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F is for Flake: The (Not So) Great Animation Robbery?

The indie animation community is confronted by scandal, of sorts, involving a short film, recently submitted to animation festivals, that appears to be a copy of a short made a decade ago.

Our little indie animation village is relatively small and, well, a bit boring. Most of the "scandals" are limited to bitching about the Oscars, festival selections, and festival prizes. Occasionally, there is talk about inappropriate behavior at festivals, but for the most part, it’s a pretty calm and respectful landscape.

That all changed in late November of last year.

While attending the Animateka festival in Ljubljana, I got wind of a story spreading around. A film that had been accepted to several festivals was suddenly withdrawn. It was alleged that the film, Away From Home, directed by Brunella De Cola, was a copy of Natalia Chernysheva’s 2012 short, The Snowflake (which we screened at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 2013 and you can view further down in this article). I didn't pay much attention to the story because I was in the haze of festival mode and suffering from symptoms of what would turn out to be my second brief non-love affair with COVID.

Back home, though, in the midst of COVID restlessness, I started reading a bit more about the story and quickly became mystified by it all. Maybe it was the result of spending a part of my childhood with a stepfather who was a detective, but anyway, I suddenly felt quite fascinated with this story and determined to find some semblance of truth. A scandal of this magnitude—hell, of any magnitude—is pretty much alien to our little village of indie animation shorts. In my 30 years, I have not heard of such a thing allegedly (you’ll hear that word a lot) happening.

I contacted Anna Gaschutz at the Dresden Film Festival. They were the festival that first raised a red flag. "I first saw only a glimpse of the film [Away from Home] when my colleague was watching it and I mentioned Snowflake to her. My colleague said it's not, so I first thought that the director had made a new film in a similar style. However, then our kids programme manager watched the film in the submissions and wrote to the team that it is the same film as Snowflake... So I watched it and checked out Snowflake again, and indeed, it was the same film.

Gaschutz eventually wrote to the short’s distribution company, Zen Movie. "They were super shocked and didn't know about it, and they immediately spoke to the producer and took all the legal steps they needed to," adds Gaschautz. "I am also quite surprised someone would do this."

While Zen Movie and A Little Confidence (the film’s producers) were reluctant to comment on the situation given that De Cola is adamant that she did not steal the film and is pursuing legal avenues, it’s clear that they are quite floored by the whole situation. They took De Cola at her word when she presented the final film to them.

On December 5, the two companies did issue a statement:

This joint statement is signed by Zen Movie and A Little Confidence, respectively as Distributor and “Producer”/Agent of the animated short film “Away from Home”. Zen Movie and A Little Confidence first and foremost express their absolute extraneousness and profound surprise about what they have acknowledged on November 28th 2022 regarding the dispute over the right’s ownership of the short film, raised by a third party.

On April 19th 2022 Ms. Brunella De Cola provided the Agent with the short film which was already complete, fully realized in all of its parts, giving full guarantees that she was its producer, author and director, while only later did the Agent propose to Zen Movie to take care of the festival career of the short film; Zen Movie, after watching the short film, accepted such assignment and located the work in its catalog called “Tiny Distribution”.

In specifying that Ms. Brunella De Cola is still affirming herself as the owner of the rights of the film, the undersigned, given the adverse revindications, have decided to immediately stop the distribution of the short film and to withdraw all the submissions already made to festivals. The undersigned, insofar as it is within their respective competences, will adopt, in every area of their activity, the most appropriate solutions in order to shed light on the effective chain of rights of the short film and, if necessary, will take any further action aimed at protecting their interests and professional reputation.

Chernysheva first learned of the new film while at work at Folimage animation studio. “Folimage is the distributor of my film in France,” Chernysheva wrote via email. “They told me that someone in the committee of Clermont Ferrand Film festival recognized the problem. Snowflake is well known in France and in fact it was selected for the competition program in the very same festival 10 years ago. At first I thought it was a joke. I don’t know Brunella De Cola. We have never met.”

Now, initially I had not seen the Away From Home version, so I was trying to keep a somewhat open mind. One story that passed by my ears was that De Cola was claiming that 10 years ago or so she’d participated in a free course or workshop at the French school, ESMA. De Cola is allegedly claiming that the original material was first created during this course/workshop, and that Natalia Chernysheva was also part of this workshop group and used the material for her film The Snowflake without the permission of other students.

If that’s true that there was such an event, why did it take 10 years for this issue to arise? Was De Cola perhaps not even aware that The Snowflake existed.

In an email from January 10, 2023, a representative from ESMA told me, “After consulting our old student lists, we could not find any name corresponding or close to Brunella de Cola.”

Chernysheva, meanwhile, is adamant that she has never met De Cola nor has she ever stepped foot inside any ESMA campus (she was a student at La Poudriere in France).

Eventually I managed to see a copy of Away from Home. It was clear that except for the title and end credits, this was all footage that was used in The Snowflake. It has the same soundtrack and virtually the same running time. So, the notion that De Cola was not aware (if this story about a workshop is true) of the existence of The Snowflake is certainly suspect at this point. Also, in the credits, the music was credited to Lorenzo Petruzziello - even though this version of Away from Home has the same soundtrack as The Snowflake.

The mystery deepens.

After doing some intensive amateur investigating with the help of some colleagues, a public Facebook post (that has since been removed) by Lorenzo Petruzziello was sent to me. In the post he talks about making music for the project:

I'm really happy about the success that Brunella De Cola animated short for my track "Away From Home" is getting. They played with me the masters Lucio D'Amato on piano and Marco de Tilla on double bass, expertly recorded and missed by the great Marco Ruggiero.

What caught my eye was the mention of a piano being used as an instrument. There is no piano in either the Away from Home or The Snowflake versions I saw.

Then, someone sent me a YouTube link (that, you guessed it, has since been removed) where Petruzziuello posted a version of Away from Home with his score. Aside from his soundtrack (which jives with what he wrote in his Facebook post), it was the same Away from Home that I saw, containing what seems to be the same footage as The Snowflake.

As a result, we now have two versions of Away from Home. How? Why?

Meanwhile, in the December 2020 issue of the Italian magazine Scenografia&Costume, De Cola is interviewed about her new short animation film, Away from Home (Pg 57, Scenografia&Costume n. 18 - Dicembre 2020)

When asked about the origins of her project, she says:

Lorenzo Petruzziello, my drum teacher, sent me a piece of his called Away from Home, asking me to make a video for this jazz composition he had recorded. During the period we were all forced to stay at home, I wondered what could be a way to take a trip, to visit places far away from us. So I thought of an African child who, unlike us, does not really have the means to move around the world; he does not have the possibility, for example, of seeing a snowy valley or a big city.

This certainly differs from the story that all this material was created in a workshop 10 years earlier.

If Away from Home is a plagiarized version of The Snowflake, one wonders why anyone would do this: some anti-Russian business? (given that De Cola was interviewed about the film in December 2020, that theory doesn’t quite make sense since the invasion of Ukraine happened in early 2022); did someone make up the name or use De Cola’s name without her knowledge? (again, that’s unlikely given that De Cola traveled with the film to the POFF festival in Estonia this year and even did a video interview - since removed - about the film.). Was it a way to get funding? Mental health issues? What could the endgame possibly be? 

De Cola has not helped her cause within the animation community. First, she’s not known in the world of animation festivals or the indie animation community. Her credits are more connected with television and feature films. That’s certainly not evidence of any wrongdoing, but rather than simply issuing a statement that openly addresses the controversy, she chose to write a Facebook post  (since removed) claiming she’d been slandered and that she had hired a lawyer to sort the matter out (and, in fact, ASIFA-International recently received a letter from said lawyer warning them not to denounce De Cola until all that facts have been unveiled).

And, that’s fair. Innocent until proven otherwise.

On the other hand, Chernysheva is a known and respected artist in the animation community who has made a handful of films since The Snowflake and has a fairly recognizable style and voice. She has been quite open and public about the issue. “I want to stop the distribution of this forgery at festivals and online. I have ample proof at my disposal. First, it was my graduation project. It was produced one year after university by studio Pchela in Moscow in 2012. Secondly, my teachers, friends and collaborators can all bear witness to the fact that I was the creator and director of Snowflake.”

With both parties adamant that they are in the right, it seems that it will be left to legal avenues to sort this bizarre situation out. Whatever unfolds, this controversy will surely serve as a wake-up call to the animation community.

Neither Brunella de Cola nor Lorenzo Petruzziuello responded when asked to comment on the situation.

"The truth," my granny once told me after she saw me take Christmas cookies from her jar and I denied it, "is rarely pure and never simple."

For your viewing pleasure, check out Natalia Chernysheva’s The Snowflake:

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.