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Animafest Zagreb 2008

Nancy Denny-Phelps reports from the festival known for its relaxed atmosphere and warmth, where big changes were in evidence this year.

Estonian animator Priit Parn and his wife Olga Marchenko with the Lifetime Achievement Award that Parn received at the opening night ceremony. Unless noted, photos courtesy of Nancy Denney-Phelps.

Estonian animator Priit Parn and his wife Olga Marchenko with the Lifetime Achievement Award that Parn received at the opening night ceremony. Unless noted, photos courtesy of Nancy Denney-Phelps.

I arrived in Zagreb, Croatia for Animafest 2008 (May 31-June 5) early on the morning of the 31st after a 22-hour train ride from my home in Gent, Belgium. (Luckily this ride proved to be much less eventful than my train trip to Russia two years ago.) In the past I have looked forward to the festival because of its warm hospitality and relaxed atmosphere. Since there is a totally new administration running the festival this year, many people had been curious as to how it would operate and what direction it would take. There were many big changes this year, most crucially with longtime festival director Margrit Antauer (affectionately known to her friends as Buba) being replaced.

I found the 18th edition of the festival to be a mixture of good and bad. The staff was very friendly and tried to do everything that they could to make their guests feel at home. Unfortunately, most of them lacked experience running an animation festival, which showed in the inadequate attention to small details.

Everyone was treated to a lovely meal every afternoon, but there were only enough places for about half the group to sit down. When I asked why enough seating hadn't been provided, the answer was, "We wanted everyone to mingle." Unfortunately it was hard to mingle with a plate of food in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

It was not until half-way through the festival that foreign guests were provided with daily English-language schedules. The program guide had a weekly schedule in Croatian with a color-coded key on the side in English, but unfortunately many of the colors were very similar, so unless you were in bright sunlight it was very difficult to tell some of the color shades apart. As much as we would all like to speak our host countries' languages, an international festival must provide all information in English as well as the native tongue.

Animafest has traditionally been held the week after Annecy, which was perfect timing for those of us who attend many festivals. After a frantic week of running around and trying to see everything and everyone at Annecy, I always looked forward to a week where both screening rooms were in the same building and you could just walk out of a screening and find lots of friends in the front or back bar. I also missed the long lunches and dinners at the little restaurant behind the festival headquarters. I did make one pilgrimage to the family-run café and had a delicious calamari dinner, but missed the easy proximity of good company from years past.

Instead of the festival being in one central location with two screening rooms, this year's Animafest was located in the center of town, using three separate theaters, an outdoor screening area, and two exhibition spaces. The three locations were not too far apart, but given the torrential downpours we had this year (for which the festival organizers cannot be held responsible), it would have been lovely to have all the screenings at one site as had been done in the past.

Even though the main theater had a café with a few tables, there was not enough room for lots of us to gather after a screening and so I spent a good bit of time just trying to meet up with friends. In the future, the festival should create an inviting, convenient gathering spot with tables and chairs spacious enough to accommodate large groups. Animators go to festivals not only to watch films, but also to talk to each other.

The opening night ceremony was held at Gliptoteka, a lovely open-air cinema in the Old Town area of Zagreb, about a 15-minute walk from festival headquarters. It was very nice once we found it. British animator Martin Pickles and I walked for 45 minutes looking for the location. The small map that we were given sent us up the hill, where we indeed found an open-air theater, but it was the wrong one. I talked to several other people who had the same problem with the map the first night.

The opening night screening was a cross-section of films that arrived too late to be juried for competition, but that Artistic Director Kreshimir Zimonic and the Animafest team deemed worthy of viewing. It is a shame that such wonderful films as Koji Yamamura's Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor, Suzie Templeton's Academy Award-winning Peter and the Wolf and Michaela Pavlatova's Carnival of Animals could not be in competition, but it was nice to see them again on the big screen.

Theodore Ushev, Buba (former head of Animafest Zagreb), Paloma Quinn Mills and Joanna Quinn at opening night.

Theodore Ushev, Buba (former head of Animafest Zagreb), Paloma Quinn Mills and Joanna Quinn at opening night.

The highlight of the evening was the awarding of the Zagreb Animafest Lifetime Achievement Award to Estonian animator Priit Parn. There were three screenings of Priit's impressive body of work, as well as a showing of Parnography, Hardi Volmer's brilliant 2005 documentary about Priit and his work. Hors d'oeurves and drinks were served at the end of the evening.

The amphitheater was a lovely setting for opening night, but, unfortunately, totally the wrong place for the premier Grand Competition screenings. Two competition programs were shown each evening. The first program was scheduled to start at 21h00 (9:00 p.m.), but since it didn't get dark until 21h30 (9:30 p.m.), it always ran late. The second program scheduled for 23h00 (11:00 p.m.) also began about a half hour behind schedule. It was very cold in the late-night open air, and although the staff did provide blankets when they realized how chilly it was, many people left early, and the blankets didn't solve some of the other major problems.

Unfortunately, many members of the audience treated the screening as though they were at a drive-in movie, getting up in the middle of films to buy beer, lighting cigarettes and even talking during the screening. I felt very sorry for the animators whose films were shown during the second screening session, but as I told one filmmaker, at least those of us who were still there really wanted to see the films. The Competition Programs were rescreened in the main screening room the following evening, but, unlike previous years, animators were only offered four days of festival hospitality and several of the filmmakers had to leave on the morning following their first screening and missed the chance to be introduced in front of the larger Main Theater audience. Some animators tried to find hotel rooms at their own expense so they could stay after their allotted time, but there were several other festivals occurring in town that same week, so every hotel was already fully booked.

By and large I felt that the Grand Competitions were very weak. I don't know if this is due to the fact that not enough good films were submitted or that the selection committee had very strange taste. Since the short film competition takes place every two years, I have seen many fine works that fit in this time frame at other festivals. There were a few very excellent films screened, such as George Schwizgebel's beautiful painted-on-cel animation Jeu and Luis Cook's The Pearce Sisters.

Dennis Tupicoff and Nancy Denny-Phelps.

Dennis Tupicoff and Nancy Denny-Phelps.

One very nice surprise was She Who Measures by Veljko Popovic, who was born in the gorgeous seacoast town of Split, Croatia. This beautifully executed 3D film asks the question, "Are we truly free? Are we slaves to the culture and society that we were born into or is there a way to escape?"

Doxology by Michael Langan from San Francisco brought back a flood of memories when I saw a scene depicting the cliffs above Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Nik and I used to walk our dogs in that exact spot every day. It was a lovely surprise to see that Copenhagen Cycles by United States animator Eric Dyer, with music by my husband Nik, was included in the third-night competition program.

Far and away the best parts of the festival for me were the special programs. "Anima Docs" alone was well worth the entire trip to the festival. Curated by Erik van Durnen and Gerben Schermer for the International Documentary Film Festival 2007 in Amsterdam, the five programs give us a chance to decide for ourselves if the animated documentary is fiction posing as reality or not.

Winsor McCay's 1916 Sinking of the Lusitania is an obvious propaganda piece designed to stir up anti-German sentiments during WWI. At the other end of the spectrum, in Springtime in Sant Ponc (2007), Swiss animators Eugenia Mumenthaler and David Epiney filmed the results of a drawing workshop for mentally handicapped people, giving us a glimpse into their thoughts and fears via animation.

Even though I have seen John Canemaker's beautifully animated The Moon and the Son many times, it never fails to completely enthrall me. Dennis Tupicoff's gut-wrenching film His Mother's Voice moved the entire audience. This Australian film uses the voice-over of a mother whose son was shot, with visuals created by Dennis. He told me that he had originally heard the woman talking in a radio interview, which had such an emotional impact on him that he had to animate her story.

"Out of Africa" brought to the screen animation from the entire African continent. The special "Africa Kids" program was for children of all ages. The 35 films in the four screenings covered diverse topics, from political and social issues to folk legends, in styles including puppet animation, cut and drawn animation and 2D animation. The screenings gave me a window into a vast, diverse continent that I regret to say I do not know enough about.

Clare Kitson, renowned animation researcher, author and former curator at Britian's National Film Theater, was the recipient of this year's Outstanding Achievement in Animation Theory award. Clare was scheduled to receive her award on opening night, along with Priit Parn, but her flight was delayed and she did not arrive on time, so the honor was bestowed the next night before the Grand Competition screenings.

Regina Pessoa presented an exhibition of original studies and designs for her award-winning film Tragic Story with a Happy Ending. © 2005 Folimage, Ciclopes Filmes, National Film Board of Canada.

Regina Pessoa presented an exhibition of original studies and designs for her award-winning film Tragic Story with a Happy Ending. © 2005 Folimage, Ciclopes Filmes, National Film Board of Canada.

Clare was also part of the "Meet the Authors" sessions, and it was fascinating to hear her speak about the time she spent in Russia talking with Yuri Norstein for her award-winning book Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales. The book not only looks at a film that is considered to be one of the greatest animations ever made, but also delves deeply into the personal references with which Norstein infused the film.

To further her understanding of Eastern-bloc animation, she learned Russian, which enabled her to talk to Norstein without the aid of an interpreter. As curator of the British National Film Theater, Clare opened the eyes and minds of British audiences to animation from around the world, especially Russian and Eastern European works that had been unknown until then in Western Europe. The "World Classics" program presented by Clare included such great films as Chuck Jones's immortal What's Opera, Doc? and Raoul Servais' Harpya. For those who had heard her speak the day before about Yuri Norstein and his wonderful film Tale of Tales, but hadn't had the opportunity to see the film, she included it in her program.

At the final installment of Priit Parn's retrospective tribute, I once again saw classic films that I love, such as Karl and Marilyn and Night of the Carrots. We also got to view several of the commercials that he has made. His wife Olga Marchenko joined him on stage to talk about their first collaboration, the 2007 film I Feel a Lifelong Bullet in the Back of my Head, which is part of an Estonian poetry/animation project. They went on to discuss their new film Life without Gabriella Ferri, which they were going to finish editing once they arrived back in Estonia. As a special surprise we were also treated to Raphaell Gianelli Meriano's new short documentary Night Without the Pope, which shows Priit and Olga at home on the occasion of his 60th birthday. You get a private glimpse into how these two creative people work, as they draw together, while singing a duet, on a glass window at their home overlooking the Baltic Sea.

As part of the "Women in Animation" screenings, Joanna Quinn presented two programs of films that have had a significant influence on her career. An Animafest "Historical Overview" screened women's films, travelling in time from the 1933 French film Night on Bald Mountain by Claire Parker and Alexander Alexeioff, to Jean Gratz's 1992 Mona Lisa Descending A Staircase. Croatian women animators were also spotlighted in a special screening, and a special presentation of Lotte Reiniger's Adventures of Prince Achmed was accompanied by a live piano score as part of this salute.

A pair of "Best of Polish Animation" programs focused on films created between 1997 and 2007, and panel discussions covered such topics as "The Animated Documentary: Fiction or Reality," "Film in Africa" and "Women in Animated Film."

The jury cited Andreas Hykade's strong, simple design and direction in awarding The Runt the Golden Zagreb Prize. © Andreas Hykade.

The jury cited Andreas Hykade's strong, simple design and direction in awarding The Runt the Golden Zagreb Prize. © Andreas Hykade.

Many of us took the funicular up to the Old Town for the opening of Portuguese filmmaker Regina Pessoa's exhibition of original studies and designs for her film Tragic Story with a Happy Ending. The exhibit was beautifully presented, showing the various steps that she went through to create her award-winning film. The setting in the Campana Latrunculorum ("The Bell of Thieves") was equally charming. The 13th-century tower is located at the site of the old city wall and the bell was rung every night to signal the closing of the city gates.

ASIFA Croatia hosted a lovely brunch for the ASIFA members at the festival. Buba (former head of Animafest Zagreb and vice president of ASIFA Croatia) and Vesna Dovnikovic (secretary of ASIFA International) brought tasty and powerful traditional Croatian liquors, which truly added to the festive air of the party. A good time was had by everyone.

The festival was full of new, young faces and I had the feeling that the organizers were aiming to attract these young, hip animators, in contrast to past years, with the many familiar faces that made this festival an event I looked forward to. Many of the animators that I talked to had never been to Zagreb before, so they had nothing to compare it to.

I am sure the organizers and staff have their hearts in the right place and hopefully they learned a lot this year. Unfortunately, it takes more than a good programmer and the presence of animators to make a well-run festival. Animafest needs a good administrator who knows not only film, but also the mechanics of running a festival and hosting the filmmakers who inhabit this special world. I hope that by the next festival I will once again be able to say that Animafest is a must-attend event.

I feel that the juries did an excellent job with the films they were given, so, without further ado, here are the results:

Grand Competition

Jury: Joanna Quinn (Great Britain), Moustapha Alassane (Niger), Caroline Leaf (U.S./Canada/Great Britain), Igor Kovaljov (Russia/USA) and Danijel Suljic (Croatia)

Grand Prize (festival statue, cash award of 2,500 Euros, and honorary presidency at the next festival): The Pearce Sisters (Luis Cook, Great Britain) -- "For its original and unique graphics and direction which pulls us into the bleak world of two misfit characters."

Golden Zagreb Prize (festival statue and cash award of 2,000 Euros): The Runt (Andreas Hykade, Germany) -- "The jury has given the Golden Zagreb to the film we consider the second film of the festival for its strong, simple, clear design and direction which delivers a powerful and shocking message."

Zlatko Grgic Prize (best first production apart from educational institutions; festival statue and cash award of 1,500 Euros): Hezurbelzak, The Common Grave (Izibene Onederra, Spain) -- "For its anarchic stream of consciousness to pursue her stream of vision."

Three Special Prizes at the Discretion of the Jury

KJFG No. 5 (Aleksei Alekseev, Hungary) -- "For its excellent humor."Forecast (Adriaan Lokman, The Netherlands) - "For best non-narrative film."Madame Tutli-Putli (Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, Canada)

Three Special Mentions at the Discretion of the Jury

Sony Bravia: Play-doh (Frank Budgen and Darren Walsh, Great Britian) -- "To a visually surprising commercial."The Beloved Ones (Samantha Moore, Great Britain/Uganda) -- "For its message, told in a personal, accessible way."She Who Measures (Veljko Popovic, Croatia) -- "For using 3D animation in an organic and handcrafted way."

Student Competition

Jury: Regina Pessoa (Portugal), Helena Klakocar Vuksic (The Netherlands/Croatia), Saeed Tavakolian (Iran), Erik van Drunen (The Netherlands), Nedzad Begovic (Bosnia Herzegovina) -- "We travelled through an artistic universe in 78 films. We enjoyed the quality and diversity and we are confident about the future of the medium."

Dusan Vukotic Prize (best student film; Dusan Vukotic Medal and 1,000 Euros): The Irresistible Smile (Ami Lindholm, Finland) - "For its charming and effective humor and simplicity of design. The pleasure and freshness of the animation with touching dramatic details leaves no spectator indifferent."

Three Special Mentions at the Discretion of the Jury

Beton (Ariel Belinco, Michael Faust, Israel/The Netherlands) -- "For the artist's engagement clearly executed, beautifully designed and animated. The film has a strong voice."Camera Obscura (Matthieu Buchalski, Jean-Michel Drechsler and Thierry Onillion, France) -- "For its fresh, outstanding and innovative approach of the medium. It brought the members of the jury in an imaginative world where anything is possible."Can You Go Through? (Banj Ju-Young, Republic of Korea) -- "For a strange but intimately intriguing universe, elegantly designed."

Films for Children Competition

Jury: Patrik Horvat, Paloma Quinn Mills, Anja Sever, Anna Sagadin, Andela Zapcic

Best Children's Film

My Happy End (Milen Vitanov, Germany) -- "It was a hard choice, because there were so many great movies and in the end we had to choose only one. After a lot of hard thinking we came to the decision to give the main prize to the movie which had the most original story, smooth and unusual animation -- which all fitted the profile we were looking for."

Three Special Mentions at the Discretion of the Jury

Animatou (Claude Luyet, Gerorges Schwizgebel, Dominique Delachaux-Lambert, Claude Barras and Remero Andreani , Switzerland)Oktapodi (Julien Bocabeille, Francois Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Emund Mokhber and Quetin Marmier, France)KJFG No. 5 (Alexsei Alekseev, Hungary)

Other Awards

Audience Award Mr. M (best film in Grand and Student Competitions): KJFG No. 5 (Aleksei Alekseev, Hungary)

Best Film (at the discretion of the animation and new media student jury): Skhizein (Jeremy Clapin, France)

Nancy Denney-Phelps has produced music for animation for the past 15 years. She has written about animation and animation festivals for such publications as Animatoons, Film/Tape World, Reel World and the ASIFA /San Francisco news magazine and is a member of the ASIFA International Board. In 2006, Nancy and her composer/musician husband Nik Phelps moved from San Francisco to Gent, Belgium, where they now have their home.