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Binocular Briefs – July 2023

A monthly survey of under-the-radar animated shorts currently travelling the festival circuit or new to online viewing. 

In this month’s edition of Binocular Briefs, we once again preview five shorts travelling the festival circuit or recently made available for online viewing.

A Crab in the Pool, Alexandra Myotte and Jean-Sébastien Hamel, Canada

This French-Canadian short almost flew by under the radar when I first encountered it. Initially, I wasn’t all that impressed with the dialogue or design. It had a Mike Judge-ish look and just seemed straightforward.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Sticking with the film, a masterful, comic, surreal, and compassionate work about puberty and grief was soon unveiled.

Zoe and her little brother Theo live in the small city of Longeuil (the city sits on the south shore of the mighty St. Laurence River, directly across from Montreal). Zoe is struggling with her body and is fast approaching puberty. Theo spends his time coloring his Greek Myths coloring book while viewing the world through his "hand" glasses. Through that lens, he sees people as characters from Greek mythology.

Zoe is a reluctant big sister. She’s got her own issues going on (puberty, body insecurities). After an alarming moment in the washroom of the public pool where a crab appears, Zoe snaps and smacks her brother across the face, breaking his “hand” glasses. At that moment, we realize there is something much darker and heartbreaking lurking underneath the surface of Zoe and Theo.

Superbly edited and filled with rich moments of fantasy that constantly keep us wondering if we’re in reality or someone’s imagination or nightmare, The Crab in the Pool is a potent take on the power and impossibility of grief. We never stop grieving, but we do learn to turn the volume down a bit and live.

The Family Portrait, Lea Vidaković, Croatia/France/Serbia

This beautifully designed stop-motion work featuring incredibly detailed sets takes place in the home of a wealthy family, with clouds of World War I beckoning on the horizon. A father and his daughter’s quiet afternoon is disrupted when a dozen family members unexpectedly show up.

Imagine if Roy Andersson directed Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, and you'd probably get something like The Family Portrait. While Bergman’s film observed, largely through the eyes of the young son, Alexander, the lives and relationships of an upper-class family, Vidaković adds a more absurd, intentionally mystifying, and darkly comic take on this collapsing home, class, and family. We are never quite sure what the hell is going on, but it ain’t good. There are affairs, typically crass children (e.g., spitting on a frog, scaring the other kids, breaking shit), and it seems the father (Andras) is grieving a loved one, likely a wife (he also might have a thing going on with his maid).

This multi-layered work not only captures the baffling fuckedupness that is that thing called family but also the coming collapse of these aristocrats and their way of being. The mansion is already crumbling. The soundtrack is dominated by the sounds of things crashing and breaking. We frequently hear and see things being broken - walls leaking, ceilings collapsing. It’s unlikely they will ever all be together again.

Maybe that’s okay.

Etoimoi (Ready), Eirini Vianelli, Greece/Belgium

I must be in a Roy Andersson kind of mood, because here’s another stop-motion work that carries a distinct Andersson vibe (with a tinge of Niki Lindroth von Bahr), mixing satire, absurdity, song, and a wee bit of tragedy as it muses on themes of power and class.

Set inside a grand Greek Parliament building (as a fiery meteor appears to be headed towards earth), we see an assortment of scenes with various people who work there. Two security guards play a game on their chairs before one pushes the other over, heads to the washroom, and bangs his head against a door. Nearby, a man stands at the sink, making, for no clear reason, odd sounds and shapes with his mouth. From there, we encounter an old guy pestering a man in a library. And so it goes...

With existence apparently approaching an end, we see the previously rigid structures of society (or, at least, workplace) quickly collapse, unveiling a society that is deeply immature, boring, insecure, and rather aggressive… but at least they’re honest finally. In the end, maybe our most honest expression is to simply laugh, sing, and dance. Is there a better way of being when oblivion beckons?

“It's often at work people play these power games and their surroundings dictate the way they act and can't express themselves truly and vulnerable,” says the Greek animator, Vianelli. “I felt that singing is a good way to express how one really feels!”

The Eastern Rain, Milly Yencken, Estonia

An Estonian film that doesn’t look like an Estonian film! Eschewing the wobbly, unpolished graphics we’ve come to see in the Priit Parn-influenced animation landscape, graduate student Milly Yencken (who stems from Australia but studied in Tallinn) creates a poetic work that ponders that pressing question: what would we do if it rained indoors, not outdoors?

Shifting smoothly and wordlessly between moments of charcoal scenes and eye-popping colored oil paints, we are given no explanations; it’s on us to navigate our way through this indefinable painterly landscape. Each scene passes like a dream. Barely decipherable characters come and go. You’re left with a spark, a sensation of something you can’t define or even start to describe. A musing on an unsafe home? If spaces we usually use for shelter are not longer reliable, what do we do? Where to do we go?  Perhaps it’s about depression or a commentary on domestic isolation? We lived for a period mostly indoors, and now it seems we are content to continue that way, even inviting our work into our personal space. Maybe you can read through a climate change lens? I’ll leave that to you.

“I wanted to make a painting that moved, rather than a film itself,” says Yencken. “Which is why the storytelling is secondary, and its aim is to be felt rather than understood. It used moving image as a way to live inside of an idea, but not to try and control it in anyway, no storyboards, or animatics. Yet, I became allergic to the oil paint over the course of this process, and had to introduce a secondary way of working, which is why half the film is made with charcoal on paper. The film has a sense of duality, and since I did not wish to control it, I embraced the shift in material, and allowed the metaphors inside the film to change with the introduction of the charcoal.”

Meaning aside, each frame is a piece of art in this dreamscape of impossibilities. Easily one of the finest student animation films of 2023.

World to Roam, Stephen Irwin, United Kingdom

If there were nominees for most underappreciated indie animators, I’d give one nod to U.K. animator Stephen Irwin. Despite creating an acclaimed and rich body of work (i.e., The Black Dog’s Progress, The Obvious Child, Moxie) that skirts the lines of narrative and non-narrative, reality and fantasy, and horror, Irwin remains relatively unknown in festival circles (admittedly, his aversion to travel has probably contributed to that modest oversight).

Armed with his usual array of sensory eyebombs, Irwin mixes elements of horror, fable, and fantasy in a story about a mother and father trying to understand and prevent the late-night roaming of their baby son. They decide to tie a piece of string around his ankle so they can locate him at dawn. There’s a problem, though: the string can only go so far. Nothing can stop the boy from exploring the world without them.

Irwin describes World to Roam asa personal film about the difficulties and challenges of raising a child. Although it’s a surreal tale, at its core it is a heartfelt reflection on the fleeting nature of childhood and the ever-evolving role of a parent.”

Anyone with children will immediately understand the difficulty of finding that balance between our parental urge to shelter your children from a shithole world and their unbreakable need to be independent, to spit on our advice, and to dive, often ass-first, into the unknown. We are nostalgic, noting the phases and the key moments. The young punks, though? They don’t care about the past or even the future. They are in a continual present (something we all seem to strive for as adults), unaware that each decision impacts both the past and future. 

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.