It's a trivial irony, but it's an irony nonetheless. Here it was, September 11, 2001, and I'm spending the morning with my formerly estranged father. For almost a decade I hated the man's guts. In my mind he was an emotional, verbal and physical bully. He was the enemy. I sometimes wished him dead for the emotional damage he did to my brother, mother and myself. Yet some ten years plus have passed and I'm sitting beside this man watching one of the most violent and tragic acts of hate ever committed on our continent (since we shot up all the natives of course).
How did I come to a point where I was able to sit with this former enemy #1? Well mostly through dialogue. Earlier this year I reached a point in my life where I needed to come to some sort of understanding of the past. I needed to know why things happened. In many cases I was given a clearer perspective of the past. Slowly I began to understand much of my father's actions. Subsequently, the hate and anger rapidly dissipated as I became more aware of what his world comprised during the dark times. That's not to say I forget. That's not to say that I excuse him for the poor decisions he made. That is to say that through dialogue I was able to eliminate my feelings of hate and anger and move on with my life with a clearer understanding of the past.
The attack of September 11 caused many of us to react in hate and anger. There were numerous calls for violent retribution. And an unharnessed moment of emotional release is to be expected. As North Americans we have not encountered anything like this so close to home. We were scared. We wondered how could someone hate us so much?
My son is three years old. When he is scared he responds by crying, screaming, scratching, biting and occasionally hitting. We don't tolerate it...but as frustrated as we can get, we have not and will not "retaliate" by spanking him or hitting him. Instead we try to teach him that it's wrong to hit, that it's ok to be scared and upset, and in general to sit down and talk about it so that he can find the words to explain why he doesn't like this or that.
In many ways, we are a society of children who have not learned to articulate our fears and concerns properly. We've grown up in a system that has defined heroism as a masculine-no tears-no words-just action philosophy. This is a system that values expediency and efficiency. It's a go-go-go culture. It is a system built on fear. We are urged to climb to the top, where there is limited space, and along the way to stump on any damn toes that get in the path. We are afraid of weakness. Weakness means failure and failure is viewed by many as some sort of sin. As such we will do almost anything to overcome weakness (drinking, killing, stealing, boasting...the list is long). Is it any wonder that we have a proliferation of happy pills, depression, self-help books, self-help experts?
By the way, anyone remember the story of Icarus?
We are still that scared little kid who, thinking he saw something in the shadows, runs to his parents for comfort. We are a sheltered society. Our monsters are cardboard caricatures. Our monsters are Hollywood created Indians, Nazis and Bond villains. From pulp novels to cinema to television, U.S. culture has ingrained in our senses a very simplistic view of good and evil. Good is us. Bad is them. Good has reasons. Bad has no reasons. Good is free. Bad is jealous. We're in the 21st century and we're still living life as if it was a Disney film. Bin Laden. Indians. Dr. No. Dr. Evil. There is a difference, a big difference and yet the media does not differentiate and as such, rarely do we.
As Plato said a real long time ago, there are no evil men; there are only evil acts.
No one, in our minds, can justify the actions of September 11.
Everyone, in our minds, can justify the actions that began on October 7.
We were attacked without cause and we must defend our values or so it goes.
Oh...ok...but isn't that what the September 11 murderers say as well? They see their actions as retaliation against U.S. neglect of the Middle East and the murder of many innocent victims along the way?
"Oh...that's just propaganda. That's just hogwash."
Hey...maybe it is, but then again maybe there's something to it. Don't we owe it to ourselves to find out before retaliating? It's as if we think that Hussein and Bin Laden are extensions of Hollywood villains and that with one big swift kick to the ass, we will save the world from evil.
But...umm...correct me if I'm wrong...this isn't a Hollywood movie. Those aren't extras lying at the bottom of the World Trade Center; those are REAL bone and blood people. So if this isn't a Hollywood movie, does anyone here REALLY think that this new "war" is going to magically eradicate evil?
It is this blurring of fact and fiction that seems to me to be the root of the problem. Culture and propaganda have been so seamlessly weaved together. Too many people seem to believe the rhetoric of this thinly veiled propaganda that tells them they are the center of the world and that they are the beacons of peace, hope and freedom. But not far beyond this mask lies a face of intolerance. Why does an apparently confident nation always have to wave flags and sing songs about themselves? Why does a nation always remind us that they are the "greatest country in the world" or that their freedom is "God given?" Why would a nation that continually reminds us that they are peaceful and free bomb first and ask questions later? That doesn't seem like a logical extension of an apparent free and peaceful people, but it does seem like something a three year old would do.
Remember when you were a kid and despite having paint all over your hand, you passionately and defiantly pled innocence to the spilt paint next to you?
We spout out this rhetoric about how we are the symbols of peace and justice and yet our continent was founded through murder. Our European ancestors came here and committed genocide against the natives. (To this day, our treatment of natives is reprehensible.) Owing to our ever-increasing case of selective historical amnesia we are rarely reminded of this BIG RED stain on our hands. And this leads us to what the U.S. has done better than any other nation. They have created propaganda that has become almost indecipherable from culture. For example, U.S. mythology through pulp novels and John Wayne movies re-wrote the past by painting the Indians as just plain evil. No reason was ever given for their crazy violence except that they just hated the "white man." Not once was genocide ever mentioned, instead the Indians were defined in our collective unconscious as the "other" and therefore, bad. I need only point to George Bush's comment that you're either with us or for terrorism to show just how little things have really changed.
I remember the guy who runs the flight training school in Florida. He was surprised that the soon-to-be terrorists spoke "good American."
A century later mass media's influence has been a success. This fear of "the other" has become solidly ingrained in our imaginations. Yeah sure...we've got some mighty fancy words now like Arab-American, Afro-American and Native-American, but for the most part those are just pretty sounding words that cover a much deeper and complex racism. One need only point to the phrase "melting pot" or the post-11th hate crimes to see how useless words can be.
Is there no better example of this delusion than the flag waving, song singing and hand holding? Without doubt, these gestures provide comfort in the face of fear and that's a good thing. But eventually you have to confront that fear or you will never ever get to its root. As I watch people desperately clinging to these symbols, I almost get the sense that they are clicking their heels and nervously murmuring, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home," maybe now they are beginning to understand that they're not in Kansas anymore, and never have been. Unlike Dorothy, no amount of wizards, lions or magic wands are going to help us home.
Oh and by the way, I'm not saying we can't learn anything from Hollywood. At the end of Austin Powers there is a moment that's always stayed with me for whatever reason (well...I guess I know now) and that's when Austin comes face to face with Dr. Evil. Dr. Evil says, "You know Powers, you and I are not so different." And yes, I realize that it's a sly reference to the fact that one actor plays both roles, but there was something almost genuine and heartfelt in their exchange that stands out from the rest of the film. Similarly, but to a lesser degree, just check out ANY James Bond film. Who is Bond most comfortable and at home with (ok...besides the women!)? It's the damn villains. They share knowledge of wine, art, politics and food. Through it all the hero and villain have much in common. And if that doesn't convince you then check out the Star Wars trilogy. This provides us with perhaps the most enlightened and human view of "the other" that has come out of Hollywood. Darth Vader, the bastion of pure evil in the first two films, turns out to be the father of the damn hero. Turns out that he isn't such a bad guy but that he allowed himself to make stupid choices. I mean even the apparent good guys, Obi Wan and the green Muppet, are called into question for denying the truth from Luke Skywalker.
My dad, Darth Vader and Bin Laden; crazy, ain't it? It all comes back to the father. And hey, get this, it turns out the Bin Laden and Bush fathers have a long working relationship. How about that? Sure is a small world...after all.
"Words, words, words."
As long as we are breathing there is always hope but without the acquisition and application of knowledge, wisdom and empathy, all these words are just that, words.
So how DOES this all relate to animation, you ask? Well, let me at long last get to that point.
Art vs. Entertainment High vs. Low Civilized vs. Uncivilized Animation vs. Cartoons Us vs. Other Me vs. You Black vs. White Good vs. Evil Cowboys vs. Indians Either/Or
"You're either with us or you're with the terrorists," a man recently said.
Ahh...if only those labels we routinely apply to virtually all aspects of our life really reflected the realities of our complex existence. The problem with either/or scenarios is that it reduces multi-faceted entities to a single defining term. Think about the last time you called your kid a bad boy or bad girl. When they piss on the floor or scratch you or push a kid at the playground they are committing a bad deed, but are they really BAD people or merely struggling to articulate a feeling?
This binary logic suggests that only those on either side of the fence are united. Yet we all know that the world of entertainment or industry is not a single unified entity. It is not a simple umbrella faction of Disney, Warner, DreamWorks, Pixar, Klasky Csupo, Fox. Within their very umbrella there are many divergent interests and voices and visions with a specific geographical space. Can we apply the same sweeping labels to, for example, the U.K. industry and Aardman, Bolex Brothers, etc...? Broken down further the goals and aims of Aardman and Bolex are quite likely different. Just take a look at Tom Thumb. Beyond that where do we place the Bolex Brothers, Cuppa Coffee Animation (Toronto), Bermuda Shorts (London), FilmTecknarna (Stockholm) and other smaller studios who clearly straddle that supposed line between art and entertainment? Under those terms, we would then deem Father and Daughter, The Mermaid, The Cat Came Back as "art" films because they were made independently and not client driven. But is Father and Daughter really so different than Bambi or The Iron Giant? All are skillfully created and emotionally charged films. Evoking an emotion is an aim of these films and yet some would call Father and Daughter an art film and Bambi or The Iron Giant frivolous entertainment. Hell, many of the so-called entertainment animators like Bill Plympton, Nick Park and on it goes, have their roots in this supposed "other" art/independent animation world.
Perhaps it boils down to a question of "authenticity" or seeking something genuine. Are you making the film for money or for yourself? Are you putting your guts on the screen? With that light guiding us can we really fall back on this art vs. entertainment or animation vs. cartoons criteria? Surely the nine old folks at Disney made films with the same desire, passion and soul that Norman McLaren, Jiri Trnka and Jan Lenica did. Priit Pärn makes commercials. Igor Kovalyov makes The Rugrats movie. Nothing is cut and dry. Nothing is certain. One thing is certain: to say that THIS is THAT and THAT is THIS is misleading. In applying these labels we are assuming that all ART or ENTERTAINMENT are made under the same economic, racial, cultural, social and religious influences; that they are all made from the same level playing field. We know that's not the case.
The unique aspect of animation festivals, especially Annecy and hey, let me toot our horn Ottawa, is that we strive to shatter those boundaries and barriers. We strive to introduce you to different voices, beliefs and values of the filmmakers and even the organizers.
Forty years ago or so, the International Animator's Association attempted to shatter borders by bringing together Eastern and Western artists at festivals and various other events. At the same time, ASIFA was created to provide a forum for a faction of animation artists who felt that their voices were not being heard. In its time, what ASIFA achieved was outstanding. During the Cold War days, ASIFA maintained an ongoing channel of communication between the Western world and those behind the Iron Curtain. ASIFA was about creating a space not where values, beliefs and "isms" should be left at home, but instead a place where those "isms" could exist side by side in a meaningful dialogue with other "isms." Beliefs and values are a wonderful and necessary part of our natural foundation, but not to the degree that they alienate us from the views and beliefs of other people.
And that is the wonderful thing about festivals and something that online festivals will NEVER capture. I'm not calling for a fucking hugging session here, but festivals provide the opportunity for you to step outside the doors of your own world to view and hear the visions and ideas of your peers who are also stepping beyond their doors. Sure, you respond to some films by saying, "I love it," or "I hate it," but to learn anything from those valid emotional reactions you must try and apply some logic. You will wonder, "WHY did, or didn't, I like that film?" From there you try and articulate for yourself or a friend your reasoning. Without the balance of emotion and logic, what does I LOVE IT or I HATE IT mean? Nothing, they are, just empty words.
Chris Robinson is a writer, festival director, programmer, junky and has been called the John Woo of diplomacy. His hobbies include horseback riding, pudpulling, canoeing and goat thumping.