For many years, Brussels has been synonymous with the European Community. The capital of Europe is at the same time a thousand-year-old city with a million inhabitants who live and work there. Brussels is also the site of an animation festival which has developed its special character in the course of 16 successive events.
At the end of the 1970s, you could count on the fingers of one hand the non-Disney animation features that the Belgian public had seen; aside from George Dunning's The Yellow Submarine, René Laloux's Fantastic Planet, the Japanese Bella Donna and the various films of Ralph Bakshi, animation was a very rare commodity in Belgium. It was nonetheless attractive enough for a handful of film fans to have the absurd idea of creating an animation festival, baptized at that time as "Animation Conference."
That was 1982. The first "conference" assembled 1,500 people in a little auditorium of The Capital. The event proved sufficiently important for the association which organized it (The Parascholastic Confederation for Official Education) to decide to make it an annual event. Since then the festival has been held every year. The name changed from Conference to Animation Week (from 1984 to 1988), then Animation Festival (since 1989). The structure also changed: lodged for a while at an animation studio (Graphoui), since 1989 it has been organized by Folioscope, a nonprofit organization for which the festival is its principal activity. If the festival now attracts an average of 30,000 participants, and is partially decentralized in two other towns (Liège and Ghent), it has kept one essential characteristic from its origins: it appeals above all to the public, before being a rendezvous for professionals.
A Curious Public
We have often said at the festival that we've been lucky: The people of Brussels demonstrated a fine sense of curiosity, always ready to follow us in our divagations. Not blindly, for they recognized the difference between the wheat and the chaff. But we were always surprised to see how many people crowded in line to see the Quay Brothers, William Kentridge, David Anderson, Caroline Leaf and many others. Forty years of lowest-common-denominator TV (to make a generalization) had not dulled the alert senses of a considerable fringe of the Brussels public, and we were satisfied to know that we contributed to this in our own way. I confess we always mixed, with a pharmacist's care, the big hits, the concessions to popular taste, the new discoveries and . . . the inevitable provocations. Thus, on the opening program of one festival, the films of Phil Mulloy were screened side-by-side with more "polite" fare, and left a very strong impression on those who saw them . . .
The idea that screenings could provoke passionate controversy never bothered us!
Selection Without Competition
From the very beginning of the festival, we made one choice that we have kept right up to the present: not to have a competition with prizes. This gave us great freedom with our options, and apparently didn't discourage producers or filmmakers. Quite the contrary. Some of them were actually delighted to discover the reactions of a "true" public. The fact of having, before all else, to account for the economic viability of the festival, has dictated certain choices that we don't have to blush about: Eight years after first appearing at Annecy and other festivals, the Aardman Studios scored a triumph at Brussels with the first retrospective dedicated to their work! In 1984, John Lasseter was one of our first invited guests: He came to present 30 seconds of computer animation; he formed lasting bonds with Brussels. Tim Burton was there the same year. His Vincent fascinated everyone, on a program we christened "Animation of the 80s."
The programs at the Brussels Festival have a special taste--it may seem pretentious for us to say it ourselves, but we really believe it sincerely. The absence of a competition gives us the right to be very subjective in our choices, and not have to make sacrifices for the sake of being diplomatic. Undoubtedly that's why British animation has been so abundantly represented these last few years. We couldn't help it: they are often remarkable. And that never hindered us from showing films from Albania, Mali, Portugal, Ukraine, or . . . Belgium.
A Showcase for Belgium
Why not admit it: we're happy to be able to further Belgian animation; but things are clear--in our international selection, there is never a question of representing Belgium. On the contrary, the screenings devoted explicitly to Belgium permit foreigners to get some idea of the indigenous production, which is one of our specialties.
Belgium is composed of three distinct linguistic communities (French, Flemish and German), so we are (like all composite entities) well acquainted with linguistic and cultural frictions. The Brussels Festival, while French-speaking, has never ostracized other communities--on the contrary. Flemish productions are often well-represented, when their quality fully justifies it. Similarly, the festival is conducted in three languages: French, Dutch and English.
A Nonrestrictive Definition
Animation, for the Festival of Brussels, has never been a little closed world, where certain elect ones take pleasure in mutual congratulations. That means, among other things, that the definition we use for "animation" is not very restrictive: when we find a film interesting, we would never deprive the audiences from seeing it under the pretext that it doesn't belong with animation in some technical sense. Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave and Jim Henson's Dark Crystal were thus programed at the festival--to the great amazement of some.
I still see the look of scepticism we got from certain people when we decided to have a retrospective of computer-generated images, including flight-simulation footage! That was in 1987, and the films were projected in video, which was an another heresy for the purists. Since then, who would dare exclude computer-generated images from an animation festival? . . .
But enough memories about old battles . . .
Children constitute a good fourth of the world audience for festivals: they come in droves, in the afternoons, with their parents. We always seek ties with the educational community. For this type of school screening, we devote the better part to a feature-length film. Disney is always preferred, but programs of short films from many different countries (introduced by live actors) also give a diverse image of worldwide production. China and the countries of Northern and Eastern Europe have always found an attentive audience.
Every year about 100 short films are screened at the festival. Some figure in retrospectives devoted to a filmmaker, a studio or (less frequently) a theme. Beside the great classics like Frédérick Back, Paul Grimault, Yuri Norstein, Jan Svankmajer or Paul Driessen, we like to turn the spotlight on people a little less known, such as Paul and Menno de Nooijer, Barry Purves, Marv Newland, Jacques Rouxel, Michael Dudok Dewit,. . .
But the festival's star programs are certainly the official selection screenings, where films from the four corners of the globe are shown without any hierarchy, in programs we put together based on aesthetics, content and humor. At Brussels, we like films with meaning, films that have guts--something lacking in so many exercises in frame-by-frame "style."
A Staff With Variable Geometry
Expositions (Starevitch, Kratky Film . . .), seminars, a studio for children, "Making of . . ." programs (for the last 10 years, they have already included such different people as the Aardman crew, Kihachiro Kawamoto, representatives of ILM, PDI, Pixar, Rhythm & Hues, and Fantôme . . .) fill out a festival on which a team of three people work all year long. For the three months just prior the festival, they are joined by many others: at first six, then 12, multiplying up to the festival's opening night! They remain a stable group until the festival is over (one hopes, more or less), then the crew rapidly returns to its original three.
Previewing films, finding sponsors, answering letters and returning prints on time, putting stamps on tons of letters, dealing with a lot of people--that's the daily life of Folioscope. That's how one animation festival lives among others, with its little troubles and its great emotions.
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Philippe Moins created the Brussels Animation Festival in 1982, and currently co-directs it with Doris Cleven.