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From Serbia to China – A World of Difference

Nancy Phelps travels to Changchung, China to attend the The International Animation, Comics and Game Forum.

By Nancy Phelps

The 3rd Northwest Asian Culture and Art Week: 4-7 September 2012

The International Animation, Comics and Game Forum

Arriving in Changchun, China for The International Animation, Comics, and Games Forum was a very abrupt switch from my previous weeks in Kosovo and Serbia.   Any thoughts of long, leisurely meals with friends and watching good animation went out of my head when I was handed my schedule.

“Breakfast  7:00-7:30 AM PROMPT”.  Immediately after breakfast we boarded a bus for the trip to the Jilin Animation Institute.  Most mornings we went straight into the auditorium to listen to speakers.  The rest of our day was equally regimented right up to our 6:30 PM dinner time.

The only exception was on the first morning when there was a visit to the Jilin Animation Institute from 8:10 to 9:50AM.   The 9 year old school, located in the new industrial park, has a staggering 6,500 students in the institute’s 5 departments:  animation and comics, games, design, and advertising. That is an amazing number of students studying media arts in just that one school alone.  One afternoon I was astonished to walk out of the auditorium to find a group of students standing at attention in military uniforms.  I later learned that every student, including those in the animation department, is required to undergo a month of military training along with their regular classes.

Animation students in formation in front of giant figure from their new animated feature (photo: Bill Dennis)

When I last visited the Jilin Industrial Park 2 years ago it was still under construction.  The multilevel media school was completed but I had no idea that that the final project would be so massive.   On this visit all of the tall building were completed and seemed to be full of activity and the grounds were fully landscaped.

Following the tour of the institute there were the formal welcoming speeches delivered by dignitaries  from 10:10 to 10:50 AM and a group photo from 11:00 to 11:20 AM.  Then it was time to get back on the bus for lunch (11:50 to 12:50) at the hotel and so it went throughout the day.

Lunch at the hotel

When we returned to the institute after lunch we began our presentations in earnest for the next 2 days.  I have found that when your speech is being translated into a foreign language it is good idea to keep the talking to a minimum and show as much animation as possible.

For my 20 minutes I choose to screen a selection of short films ranging in styles from hand drawn to puppet animation.  Since the Jilin Institute concentrates on computer animation and that is also what is available to the students on television, I wanted to remind then that there are many other different styles of animation.

The Animation Forum speakers were all members of the ASIFA (Association International du Film d’ Animation) International Board.  The most interesting presentations for me were given by Carla Foderingham from ASIFA Trinidad & Tobago and Ricardo Arce, founder of ASIFA Columbia.  Both countries are new to the international ASIFA family so it was very enlightening to learn about what these two countries are doing in the field of animation.

Even though Trinidad & Tobago has no animation schools there is a thriving film industry attracting productions from around the globe to work there.  Carla’s company works on credits and commercials as well as creating shorts and providing training for students in the different areas of animation.  Their ASIFA chapter is working in prisons to help the large population of incarcerated young men tell their very personal stories.  As we all know, animation is a wonderful way to deal with difficult stories and emotions that can’t be portrayed in live action so it is an ideal medium for prison inmates.

Ricardo spoke about animation in Columbia and the work his chapter is doing to bring the art form to remote parts of his country.  As there are no animation schools in Columbia or government support for animation, everything must be created by using local resources, so hand drawn or found object animation are the most common forms.  Even though we all take computers and on line access for granted, Ricardo said that access to them is almost non-existent in remote part of his country so  ASIFA Columbia brings animation to these areas and teaches  young people how to tell their stories with the materials around them.

The main reason that I made the trip to Changchun was to attend the ASIFA International Board Meeting.  With chapters throughout the world it is not easy for us to meet face to face but thanks to the generous invitation from the Jilin Institute to provide all of our air fares and complete hospitality, many of us were able to make the trip from such faraway places as Columbia, Chile, Egypt and the Caribbean as well as Hollywood and Portland.

The ASIFA Board in Changchun

Bozidar Zecevic, Nancy, Ed Desroche and Carla Foderingham relaxing at a neighborhood cafe

Board Members all have the opportunity to communicate on line but it was a real pleasure to see old friends, and most important of all to get to know our new board members in person.  I look forward to seeing them bring new enthusiasm and ideas to the board.

Mohammed Ghazala, ASIFA Egypt board member showing how to walk like an Egyptian

There were formal banquets with speeches and many toasts, but to me, the most interesting part of my visit was the street market that I discovered on the wide street around the corner from our hotel.   In the late morning hours the street came alive with vendors selling everything from a vast array of fresh produce to reading glasses.

Noodles for sale

Beautiful fresh produce

Chinese pizz

Freshly cooked seafood

The smells of the food being cooked mingled delightfully in enticing aromas and made me wish that our plentiful meals at the hotel were a little less delicious so I could sample everything in front of my eyes. I was intrigued by an ingenious homemade corn on the cob roasting “machine”.  I am used to seeing ears of corn roasted on an open grill but this contraption was unlike anything I have ever seen before.  It was fascinating to watch the roasters hands fly from one ear to the other rotating them up and down to position them at different distances from the coals.

Interesting corn roaster

In the warm evening the vendors were replaced by the neighborhood cafes which spread out their tables and chairs onto the tree lined street.  It was delightful to sit there with some of my colleagues with a cold beer as we watched the world go by.  Just in case we hadn’t eaten enough already, the cafe kept bringing plates piled high with delicious grilled meat.

Changchun is located in the Northeast corner of China near the South Korean and Mongolian borders. The Soviet influence in the area is still very evident in the large cement block apartments that are throughout the city next to modern high rise buildings.  If you look behind the buildings with massive glittering neon you still find the one and two room homes with no plumbing or running water and tin roofs. I think these little neighborhoods will soon be replaced with modern high rise buildings and I wonder where all of the people who live there will go - certainly not to the new modern apartment buildings that I see going up all over China.

Changchun is known as China’s auto city.  It is an important industrial base with an emphasis on the auto industry.  When I first visited China almost ten years go the streets were full of bicycles.  Now cars and buses have taken command of the roadways.

Most of my colleagues left on the 8th, but Board Members  Bozidar Zecevic from Serbia and Berin Tuzlic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with  Aida Kosovic, who works for Berin’s company, Vivienne Barry of ASIFA Chile and I went to the  Imperial Palace of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China.  His abdication in 1912 marked the end of dynastic rule in China.  His astounding 43,000 square meter palace was designed as a miniature version of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Bozidar Zecevic of ASIFA Serbia at the palace of the last emperor

Vivienne Barry of ASIFA Chile at the palace

Nancy tempting fate with a palace dragon

Bernardo Bertolucci received permission from the Chinese government to film scenes for his 1987 film The Last Emperor at this palace.  It was amazing to stand in rooms that I recognized from the film.  Even after hours of wandering through the vast complex of building and gardens it was impossible to see everything.  I particularly enjoyed the Emperor’s private formal garden which housed his personal bomb shelter.

It was a very packed four day whirlwind visit to China.   I want to thank everyone at the Jilin Institute who made my visit so pleasurable, especially Lucy who was head of guest services.  I appreciated all of the little acts of kindness from her but most of all I truly enjoyed our talks about the wide cultural difference between the Chinese and Western ways of thinking.

I returned home just in time to do laundry before heading off to Lille, France for the 12th edition of the Festival International du Court Metrage.  More soon from Lille.


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 and the ASIFA/San Francisco news magazine and is a member of the ASIFA International 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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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.