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Documentaries and Animation: Not Such An Odd Couple

Annick Teninge looks into the two seemingly disparate genres that come together during Germany's Leipzig Festival.

The Leipzig Festival is the only gathering that unites animation and documentaries at one international festival. All festival photographs courtesy of Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film unless otherwise noted. Photographer: Uwe Frauen

The Leipzig Festival is the only gathering that unites animation and documentaries at one international festival. All festival photographs courtesy of Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film unless otherwise noted. Photographer: Uwe Frauen

One of the most respected festivals in the documentary arena, the Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film, held its 45th edition October 15-20, 2002 in Leipzig, Germany. In addition to the official selection, Animation for Children and New German Animation programs, this year the festival featured Russian master Yuri Norstein, Polish animator Jerzy Kucia, and Polish illustrator, cartoonist and animation director Jan Lenica, who passed away last year.

Leipzig is the only festival that unites the animation and documentary genres in one big international gathering. I decided to have a closer look at the purpose of the festival through a conversation with Fred Gehler, festival director, and Otto Alder, who is in charge of animation.

Annick Teninge: Why did you create an animation and documentary festival? Was the idea to bring together the poor relations of the cinema family?

Fred Gehler: It was a subjective decision to bring together two art forms that have many things in common. A significant number of avant-garde films from the 20s and 30s used animation, and animation has always enriched documentary films. One can mention documentary filmmaker and painter Juergen Boettcher, or the painter Lutz Dammbeck, who made documentaries using his paintings and is now working on a feature-length documentary using animation. The history of the festival also comes from the citys roots in art. Traditionally, Leipzig has been a city of painters and comic-book writers with a natural curiosity towards animation. For that matter we have an annual comic-book convention where the organizers schedule animated films, in collaboration with the Leipzig festival. And although there are no animation studios in Leipzig, there is a great interest in animation, notably from art school students, mainly coming from graphic and book design. And I guess there is my personal interest in animation.


Fred Gehler (left) opening the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film. The Leipzig Festival paid posthumous tribute to cartoonist and animation director Jan Lenica (right) this year.

Originally, the festival only had a competition for documentary films. In 1993, a reflection within the festival organization led to the decision to have an animation competition beside the documentary one. Launched in 1994, the animation competition was biannual until 1998 and became annual in 1999. The public goes to both documentary and animation screenings and this year weve had a record audience for animation, which now represents one third of the attendance.


AT: The audience is mostly local. Is the festival's goal to increase international professional participation?

FG: We would love to welcome more international professionals, but we have to be realistic. Our financial means do not allow us to invite many professionals. Nevertheless, our programming is very international and from this aspect the festival can be compared to other international animation festivals.

AT: Why did you decide to open the festival with Bowling for Colombine, already shown on many screens throughout Europe?

FG: Michael Moores Roger and Me was a big hit at Leipzig 1989. I saw Bowling for Colombine in Cannes last May and it was obvious for me to show it at the festival. The problems Moore is raising — violence and fear — are not just U.S. problems and sadly, this is a very topical film. Earlier this year, we had a bombing in a German school.

AT: Was Moores style a problem for documentary purists?

FG: I dont think so. He has a very personal directing style and likes to put himself forward but its okay.

AT: Do you feel his trick to get an interview with Charlton Heston was legitimate?

FG: Totally. He might have deluded Heston, but not the public.

AT: Back to animation. Otto, what is your artistic vision for the festival?

Otto Alder: The festival is not an animation shop window. The programming is made for the local public. Therefore, there is no need to select the most representative films of the year. The main idea is to show a wide range of films, some of them funny and light-hearted, and others more provocative or controversial. We try to challenge the audience by striking a balance between different genres.


Otto Alder (glasses), in charge of animation for the festival, chats with Stanislav Sokolov, a member of the Animation Jury 2002 and an animation-filmmaker from Russia. Polish director Jerzy Kucia (right) received a career tribute at the festival. Photo by Ron Diamond. © Animation World Network.

AT: Who is doing the selection?

OA: Just myself. The selection only reflects my personal taste and personality and I claim responsibility for it. Its very rewarding, and its a power game as well! Of course, I judge the films professionally. I take into consideration the rhythm, storytelling, esthetics and soundtrack as well. But, first of all, I need to be moved by them. I can decide to show films that are not extremely professional, but still interesting because of their subject, intention or form.

AT: Dont you think this could be said about any festival selection?

OA: Certainly, but it is not radical enough at other festivals. They are more moderate because of their selection process. Committee decisions mean compromises.

AT: Do you receive a lot of submissions?

OA: This year, we presented 179 animated films. Half of them were chosen out of the 300 films that were submitted to the festival, and the other half I chose after seeing them at other festivals. I attend at last three animation festivals per year and choose between 1,000 shorts for Leipzigs program.


Besides the competition, your programming shows a big influence from Eastern Europe: Yuri Norstein, Jerzy Kucia, Jan Lenica.


Yes, but remember the festival traditionally has strong links with Eastern Europe, on top of which we bore thirty-five years of socialism! We were living in a state controlled system and many of these films (Norstein, Kucia) were not shown in Germany before the Wall Fall. Norsteins Tale of the Tales was even censored for eight years in Russia. Despite the fact that the head of the Russian censorship commission admitted he was really moved by the film, he didnt allow its screening, arguing it was too controversialAnd, of course, there is my personal taste for Eastern European culture. I have always militated in favor of their cinema and try to show it whenever I can. Russian films that I selected for the Stuttgart festival long ago are now considered masterpieces.

teninge07_jury.jpgteninge08_flux .jpg

The Animation Jury 2002 was comprised of (left to right): Jerzy Kucia (Poland), Kirsten Winter (Germany) and Stanislav Sokolov (Russia). Flux by Chris Hinton of Canada won the Golden Dove 2002 for Animated Film, which is the main prize of the festival. © National Film Board of Canada.

AT: Fred evoked historical reasons. Otto, from your point of view, what is the reason for bringing together animation and documentary films? Are you trying to bring the animation audience to the documentary genre by appealing to them as citizens? Im particularly thinking of the PoliTrick program: Animation Between Art, Commerce And War.

OA: From the beginning, I tried to confront the two genres. As Fred already mentioned, in 1993 animated films were introduced into the competition. But some documentary people were shocked to see Plymptons facetious films next to serious, political documentaries. So we decided to have separate competitions for documentaries and animation. Then we created the Animadoc program in order to show animation films with documentary-genre leanings. This year, we added the PoliTrick program, which was a great success, even if few people were inclined to engage in the discussion after the screening.

Animation is sometimes viewed as the cinema jester. But I think that documentary people should pay more attention to animation. They always try to deal with societal problems in a classical, narrative way, relying heavily on interviews. Animation can deal with these topics in a much more powerful way because it is more visual, more symbolic and uses a universal language. It is also more contemporary in its art form, and more efficient because its short and to the point. Im convinced there will be more political animation films in the future because animation is the ideal medium to carry messages.

AT: A television executive was telling me yesterday that animated films could never move her like documentary live-action films do, because of the made-up aspect of animation. When I mentioned Susie Templetons very moving puppet film, Dog, she admitted the border was not so clear. Would you say that this confrontation between the genres is the festivals heart?

OA: Totally. To me, the uniqueness of the festival resides in its potential to bring interaction between documentary and animation films, and to question always the medium in light of the film's message. It is a very enriching experience because we always make progress through confrontation.

For prize winners and additional information on the festival, visit

After five years as AWN's general manager, Annick Teninge returned to France, where she is now in charge of production and distribution at La Poudrière in Valence, an animation school offering a 2-year program where students study the process of filmmaking and develop their own film projects. She is also heading AWN's marketing and public relations efforts in Europe. Annick began her animation career as assistant director at the Annecy International Animation Festival, a post she held for six years.