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Kosovo’s Fantastic Anibar International Animation Festival

I had never thought of Peja, Kosovo as an ideal holiday spot but when I was invited to be on the International Jury of Anibar International Festival, the 22nd through the 27th of August, 2012, I discovered how wrong I was.

Rron Bajri, Gjon Marku and Nancy going up the mountain on the little train

By Nancy Phelps

I had never thought of Peja, Kosovo as an ideal holiday spot but when I was invited to be on the International Jury of Anibar International Festival, the 22nd through the 27th of August, 2012, I discovered how wrong I was.  Peja is a lovely small town of 60,000 people surrounded by a beautiful mountain range known as the Balkan Alps with a lovely stream running through the center of town.  You can take a small motorized train up into the mountains from the town square.

A Heritage Museum is situated in an urban house dating from the 18th century that contains examples of regional clothing, beautifully crafted jewellery, musical instruments, and every day household items from the past.  The town also hosts a large open air market twice a week as well as the oldest mosque in Kosovo and a monastery located in the mountains is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The view from Nancy’s hotel room

There are numerous cafes serving delicious freshly grilled meats and local bean dishes as well as excellent local beer made from the water that flows from the surrounding mountains.  Each evening the main square comes alive as people come out to promenade after the heat of the day and small children take to a fleet of electric cars that are for rent in the square.

Anibar had four screening venues, one indoor Cinema and three outdoor screening areas.   Films were shown in the Cinema during the day but in the warm evenings the action moved outdoors.  The opening and closing presentations and two evening screenings were held at the downtown open air screen which was easily accessible to everyone.

The Downtown Cinema location

The festival can also boast the most unique screening area I have ever seen.  In a large wooded park at the edge of town a big screen was set up on the far side of a small lake and festival goers could watch the films in two person rubber boats while paddling around the lake.  Chairs were set up on the shore for the less adventurous film watchers.  It was a beautiful setting to watch animation on warm summer evenings although I’m afraid that it wasn’t the perfect way for the jury to watch competition programs.

Nighttime projection at the lake

Watching three nighttime screening in the boats

There was a festival bar/cafe that had live music after the two lakeside screenings and a camping area where festival goers could pitch tents.  After the music and dancing there was always a big bonfire in the adjacent camping area and still another screen was set up where a very late night screening of an International Competition program could be watched from fireside.  The night time screening/party area drew a lot of young people who came to have fun and dance but stayed to watch the animation.  It proved to be the perfect place to introduce non-commercial animation to the general public.

Campfire scene

The outdoor cinemas were constructed in an environmentally friendly manner by the festival staff and volunteers expressly for the festival.  It was an ambitious undertaking for a festival where the average age of the organizers is twenty years old.  There were also 50 high school age volunteers who seemed to be everywhere at once.

the Information kiosk

As the only animation festival in Kosovo, Anibar strives to educate as well as entertain their audience.  The Animocracy program was exactly what the name implies, an international collection of animated films dealing with democracy.  Topics ranged from the Arab Spring to the right of civilians to peacefully demonstrate, and the loneliness of being different.  The broad range of these films dealing with serious, relevant topics in a way that is accessible to everyone.  Admission to Animocracy was free.

Although this is only the third year of Anibar, the six day festival screened 170 films selected from the 438 entries submitted for screening at the festival.  With 69 films spread over 11 International Competition programs we had our work cut out for us on the International Jury.

My fellow jurors for the International Competition were Luuk Van Huet and Gjon Marku.  I already knew Luuk because he is one of the founders of the KLIK Animation Festival in Amsterdam, and he and I had spent several days together watching films earlier this summer when we were both part of the KLIK 2012 festival selection committee.

Meeting Gjon was a delightful surprise.  He is an Albanian from Kosovo who lives in Canada, where he is a freelance animator, illustrator, and graphic designer.  He is also an excellent guitarist and singer, and one night he treated me to a concert where he sang songs that I know and love by Dylan, the Beatles, etc.

As a jury we watched three one hour programs a day and after each program we sat down with cold beers and discussed the films that we had just watched.  The temperature was in the high 90’s most days with very little breeze so those beers were very welcome.

This jury turned out to be one of the nicest I have ever sat on.  We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company even when we weren’t watching films or talking about them.  We all took turns voicing our opinions about each film but were in general agreement most of the time.  When we got down to our final deliberation at the end of the week, we had already narrowed it down to five films that merited our serious consideration due to the time we had already put into our discussions.

When time came for our final discussion we quickly narrowed our decision down to 5 films.  Then the really difficult job started. We agreed that all five films were worthy contenders for different reasons.  Because we felt that we should only give one film the Grand Prix, we finally decided to award it to The Backwater Gospel, directed by Bo Mathorne from Denmark.  The jury felt that this was the film that most completely combined all of the elements that make up a truly excellent animated film.  It has a beautiful graphic design that you do not realize is computer generated immediately, an excellent story that is told through a song which stayed in our heads long after the film was over.  All of the parts are integrated together to form an excellent film that is truly enjoyable.   I wrote at length about this tale of the undertaker coming to the God fearing people of the town of Backwater in my article about the 2012 Trickfilm Festival in Stuttgart.

As a jury we also felt that Oh Willy and Borderline were outstanding films that deserved to be recognized with Awards of Merit.  Oh Willy by Belgian animators Emma De Swaef and Marc Roels is a beautifully crafted puppet stop-motion story of Willy, a middle aged man who returns to his family home to visit his dying mother.  The visit triggers many memories, not all pleasant ones, of his past.

Our second Award of Merit was awarded to Dustin Rees from Switzerland for Borderline.  The story of a border guard who is trying to commit suicide, without much success combines a touching personal story with dark humor.

The Balkan jury was made up of Vladislana Vojnovic, a Serbian author and screen writer, Ergys Faja, an Albanian animator, and Mehmet Behlui, a painter and lecturer at the University of Prishtina, Kosovo.  They decided to give the first prize award to two films which they thought were equally deserving. Turkish animator Sinan Serte received a trophy for The Shadow Play, a very simply animation about children learning to accept the differences in other children.  Although I thought that the message was very good, I didn’t think that it was an award winning film.  The animation and character design were very weak and the 5 minute film became repetitive and the story could have been told in a lot less time.

Balkan Jury members Erqys Faja and Vladislana Vojnovic

The second film award went to In the Beginning of Time by Bozidar Trkulja from Croatia.  The puppets and sets were beautifully crafted and the story original and entertaining.  The 10 minute film tells of a young tribal warrior who is sent by his village shaman to the end of the world on a quest to find “the White Girl”, the only person who can help the village conquer a demon threatening the village.

Bozidar Trkuljo, winner of the Balkan Competition

Special Mentions were awarded by the Balkan jury to Ivan Bogdanov for Father, Perfect Life, a Bulgarian/Croatian/German co-production animated by Ozgul Gurbuz of Turkey, The Promise, by Albanian animator Marvina Cela and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules by the Serbian/Belgian duo of Marija Jacimoviq and Benoit Detalle.

Marija and Benoit created the film for a competition held by held by The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts.  The British society initiated the contest for emerging young film makers to bring RSA talks to life in a fresh, innovative way.  Marija and Benoit’s clever film was made in three weeks using foods purchased at their local market and was based on a talk given by food writer Michael Pollan about his iconic “food rules”. The two minute film was very cleverly animated with humor while getting the food rules message across clearly and the young couple deserved to win the £2,000 first prize in the Royal Society competition

Unfortunately, due to our busy jury schedule I didn’t get to see as many of the Balkan films as I would have liked.  I was glad that I had the opportunity to see the award winners at the closing ceremony.

Four free family programs designed with young audiences in mind screened animations from around the world.  The programs included many award winning films such as The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore and Australian animator Jonathan Nix’s multi-award winning The Missing Key.

The Missing Key is a  beautifully hand drawn thirty minute film is set in a richly re-imagined early 1920’s Venice, where a young composer and his faithful oboe-playing cat compete against the unscrupulous Count Telefino in the prestigious Abacus Scroll musical competition.  The Missing Key is so rich in detail that it definitely takes more than one viewing to be truly appreciated.

Rugova in Motion is a documentary containing three stop motion animations that were created during Anibar’s first stop motion workshop in July led by British animator and illustrator Maria Kontogiorgou-Marik.  The twenty participants used the theme “Sustainable Lifestyle” to complete the three films about Rugova, a mountainous region where humans and nature have lived in balance with each other for centuries.  Humans – the Rugovians - have been very respectful of nature and her resources and serve as an example of how people can live in balance with nature if they practice a sustainable lifestyle. At the festival there were also outdoor workshops which gave everyone a chance to learn how to create simple animations.

All three members of the International Jury presented an evening program at the main open air cinema.  After enjoying Gjon’s company all week I was very curious to see his films.  Gjon worked as an animator and director for Prishtina, Kosovo television prior to moving to the United States in 1989 and then on to Canada in 1993.  He lives in Toronto and continues his freelance work as well as animating for the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) films.

Gjon screened segments from several series that he has worked on as well as his independent animations such as Gun Story which is the story of a young man who thinks that he is so cool until he ends up in prison for killing a friend while playing with a gun.

Vladislana Vojnovic Gjon Marku, Nancy and Fiona Beqiri, at the rear, Bozidar Trkulj

Fellow juror Luuk Van Huet screened a program of new Dutch student animation.  I screened a program of historic animation from the Fleischer Brothers to the present.

Each afternoon, interviews at the festival cafe gave the audience an opportunity to hear different festival guests talk about their work.  The interviewers kept the conversations very relaxed and questions were encouraged.

Nancy at the Cafe Chat

One of the most interesting interview sessions for me was with Albanian director Shaqir Veseli.  He talked about the difficulties faced by animators in his country today.  From its inception in 1975 to the upheaval in the Balkans, Albania had a thriving state supported animation industry. In 1991 many of the country’s talented animators immigrated and although the art of animation is still alive in Albania, there is very little government support for an industry that must now compete in the free market.

Albanian director Shaqir Veseli at the Cafe Chat

Bosnian-Herzovina animator and puppet maker Ivan Ramadan talked about making his film Tolerantia, which is the first 3-D film produced in his country.  He lives in Sarajeno where he is studying architecture and creating sets and puppets for animations.  He brought two of his beautifully crafted puppets for the audience to examine.  After seeing his work close up I believe that Ivan is a rising young star in the world of puppet animation and we will be hearing much more about him

One evening Fatos Berisha, director of the Kosova Cinematography Center, hosted a reception in honor of the festival at the open air bar.  I had the opportunity to learn about co-production opportunities in Kosovo and the plans to expand their film and animation industries from him. Each evening at the open area bar, festival guests and volunteers were treated to wonderful home cooked meals that were created by mothers of the festival staff.  It was such a treat to get to taste all of the delicious local foods that are created at home instead eating restaurant fare.

A home cooked dinner spread

This year Anibar created its first Quick Response book to promote animators worldwide.  The Anibar Film Book is an innovative, one-of-a-kind book in Kosovo created in a collaboration between the festival and Mad Artists Publishing in Canada.  Along with information about the festival and the films shown in past years, the book is encoded with Quick Response (QR) Codes that immediately link to all the encoded films instantly.   With a smart phone or tablet you can scan the code and view the films on demand.  All works that are made available have the animator’s permission to be encoded.  Of course any film is always best when viewed on a big screen but this seems to be a wonderful way to make international animation available, especially in countries where access to animation is limited.

My deep thanks go to Festival Director Vulllret Sanaja and to Rron Bajri, Director of Animation for the warm hospitality they extended to me during my visit to Peja.  Fioma Beqiri, Guest Service Co-ordinator, made sure that I had a wonderful time at Anibar from the moment that she met me at the airport, providing such nice touches as an information sheet that not only had contact phone numbers but emergency numbers such as police, ambulance, etc., basic facts and a language guide of basic useful words and phrases.  Fiona seemed to wear so many hats at the festival that it was hard to keep track of her, but she always turned up just when you needed her.

Festival Programmer Rron Bajri ready to KLIK out

the Information kiosk

A special thank you goes to Era Kuraja, our jury tender, who made sure we knew when and where we had to be and showed great patience with the three of us.  She also did an excellent job of translating the catalogue to English and I was astounded to discover that Era is still in high school.   A warm thank you goes out to all of the volunteers for their hard work.

Anibar is definitely a festival to watch and if you are every lucky enough to be invited, be sure to accept.  You will not only see films that you will not see at most other festivals, but you will also have the opportunity to meet some lovely Balkan animators.

When I left Peja, my next stop was Belgrade, Serbia to visit my old friend Rastko Ciric and attend the first edition of the new Festival of European Student Animation that Rastko was co-directing the next week.

The trip to Belgrade was supposed to be an easy six hour bus ride but as often seems to happen to me things didn’t quite turn out as I planned.  It ended up taking 19 hours, with a taxi ride and endless bus changes across three countries to finally reach Belgrade, but that is another story.  I will begin my article about the Student Animation Festival with the tale of my adventure getting there.  Stay tuned . . .

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Nancy Phelps has produced music for animation for the past 16 years. She has written about animation and animation festivals for such publications as Animatoons, Film/Tape World, Reel World andthe ASIFA/San Francisco news magazine and is a member of the ASIFAInternational Board. In 2006, Nancy and her composer/musician husband Nik Phelps moved from San Francisco to Gent, Belgium, where they now have their home. Check out her blog here.

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