As the 2023 cohort gathers at Annecy, the inaugural group of women animators from underrepresented communities - selected by FIAPF and Women in Animation - that came together at the festival last year share their valuable lessons learned, development triumphs and challenges, and how special – and critical – the mentoring and support they’ve received has been to their projects and careers.
On Tuesday, June 13, the 47th edition of the Annecy International Animation Film Festival – Annecy 2023 - kicked off its ever-expanding MIFA Film Market with a focused, curated selection of eclectic, global story pitches from this year’s Stories x Women workshop participants.
Established last year by the International Federation of Film Producers’ Associations (FIAPF) and Women in Animation (WIA), the program provides international opportunities to women animators - chosen from a competitive pool of 130+ candidates – working diligently to tell authentic stories from emerging animation communities in Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America, with the chance to participate in a series of mentoring sessions led by internationally recognized animation experts, as well as 1:1 coaching sessions preparing them to pitch their projects at Annecy.
"Our industry, in particular its production segment, is committed to bringing new stories and new voices to audiences across the world,” says Luis Alberto Scalella, President of FIAPF. “Stories x Women supports the work of women animators from regions that are less visible in the international market and is an extra contribution to the collective efforts made by this industry in that field. As the global voice for producers worldwide, FIAPF promotes all forms of film genres, including animation and its universal language.”
WIA president Marge Dean adds, "For 10 years, WIA has been focused on reaching 50/50 gender parity in animation by 2025. The Stories x Women program aligns perfectly with our mission of supporting and empowering people of underrepresented gender identities in animation. It’s actively removing barriers faced by women and gender non-conforming creatives and making space for them to tell their authentic stories.”
This year, five projects from the program are being featured during the festival and market, including Superpunk from Brazil’s Mirtes Santana (with Guilherme Petreca), Negocio de Brujas (Witch's Business) from Chile’s Paulina Sanhueza Meléndez (with Alejandra Jaramillo Fanta), Nerea from the Dominican Republic’s Fabiola Contreras Rosso (with Arima Léon), The Golden Pig from Malaysia’s Hwei Ling Ow (with Kate Goodwin) and, last but not least, Papo Hapo from Türkiye/Kenya’s Irmak Atabek Ndungu (with Mbithi Masya).
In celebration of a successful second year of Stories x Women, AWN revisited the first year’s projects, chatted with each team about their experiences growing and learning within the program, as well as where the projects are at now. The discussions shared here actually started during an exceptionally rewarding and emotional meeting with the team and AWN publisher Dan Sarto at Annecy 2022.
From Ojo Raro Studios in Argentina, Santa Sombra is a bloody, vengeance-rich animated story from first-time director Paula Boffo of Sukermercado Visual Storytelling and co-director and producer Patricio Plaza, an Annecy veteran (El Empleo at Annecy 2010 and Padre at Annecy 2014).
Based on an award-winning graphic novel of the same name by Boffo, Santa Sombra, or Holy Shadow, tells the story of Juana, an indigenous teenage girl from the Argentinian Highlands, whose sister is abducted by a trafficking ring. To rescue her, Juana makes a deal with dark spirits. As the anti-heroine’s power increases, so does her thirst for blood and revenge, pushing her to the limits of her own humanity.
“Our project is very adult,” notes Boffo, whose fellow Stories x Women participants elected to go the kid-friendly entertainment route. “It's about very difficult, political things and we deal with a lot of very strong issues in a very sharp way. So, we need to make sure no one destroys it or turns it into a more commercialized thing. We all want to tell stories that make people think, whether the story focuses on school teenagers, little kids, or even adults. We all want to say something. We all want to put something on the table and make people shift their mindset.”
When Boffo and Plaza were first accepted into the Stories x Women program, Boffo was worried about the legitimacy of her attendance, and whether or not her ambitions would be seriously received.
“I was very insecure about myself because I thought, ‘I’m a nobody. I'm 28 and I don’t have that much experience in the industry,’” she recalls. “And I thought I lacked the experience to present myself and our project in front of so many professional people. But I feel like I've learned so much on how to manage things in the market. I now understand that we're all just people talking about possibilities. You really do feel like you’re going to have a panic attack before a meeting and we have to remember, ‘Chill out. You’re just talking to people.’”
Plaza adds, “It’s been an emotional ride for everyone. We have all made contacts here. We know each other's names, we’ve seen each other’s faces, and now it's the time. Now the ball is in our court, and we need to think about where are we heading.”
Santa Sombra’s graphic novel was published in Argentina last year and Boffo has already run out of copies in less than six months. She’s printing the second run right now. And their animated adaptation has been structured as a feature film following the graphic novel’s main format. Boffo and Plaza joined MIANMIA’s mentorship program for a short period of time and Boffo notes she has a handful of meetings this year at Annecy regarding the project.
“The first time I met Patricio for this project, he asked me, ‘Are you willing to spend years and years of your life on this?’ And I said, ‘Yes I am,’” remembers Boffo. “It’s a long-term relationship, but at least we know we’re not doing it alone. In animation, you need to have patience because things take a very long time. And that’s just good advice for life.”
The project’s short film, which has served as a teaser, has been part of a queer program of animation films that is being screened all around Argentina and other festivals worldwide, Boffo shares. The author/director hopes that, in time, Santa Sombra will inspire other Argentinian creatives to take a leap with their own stories.
“I want all my people from Argentina to present themselves to this program because I think that it's a very important step to launching ourselves out into this market,” she says. “I learned this industry can be very kind and very warm. Everybody's very happy to meet people and share ideas. It's been a lot and I'm overwhelmed, but in a good way. Animation certainly makes you work on your anxiety.”
Cotton Bottom Town
Geared toward kids ages seven and up, Cotton Bottom Town is a chaotic and fun 2D animated story about a group of children living in a city covered by a giant pink cloud of smog that turns adults into zombies. Like we said, it’s glorious chaos. The kids must solve multiple mysteries in order to save themselves from their destiny of becoming adults and, thus, also zombies.
The film, which won the MIFA Annecy award at Ventana Sur in December 2021, is directed and produced by Luisa Fernanda Velasquez with co-director Andrés Felipe Rodriguez who has worked previously at Titmouse Inc., Baobab Studios, and Mexico’s Ánima Estudios.
“The project gives a different view on what children are and a different perspective on childhood,” says Rodriguez. “It’s about enjoying childhood, enjoying the present, as well as gives insight into all the pressures we put on children to get them to grow up. The story comes from Latin America, but it’s a global topic and mission.”
The creative duo says their participation in Stories x Women truly paid off, as it provided them with, in their words, “invaluable visibility.” Since joining the program, Rodriguez and Velasquez’s series pilot, Astropackers, recently won the Best Episodic Short award at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) just a couple weeks ago. Secondly, the two creatives have been actively working on their short film, Where is My Espresso?
“We're making steady strides towards Cotton Bottom Town’s development, although it's been slow going,” says Velasquez. “Currently, our main focus is securing funding to propel the project forward. Truthfully, the most important thing for us at Annecy was to meet people and meet the incredible stories of other women.”
Velasquez explains that she and Rodriguez come from countries where the animation industry is small, but that they have a lot of big stories to tell from the heart and ideas on how to change the world.
“We can inspire change with our stories, and we have felt very supported by everyone there,” she says. “The biggest challenge will be not to let the challenging parts of this journey stop us from telling stories or silence our voices. Many times, I silence my own voice and it's really important that does not happen. As a woman, I need to show that it’s possible to tell stories I know are important.”
Rodriguez adds, “We have a lot of limitations. We have a language limitation. We have the feeling like we don't always trust in what we do. So, there are days we feel very small. But we need to tell these stories and have the confidence that they matter and the confidence to make it happen, because it could change things for us.”
La Carpeta de Greta (Greta's Journal)
A utopia of cute, colorful, crocheted characters, La Carpeta de Greta, or Greta’s Journal, is directed and produced by Elva Alessandra Arrieta Tabuzo and associate produced by Saul David Anampa Mesias of Wuf Studio, Peru’s only stop-motion animation studio.
Featuring characters made of felt and other fabrics created by Peruvian artisans, Greta tells the story of a five-year-old girl who spends her days exploring the world with her musical best friends in the Peruvian highlands.
“In Peru, a representation of little girls, or representing preschool children in television, and in a global way, doesn’t exist,” shares Arrieta Tabuzo. “We are working with Peruvian artisans to make the art, and in that way, we are connecting our own many traditions from Peru. But, at the same time, we’re mixing it with something that also relates to kids worldwide, who grow up in this era and have technology and the internet.”
Arrieta Tabuzo notes that there are many other great animated projects being developed in Peru, like Greta’s Journal, but that very few independent creatives know what the next steps are to see their dreams through to reality. Luckily her and Mesias were gifted with the chance to be showered in resources from the people at Stories x Women.
“Sometimes, I felt hopeless because I didn’t know what the next step would be to make our own project come true,” Mesias shares. “But being there helped me realize there are possibilities and I returned to Peru with those possibilities in mind. Even if I don't know what is going to happen with the project, I know that I can try many ways to make it true. I hope that what we’ve learned here we can pass along to other storytellers in our country.”
Currently, Greta’s Journal’s development is being assisted by an animation head who is also searching for partners, co-producers, and other resources.
“We realize that it won't be easy, and we will need to have patience,” says Mesias. “But no matter the decision, it will take time and it will require us being perseverant.”
Arrieta Tabuzo adds, “Sometimes, when you come to a market, you have to sell and it's so overwhelming all the time. But when you have people that are going through the same things, and with whom you share the same feelings, we can sit and talk about how our day was and how we are doing. This is our first time here, and there’s a lot we don’t know. But we have been so supported by others here and I am really grateful for that creative openness.”
Inspired by her own childhood and plushy-making mother, Indian writer and director Saraswathi Vani Balgam’s Gannu is a hybrid 2D-3D project, produced by Thailand’s Aimsinthu Ramasoot. Gannu follows the adventures of a group of children and their imaginary elephant friend, Gannu – a goofy, easily distracted genie, whose bag of magical seeds allows the children to open doors to adventures in worlds powered by their imagination.
“I think we were chosen for the Stories x Women program because our project has so much heart,” says Vani. “I've invested a huge amount of time and energy, since I was a child, to be where I am today. And, after quitting my job at DreamWorks, after being in a very senior level executive position, to be able to take that risk and say, can I back myself? And at a time when nobody was willing to back me other than a few friends. It was a journey for me, to accept myself as a creator and to put myself out there and to go through these last seven years to say, ‘I'm going to be focused. I'm going to go there and I'm going to call myself the creator, writer, and producer of my show.”
Vani says her project is about celebrating friendship, being authentic, and knowing how much one’s voice matters.
“It’s also about legacy for me,” says the director. “My father came here to Annecy in 1984 and he pitched at MIFA. People were not ready for him. 36 years later, I'm here and we are here, and we need to be heard.”
The instruction and guidance Vani and Ramasoot received at Stories x Women, she says, was invaluable. Instructors told them that Gannu’s aim was clear but that the art didn’t show it, at least, not at the time. The workshop also gifted Gannu and the rest of the Stories x Women projects the credibility to approach a larger network of people to involve with development.
“We creatives are so fragile and so vulnerable and so at the edge of having a meltdown because there's nothing else in front of us except for these projects that we have invested in,” says Vani. “So, I think the nurturing nature that the women at WIA and FIAPF have brought to the program is phenomenal. I feel like I belong here, like we all belong here. And to know that there are some phenomenal, passionate, and whirlwind of people in this room, whose lives I am now a part of, I know I'm a part of history and my creative family has expanded.”
In addition to aiming to get a greenlight on the show from people who respect her vision, Vani is also working on building a team of “passionate, talented people who I feel have the potential to shine.”
“A mantra I've always believed, which my parents taught me, is that there is abundance in this universe,” says the director. “And I want to really believe that and that it'll come to all of us. In the meantime, we continue to strive and pitch the project.”
This one is a bit of a Cinderella story. Pulane’s Adventures, though not on the initial Stories x Women roster, was selected after the crew behind Miss Camel was unable to attend. Yet, Pulane’s Adventures has had tremendous luck since its MIFA showcasing.
Led by South African Buthano Pictures duo Nompi Vilakazi - writer, director, and producer - and executive producer Tracy Stucki, the 2D animated film for children aged four to six tells the story of a curious six-year-old who goes on musical adventures with the African art her singing brings to life.
“It deals with the universal preschool experience of exploring the world and learning about yourself,” notes Vilakazi. “But what's unique about it is that you not only have this character, who you normally would not see in animation from this particular part of world, but also the idea of having this character go on adventures with African art. The African art element for us was particularly very interesting because the series focuses on this intergenerational experience of art being passed down and also going into this magical fantastical world where the objects talk.”
She continues, “It's a fun adventure, which is relatable for children all over the world. But Pulane’s world is different and the way these kids look is different and it's very much a part of what we like to do, to see positive images of African children and African families on the TV screen.”
Pulane’s musical adventure and all the visual art in the series will be supported by the musical aspect of the animation as well. “We’re introducing kids to African art from the entire continent, really exposing them to this culture and giving them access, which hasn't really been done before,” explains Stucki. “Now is the time for women's stories, diverse stories. We’ve been working on this story for a number of years now and this program has accelerated our ability to have meetings and interact with people.”
Now, these women creators are reaping the rewards. Vilakazi reports that the two have begun work on the National Film and Video Foundation animation development slate, which they were awarded recently. Stucki and Vilakazi are developing four TV series and three feature films, while being funded for the next three years. One of the projects they are developing in the slate is Pulane's Adventures.
“It is our intention for these shows to make it from development into production, so we are therefore looking for a variety of partners who can help us make this a reality,” says Vilakazi. “We've been preparing for a long time for this moment.”
Despite the fact that both women are bringing a fresh story and fresh eye to animated preschool storytelling, they say it’s tough navigating an industry that's also always changing, so it's not only them being fresh creatives in the space, but it's also about them being in a space that's regularly, “figuring it itself out.”
“Every single one of us was at different stages of our projects when we came together at Stories x Women, but we were all met with the support we needed, the guidance we needed at that time, in each of our journeys,” Vilakazi concludes.
Rorisang & the Gurlz
Deviating from producing their usual medical-based animated films, South Africa’s Cabblow Studios is now developing an animation project that’s inspired by co-founder Kabelo Maaka’s time in an R&B band in a private, conservative school.
“Before we started this project, the pitch deck was so rough,” says Kabelo. “And then, as we went through this mentorship, they helped us pick out the hook of our project, which is this new take on the teen coming-of-age genre through a girl who wants to create her own Afro-pop band at her conservative school. It’s a story that comes literally from my life. It’s cool to be able to create something sellable that comes from my own unique experiences. It’s also unique to see a Black, mother-daughter duo in animation from South Africa.”
Kabelo’s mother, Dr. Tshepo P. Maaka (or Dr. T), co-founder of the studio, serves as a producer on the project, called Rorisang & the Gurlz. It’s the biggest animation project the studio has ever tackled, first creating Rorisang as a weekly WebToon (with new chapters still releasing each week) as well as an Instagram and Tik Tok page. And, most recently, Rorisang and her band became tourism ambassadors in their first public animation for events guide “What's On in Cape Town.”
“When Kabelo and I got the message that says we were coming here, we both cried because a few hours earlier we were declined by a South African group we had pitched Rorisang to,” recalls Dr. T. “So, we were mourning and lamenting and then the email came and said, ‘Congratulations…’ That's all we saw. Congratulations. And we cried. It felt divinely ordered. For us, God has shown up. It has worked out from A to Z and I want to say to the women here, thank you for making this happen.”
Cabblow Studios has been around since 2017, and Kabelo was an animator for many years prior. Yet, she says her confidence in her abilities as an animation storyteller is shockingly low. “I've always been confident in my drawing skills, but I don’t think I’ve ever been confident in my storytelling skills,” she says. “Being at Stories x Women and MIFA was the first time I realized I could truly tell a story from start to finish that was engaging, compelling and actually funny.”
As Dr. T, who also serves as the studio’s director of business development, anxiously awaits the day she and Kabelo sign a contract for Rorisang, Kabelo concludes with a word of advice to young female creatives like her and Boffo.
“We are capable,” states Kabelo. “Don’t let things stagnate until the next competition or workshop. Always be taking little steps toward progress, even if it’s just updating your pitch deck. And never forget the moments where you level up.”