By Dan Sarto.
No other festival I’m aware of consistently generates as much controversy as does the Ottawa Festival. People may scratch their heads at the judging decisions in Annecy (insert favorite French joke here), but in Ottawa, beer-fueled grumbling and incessant whining are as much a part of the annual festivities as head-scratching competition screening introductions and the cavalcade of toothless panhandlers lining Rue Rideau.
Though I was able to catch all five competition screenings, several of the features and a couple of the special programs, scheduling conflicts and long distances between venues forced me to miss a number of the panorama screenings, which was unfortunate. This year, my favorite film of the festival was relegated to one of the International Showcases, and my absolute least favorite film, possibly of all time, was one of the official selections. I always hope to see as many showcases as possible, though they start falling off my schedule as the week goes by and cocktail hour starts earlier and earlier in the day.
Long ago I learned that there is no rhyme nor reason to the festival selection process, imperfect by design – 2,000 submissions means many worthy films will be passed over no matter how large the selection jury or deliberate the screening. People are going to be pissed and insulted, feelings will be hurt, barbs will be thrown at creative director Chris Robinson, accused of his annual vendetta and ongoing conspiracy against any film that has humor, story, cg or isn’t made in Estonia. The whole issue would be more absurd if the sentiment wasn’t so engrained – it never occurs to some people that the reason their work doesn’t get selected is because it’s just not that good. That certainly isn’t the case with many worthy films that only make panorama showcases or aren’t selected for any screenings at all. But it’s safe to say there are far more bad films made each year than good ones and way too many animators think much more highly of their work than anyone else does.
Despite the umbrage some people take with the selection process, the competition this year at Ottawa by and large was relatively solid. It has taken years, but I’ve finally learned the difference between films I don’t like and those I consider just plain “bad.” I’m still amazed at how often my thoughts on films differ wildly from those of friends and colleagues whose opinions I otherwise respect. For every screening I leave thinking “That was a pretty strong program,” I hear someone exiting the theatre lobby muttering under their breath about the “unbelievably shitty films” they’d just seen. Such is festival life. Indeed, such is life.
Each competition screening this year began with a high school film. These without exception were solid, surprisingly good films given the obvious disadvantage of youth and inexperience. Then again, the obvious advantage of age and experience doesn’t make some animators any good no matter how long they keep plodding along, so who am I to judge.
My favorite short film this year was not even selected for competition, instead taking up residence in International Showcase 2. German animators Martin Wallner and Stefan Leuchtenberg’s sophisticated cg film A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation describes the often harrowing emotional and physical journey a young man takes after the sudden and jarring loss of his father to cancer. Narrated with haunting familiarity by Ian McKellen, the film stars Joseph Fiennes as the young man, hurtling from one emotionally painful experience to another as he flees from the reality of his father’s passing. The story flows without lagging over a long 15 minutes, the cg is excellent, the imagery and design quite haunting at times.
From Competitions 3, 4 and 5 come a number of films that caught my attention. One of Don Hertzfeldt’s obvious gifts is the wicked, poignant and absurdly funny manner in which he uses the simplest of animation to tell his stories so crisply and to such effect. Always audience favorites, his films resonate because they touch on issues we all understand with a simple yet utterly unique minimalistic style that is irresistible to watch. The irony of his stories is made that much more effective by their cutting edge humor. His most recent film, Wisdom Teeth, is less worldly in its story than previous films, but no less funny and fun to watch. It’s also much shorter, which I think is always a good thing for any filmmaker.
This year’s Grand Prix went to Ireland’s David OReilly for his film The External World. OReilly’s film clearly establishes him as one of the more unique visual storytellers around, a seemingly disjointed collection of absurd segments following different characters as they go about the business of their everyday lives, set against the backdrop of a boy’s dysfunctional attempt at learning to play the piano. At 17 minutes, the film feels a tad long, if only because it’s hard to continually top the previous gag with an even better one. OReilly’s films can all be seen at his website . If you have a moment, please watch his 2009 film, Please Say Something, one of the most brilliant works I’ve ever seen.
In a departure from his normal narrative, Andreas Hykade’s Love & Theft morphs through a seemingly endless array of images, some vaguely Disney-esque, some grotesquely monstrous, in a set of circular patterns set to an ever increasingly thumping score. The images, initially rather small and without color, grow in size and complexity with the explosion of color midway through the piece. I never feel wasted motion in Andreas’ films and this is no exception.
Little Deaths, by Harvard University’s Ruth Lingford, won the prize for Best Experimental/Abstract film, which struck me odd. I enjoyed the film though I didn’t consider it to be either abstract or experimental, but then again, my idea of fine dining is wearing a long sleeve shirt to Sizzler. The film stitches together various abstractly animated segments, but they are set against a very linear progression of recorded interviews where people describe the experience of orgasm. Both the often unsettling dialogue and graphic visuals vary greatly from scene to scene as people recount their experiences and feelings in a mostly clinical fashion. What made this film even more interesting for me was listening to the whispered conversations amongst the 4 high school seniors sitting behind me in the theatre. I’d talked to them a bit prior to the screening – they’d just bussed in all the way from Nova Scotia just to attend the festival. One was an animator, the rest his friends. At one point in the film, I overheard one of the kids say “God, I just don’t understand what they’re talking about.” Ah, the innocent folly of youth.
New Zealand’s brother and sister duo Martin and Line Anderson’s film Going West is a neat little promotional film extolling the virtues of expanding one’s imagination through the power of reading. The pages of a book literally come alive with cutout dioramas and landscapes that tell a story of exploration and adventure. The film won the Grand Prix for Best Commissioned Animation. You can watch the entire film at their website http://www.andersenm.com/ 
Which brings me to the last film worth noting, Milk Milk Lemonade. The same studio that brought us so many good films, including all Andreas Hykade’s shorts and series work, brings us this film. It’s not my style to bag on anyone or anything too harshly, at least not publicly, but I cannot let this pass without comment. I’ll be brief. I understand that some art by design is made to evoke extreme response, sometimes of disgust, sometimes of outrage, sometimes of bewilderment. This film evokes all three. I cannot for the life of me understand how this film could ever have been funded and produced, let alone selected for competition. It is beyond comprehension. I’m not a prude, not easily offended. However the crudeness of this film was not unique, not edgy, and not funny. Even more amazing, this film was 15 minutes long. I sat in my seat and just kept wondering, “WTF!” Enough said.
And so I conclude my coverage of Ottawa 2010. I always thoroughly enjoy the event and this year was no exception. It’s a chance for me to catch up with so many friends and longtime professional acquaintances, to argue on and on about the virtues or faults of this film or that one, to rail at the “system” while at the same time recognizing its vital role in the community narrative. All this and a smoked meat sandwich to boot! We take life’s little pleasures wherever we can.