to the festival program.

A retrospective on animation in Slovenia demonstrates a variety of experimentation, using cut-outs, plasticine and (yes) even coffee. A lot of the films feel like music videos, which makes sense once explained that there is a special public television show for music videos, affording artists an opportunity to reach a wider audience. Siddharta (Luka Lorenci, 2002), for example, is a 3D computer animated music video for the popular Slovenian rock band of the same name, based on Richard Matheson's short novel I am Legend.

The Dissident (Zdravko Barisic, 2002) was also an interesting film with a somewhat socially subversive commentary. It is about a little legume who sees life differently than the system would prefer. When the authority condemns the dissident to death, his ideas germinate in other beans, sprouting an entire revolution.

Of the films that caught my attention over the course of the week, they were not necessarily the best rendered, but nonetheless the passion of the animator shone through. The ability to communicate visually, without the need for heavy-handed exposition, was also nice to see.

Student animators discuss the finer points of their favorite films  or something.

Student animators discuss the finer points of their favorite films or something.

In this respect, Eternal Gaze (Sam Chen, USA) was an efficacious expression of the life of art beyond its creator. Pro Devochku (About a Girl) (Lena Chernova, Russia) was a simple film with a silhouette aesthetic of a little girl in search of her teddy bear. Be-Nang-Men-Noin (The Old Man with Knapsack) (Hyun Kyung Park and Woonki Kim, South Korea) was a 2D computer film about a mysterious man who returns to his village after many years away, where the truth of his life is only revealed after his passing. Os Sapos (The Frogs) (Marcelo Mourão, Brazil) was not especially well drawn, but it was pretty damn funny and had the audience laughing.

Some films moved beyond the stereotypical expectations of 3D computer animation, like Otsu (Lucas Vallerie, Mathieu Gastaldi and Sylvain Crombet, France) with its strong, imaginative designs and good character acting; as well as Tim Tom (Christel Pougeoise and Romain Segaud, France) with its tip of the hat to the thaumatrope, and its updating of the Out of the Inkwell story.

Still, notwithstanding a few innovative 3D films such as Car Craze (Evert de Beijer, Netherlands), Bus Stop (Blandine Lecointe, Thierry Nguyen, Baptiste Sola and Oliver Staphylas, France) and The Time Odyssey (Jo Se-heon and Jo Seong-yoon, South Korea), the spectrum of 2D work seemed appealing and exceptional to me such as The Chuckwill's Widow (Julie Morstad, Canada). Though it was only a minute long, the drawn-on-cell, cutout animation was reminiscent of the work of a nascent Norstein.

Wednesday (I believe)

By now, the jetlag from California is wearing off and I feel like a human being again, apart from the fact that the incessant viewing of cartoons has made its characters and places as alive to me as any waking reality.

The first films of the day are of bittersweet memories. Ligne de Vie (Line of Life) (Serge Avédikian, France) is the story of life within a working concentration camp. A man remembers a fellow prisoner, an artist, who used to draw the faces of the other prisoners, bringing them vitality. A guard who discovers the drawings but permits them is hanged, and the artist's hands are cut off. But the tormenters did not realize that the spirit of the drawings remained, as a line of life, and that only death could stop the artist from creating. The film itself is made of animated paintings, the crude images of which contribute thematically to the tale.

Le Lezar (The Lizard) (Guillaume Aventurin, France), made from drawing, oil and pastel paintings on paper, is the delicate childhood story of innocence and brutality on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe. Zivot Je Kao San (Life is Like a Dream) (Jadranko Lopatic, Croatia) shows an elderly woman ruminating on the transience of life; as she watches her grandchild play, the characters' faces transform so that their entire lives are revealed in a matter of seconds.

Must  watch  films. Artist: Marv Newland.

Must watch films. Artist: Marv Newland.

The morning then shifts tact, and somber reflections yield to the happy confusion of a retrospective program on Ukrainian animation. Overall, the films are fun and lively with a very distinct look. The blend of grotesque humor and mythology is seen in a number of well-crafted films, as noses and ears are protagonists, and salt somehow relates to the Milky Way.

Kaminnyj Vik (The Stone Age) (Vladimir Goncharov, 1987) is a cute hand-drawn story about the belligerent waste of natural resources among competing societies. As the foundation of the world is slowly eroded, the precarious pillars of so-called civilization crumble beneath their own unsustainable weight. Kohannia Ta Smert Kartopli Zvychajnoi (Love and Death of a Common Potato) (Natalia Marchenkova, 1990) is an operatic stop-motion love story (read: tragedy). The potato harvest was never so poignant. And Ostannia Druzina Synoi Borody (The Bluebeard's Last Wife) (Alexandr Boubnov, 1996) is the quirky story of a murderous misogynist who meets his match in matrimony with Medusa. That is, until a corpulent, crocked Cupid saves the day! (Alas, while Medusa's hairdo is defanged, her venomous, vaginal vipers are not.)

It is perhaps interesting to note that, in the previous night's grand competition, Phil Mulloy's The Final Solution (2004) also boasted a snake in the guise of a talking penis. In fact, strangely enough, consumptive sex was a recurring theme. One film portrayed its characters sequentially murdering and eating copulating couples (all the more bizarre given the audience's approving applause); and a second film had a woman whose teeth-bearing vagina would literally devour her lovers, until, one fine day, a man gently removed the teeth so that they could live together tenderly. On this loving note, the humorous Powerplay (Greg Lawson, Netherlands) was kind enough to remind viewers: If you care about someone, use a condom.

Speaking of crocked cupidity, Wednesday also saw the screening of the favorites of KROK, an annual Ukrainian-Russian festival that, if you didn't know, is held on a boat. Begun in 1989, KROK alternately navigates the waterways of Ukraine and Russia screening films, buoying spirits, stopping into ports and staying afloat in more ways than one. Following its program, the KROK organizers treated Animafest guests to a little of their native hospitality with a caviar and vodka reception.

Notable films from the screening included the excellent gestural drawing of Repete (Michaela Pavlatova, 1995). The repetitious monotony, the excitement of new patterns emerging, sustained a tension not unlike a dog pulling on the end of its tether. Also, Rusalka (The Mermaid) (Alexander Petrov, 1997) is absolutely gorgeous. Petrov's mastery of his medium is outstanding, not just visually but with respect to his painterly performances. Whether he is animating a bird, squirrel, fox, or human, the nuance of the acting is remarkable.

For the evening competition programs, the following films stood out. Woman in the Attic (Chansoo Kim, USA/Korea) is a sophisticated puppet animation of a saddened woman confronting her younger self. Mechanika (The Mechanics) (David Sukup, Czech Republic) is a well-done pixilation depicting a world ruled by machines where everything from hygiene to romance is coin-operated. Grandad's Honey (Vladimir Leschiov, Sweden) is paint on glass, similar to Petrov in style, telling the story of a man's last days alone with his only family, his honeybees. Ritterschlag (Knight Games) (Sven Martin, Germany) is a lighthearted, 3D computer animated story of a young dragon practicing to guard a damsel in distress.

Allerleirauh (Whisper of the Fur-Cones) (Anja Struck, Germany) is the puppet, pixilation, and object animated retelling of an old fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, and in remembrance of Christian Morgenstern. Its strange and subtle violence felt somewhere between what David Lynch and the Brothers Quay might conceive. Dhak (The Drum) (Rajesh Chakrabarty, India) had nicely rendered color pencil drawings, celebrating the Durga Puja of Bengal. For A Tango (Gabriele Zucchelli, UK) had ridiculously good traditional and 2D computer animation, recalling a time in Buenos Aires following an influx of World War I immigrants when there were seven men to every one woman.

Animafest is well regarded and well established in Zagreb, with locals from all walks of life attending.

Animafest is well regarded and well established in Zagreb, with locals from all walks of life attending.

L'Homme Sans Ombre (The Man Without a Shadow) (Georges Schwitzgebel, Switzerland/Canada) is an amazingly gifted telling of a man who made a deal with the devil, trading his soul for temporary riches. As the perspective of the camera in the film is constantly moving, circling, it is really heartening to watch what an artist can achieve, even with simple hand-drawn characters, when he or she has such strong draftsmanship.

Last but not least, on a completely different note, separate from the festival's competition, Paul Fierlinger briefly shared his life's work as an independent animator. Having subsisted off of commercial work for the last 45 years (30 years in Philadelphia), Fierlinger now feels he can manage to do personal films and have them taken seriously. Following on the success of Still Life with Animated Dogs, he is again partnering with American public television to produce A Room Nearby, an animated documentary discussing loneliness, which will premiere in the U.S. during late nights this fall.

Ironically, when his films play at documentary venues, they sometimes are criticized for being animated. Fierlinger matter-of-factly reminds his audience that drawing (e.g., cave painting) was the first means of documenting events and history.

Thursday (Definitely)

As the week wears on, my memory becomes patchy. At some point, there was a big picnic outside of the city for the 200 or so invited guests. I missed that particular bus, but if the pictures are any indication, much merriment, food and dancing was to be enjoyed. While on the subject of excursions, it deserves emphasizing that Croatia is a beautiful country filled with beautiful people. For the stout of heart, a six-hour jaunt to the crystal blue waters of the Adriatic coast may be well worth your time. It is, for now, the quiet hotspot of the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, back in the comfortable cloister of Lisinski Concert Hall, the parade of animation continues. During the morning, the National Film Board of Canada exhibits a few of the films from its treasure trove. And Konstfack, the largest art school in Sweden, shows off a few of its student productions as well. (Located some 300 km from Stockholm in a small town called Eksjö, there are 100 students in Konstfack's new institute of animation, with faculty including Caroline Leaf and Piotr Dumala.)

Again, the details are blurring, but I recollect a gory stop-motion film about a vengeful lizard; a story involving an ogre and an owl; and something that looked vaguely inspired by Aeon Flux. Whether or not any of that is true, I can't be held accountable.

The Zagreb festival staff with honorary president Michael Dudok de Wit (center).

The Zagreb festival staff with honorary president Michael Dudok de Wit (center).

Later in the day, during the student competition, Wunderwerk (Micheal Sieber, Germany) had some good animation and a sweet story about an inventor who creates a mechanical bird and learns to set him free. Le Grand Jour (The Grand Day) (Raphaël Chabassol, France), about a disproportional couple trying to marry, also had an old-time cuteness to it. During the grand competition, Welcome to Kentucky (Craig Welch, Canada) had nicely hand-rendered black-and-white drawings; Kontsert Porgandipirukal (Concert for a Carrot Pie) (Heiki Ernits and Janno Pöldma, Estonia) was sprightly and, dare I say it, adorable; Fast Film (Virgil Widrich, Austria/Luxembourg) was an incredible use of object animation, folding and manipulating printouts of live-action film footage to tell its chase story; and It's About My Brother (William Gadea, USA) uses clay, photographs and simple computer animation to tell the oddly affectionate story of a man and woman who meet through a personal ad, with the man privately hoping to set her up with his headless brother. (No, really, it's funny.)

Earlier, a Korean animated feature for children called Empress Chung (Nelson Shin, 2003) also played. The movie took seven years to achieve (three years of actual production), and the filmmakers have tried to imbue traditional Korean culture throughout the film, in the representation of its characters and backgrounds. Another family feature that premiered during the week was Disney's Home on the Range (Will Finn and John Sanford, 2004). I peeked my head into this screening, and while I understood maybe five words of the Croatian voice dubbing, the visual comedy still translated well.

Friday (With Love)

The program today was much the same (meaning good), only more so. Truthfully, there are too many laudable films to have listed them all here, and no doubt I have overlooked many.

A dozen or so short one-minute dibujos animados comprised a retrospective of Cuban animation. Despite the language barrier, the audience was chuckling as the humor communicated very easily. A couple of days prior, the animated feature Más Vampiros en la Habana (More Vampires in Havana) (Juan Padrón, 1995) screened with similar results. (As far as I could tell, from the few minutes I was able to see, the movie had something to do with Nazi vampires in Cuba.)

Another program highlighted films from the Future Film Festival (Italy), while a third retrospective showed animation in Zagreb during 1954-55 (seemingly influenced by the American theatrical shorts of the time). Renowned British animator Bob Godfrey has apparently come out of retirement at the age of 82 to announce work on his latest project, something called (if I heard correctly) Shakespeare's Music Hall. He is presently looking for financial support, as following his presentation, he wittily concluded, Anybody got any questions? (Deferential silence.) Anybody got any money?

Among the student films of the Friday competition, Weitzenbergi Tänav (Weitzenberg Street) (Kaspar Jancis, Estonia) is a fun, clever film very much in the spirit of Priit Pärn's work, and equally deserving of praise. My Little Bunny (Heena Baek, Korea/USA) is a nice animation clearly demonstrating the strong potential of its author. Ascio (Mathilde Philippon-Aginski, France) is a very well made sand animation, gentle and unhurried in its tone, giving a sense of dimensionality to its dreamy world.

Within the grand competition, Ward 13 (Peter Cornwell, Australia) offered a brisk 14 minutes of stop-motion animation as a patient flees some unwanted medical attention. How to Cope With Death (Ignacio Ferreras, UK) was an expertly drawn story of an old woman ripe enough to be harvested by the Grim Reaper, if not for her unwillingness to go quietly into the night. And Hell Og Lykke, Herr Gorsky! (Good Luck, Mr. Gorsky!) (Astrid Alma Aakra, Norway) was also nicely designed with great character animation.

Now, off to the pub to imbibe some cold beverage and warm conversation!

Cheers! Festival guests at the closing night party.

Cheers! Festival guests at the closing night party.

Saturday (Alas)

The week finished with two special events. First was a screening of silent films by pioneering animator Emile Cohl (1908-10), with an accompanying live, tuxedoed pianist. And Winter Days (2003), initiated by Japanese puppet animator Kawamoto Kihachiro, was a 40-minute visualization of Matsuo Basho's famous haiku poetry, in which a number of authors create a larger work by linking their verse (or, in this case, animation) to the previous artist's effort. The diversity of personal interpretation of Basho's poetry was evident in the contribution of the project's 35 filmmakers, among them Yuri Norstein, Alexander Petrov and Raoul Servais.

The evening's awards ceremony was introduced by the traditional northern Croatian singing of an 80-year-old woman. Here is a quick rundown of some of this year's winners:

Best Children's Film Award: Always Take the Weather With You (Brent Dawes, Zimbabwe).

Selection Committee Award, for the best selection of student films: SUPINFOCOM (France) and CalArts (USA).

Best Student Film Award: Ascio (Mathilde Philippon-Aginski, France).

Audience Award: Ward 13 (Peter Cornwell, Australia) and Ritterschlag (Knight Games) (Sven Martin, Germany).

Best Debut Film Award: Allerleirauh (Whisper of the Fur-Cones) (Anja Struck, Germany).

The Zagreb Award, for encouragement of creativity and innovative artistic achievement: Fast Film (Virgil Widrich, Austria/Luxembourg).

The Zagreb Award is as important as the Grand Prix. Though, according to the festival's guidelines, it is the only award that does not have to be presented if there is no film judged to be meritorious.

And, for its distinguished relationship of sound to image in support of narrative, the Grand Prix (Best Film of the Festival) goes to... Atama Yama (Mt. Head) (Koji Yamamura, Japan).

For a complete listing of festival awards, please visit the official Zagreb 2004 website (www.animafest.hr).

Animafest may be the unsung festival, but it is truly the cats meow.

Animafest may be the unsung festival, but it is truly the cats meow.

All in all, Zagreb is the goldilocks festival, not too big and not too small, not too hard and not too soft. Everyone is helpful and friendly, and it's easy to get around. In fact, walking to the hotel at three in the morning, and sometimes later, I felt safer in Zagreb than I do in my own neighborhood at home. In a country where higher education is free to those who pass the qualifying exams, in a city with a deep historical appreciation of the arts, the World Festival of Animated Films rests very comfortably and successfully in Zagreb.

I am a little hesitant to confess the fully pleasant nature of the festival, lest it become, as Dudok de Wit said, something too inflated in its scope and experience. However, if you happen to be in the neighborhood for the A(nnecy) to Z(agreb) of animation festivals, or otherwise, you might consider passing through.

Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles. Special thanks to the entire Zagreb team for its abundant hospitality and generous support.

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