SAFO `99: How A Festival Should Be

by Dan Sarto

The Ottawa `99 International Student Animation Festival, known as SAFO, completed its impressive, four-day run this past October 24th. A thoughtfully planned combination of student and school competitions, workshops and panels, retrospectives and tributes, with an exhibitor floor as well, SAFO delivered on all fronts -- not too ambitious, not too low-key, with just enough structure to give the proceedings, and the blue chip listing of top industry participants, the respect they deserved. Now, if I could have just found a good meal in downtown Ottawa, the festival would have been flawless. I could only eat so much maple butter, that hopelessly addicting, incredibly rich and delicious paste I spooned directly from the jar with my fingers.

Chris Robinson (middle), festival organizer, visits the Level 13 Entertainment stand.

A Significant Contribution
Not even a devastating fire that destroyed the Festival office in August could trip up this event. Festival director Chris Robinson's influence could be felt everywhere as he prowled the venue with his leather jacket and ever-present coffee cup. The festival event line-up reflected both his keen sense of our contemporary animation landscape, as well as his knowledge of animation history and the richness, and importance, of that heritage. Chris is no stranger to controversy; he can be outspoken, and his straightforward manner doesn't always sit well with some of the crusty veterans on today's animation scene. One thing, however, is clear to me -- he knows animation, and he knows how to put on a dynamite festival. His vision coupled with a hard working staff of full-timers and volunteers made SAFO `99 an informative, entertaining and rewarding experience.

SAFO is supported by almost every Canadian organization except the Toronto Maple Leafs (a hockey team). In the U.S., government support for the arts is never understated. Just ask Rudolph Juliani. In fact, any government support seems to be "in your face." However, at SAFO, the comfortable atmosphere underscores the real importance of the festival. I sensed that many of the screenings and events were attended by numerous important members of groups such as the Canadian Film Council, the National Film Board of Canada, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and others. Unlike in the U.S., for such a gathering of big kahunas, everyone seemed very civil, wearing scarves and kissing each other on the cheeks all the time.

Many schools where present. Here, Karen Grant-Jaeckle, Head of Communications and International Services for Sheridan College, poses for a picture at her school's stand.

These Are Student Films?
The official competition was comprised of 92 films, including 14 from children, culled from over 700 entries from 40 countries. While many of the films were not to my liking, I was impressed by the tremendous amount of talent displayed by all the student animators. My taste in animation is skewed heavily toward that which entertains a seven year-old. However, even I could recognize how much good animation was being shown. Even the terribly depressing tales of family tragedy and suffering were pretty good. Watching the story of a family dealing with the loss of a child, who drowned, made me wince at the shallowness of my complaints about the horrible pancakes I'd had that morning for breakfast. As it should.

While I didn't agree with all the judges' decisions, there were so many good films, that I'm sure any set of winners would have seemed unfair. My personal favorite was Man in the Moon, by Arvid Vibel and Chris Stenner, which is a superbly designed, excellently paced and uncharacteristically funny -- I haven't seen too many German films I've laughed out loud at -- stop-motion tale of a solitary lunar rock farmer who one day gets to meet up with some NASA astronauts. It was the best film in my book. Little Milos, by Jakub Pistecky, about a timid gentleman, his overbearing wife, and a pet goat, was also well done, with a solid story told simply and effectively. Daylight, from Estonian animator Mait Laas, had some very interesting characters, and is a combination of cutouts, metal parts, and who knows what else. Crowd favorite Mister Smile, by Fran Krause, was also very well done. The film is a quirky, funny tale about a diverse set of oddball characters with nothing in common except they all get invited to Mr. Smile's party. The piece boasts a climactic discourse on the inter-relationship between love and food that had me laughing out loud.

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