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Films to Watch: Ottawa Animation Festival Competition Highlights

Many notable shorts and features standout in a competition artistic director Chris Robinson calls ‘weird, disorienting and divisive.’

Hey, it’s that time of year again…. September... pumpkins... and the Ottawa International Animation Festival. September 25 to 29, 2019. Mark it on your calendars. It’s a thing.

The competitions are packed with edgy, raunchy, twisted, and off-center films that you’re not likely to catch anywhere else.

In fact, when festival artistic director Chris Robinson is asked what makes the OIAF competitions special, he replies, “We like to surprise our viewers, give them something weird, disorienting, divisive...” Which is not to say there won’t be any traditional animation. It’s just there will much so more than that.

According to Robinson, in some years, submitted films seem to focus to a degree on a theme or idea. “A few years ago, there were a lot of penis films,” he shares. “This year, there were a lot of vaginas and bathtubs and plants. But more seriously, something did resonate this year; I did feel there were a lot of people trying to deal with this chaos around us… you could feel the sense of being lost, confused… and the filmmakers dealing with it in personal ways. For example, like in Theordore Ushev’s film, or in more generic ways, or more absurd ways. And it’s coming from different countries, not just here in North America.”

Robinson goes on to note a number of surprising films in the competitive lineup. “Shannon Amen by Chris Dainty (Competition 3), which he made at the National Film Board of Canada, is about his friend who committed suicide,” he notes. “She was a talented artist, poet, and musician and this is a tribute to her that he’s worked on for years. He uses ice animation. It’s the first time I’ve seen ice animation. Girl in the Hallway by Valerie Barnhart (Competition 1) has been doing amazing. It’s rough and raw, chaotic and sketchy. These are folks from the industry side, not the experimental shit, doing indie shorts. It’s great to see. And there’s also Finding Uranus by Canadian animation student Ivan Li (Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Competition 5). It reminds me of a 21st century 2001 Space Odyssey only about masturbation.

Some of the more notable films in the Features and Shorts competitions include:

Animated Feature Films: independent, edgy, international - there are films from 36 countries this year.

The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman & Eléa Gobbé-Mevellec, 2019, France & Luxembourg, Switzerland, 81 min.

One of the more traditionally produced features this season, this powerful film’s narrative content separates it from the ordinary. This is no cartoon story, but a real-life struggle against horrendous odds. Based on Yasmina Khadra’s 2002 bestselling novel, the complex story portrays a young couple torn apart by Taliban barbarism. “The Swallows of Kabul offers a sliver of hope as it cautions us about the horrifying consequences of extremist mentalities (Chris Robinson, AWN).”

Tux and Fanny, Albert Birney, 2019, USA, 82 min.

Originally created as 79 individual micro-shorts posted on Instagram, the surreal and weird one-minute videos were then compiled into this short feature. Reviewed in the New Yorker as a film imbued with “giddy inventiveness, precise and emotionally calibrated moments, and sentimental pangs of wonder,” this Atari-style feature film with Russian bot voices is a must view.

Away, Gints Zilbalodis, Latvia, 2019, 75 min            .

A one-man feature film (who said it couldn't be done) this minimalist yet visually intriguing animation tour de force was created by a single filmmaker who also composed the music and designed the soundtrack. While the plot line is a bit thin - boy crash lands on an island and must overcome obstacles with only the company of a little bird he befriends - the visuals hold it all together.

I Lost My Body, Jérémy Clapin, France, 2019, 81 min.

Winner of the Cannes Critic's Week prize and the Annecy Cristal, this film explores the complex feelings related to “identity, grief, love and courage.” Using an anthropomorphized lost hand roaming around Paris, searching to bring itself together again with the rest of its body, this original film is at once intelligent, poetic, and humorous.

Animated Short Films: weird, surreal, disorienting

Toomas Beneath the Valley of the Wild Wolves, Chintis Lundgren, Croatia/Estonia/France, 18 min, Competition 1. 

Revisting the kinky Manivald (2017), this is the prequel to the original story. Here poor Manivald loses his job for refusing the advances of his boss and discovers that his wife is suddenly into S&M. For those who haven’t seen the original, this is a wonderful introduction to the bizarre, campy world of Manivald.

The Levers, Boyoung Kim, South Korea, 9 min, Competition 3.

A morality struggle presented in a dry and deadpan manner, this South Korean short is about a man who accepts a job pulling levers. It all seems simple enough until he becomes aware of what those levers are actually attached to.

Deszcz (Rain), Piotr Milczarek, Poland, 5 min, Competition 1. 

A 21st century Sisyphus tale of a man tumbling off a skyscraper only to be rescued and returned into the same dilemma again and again. A close examination of individual versus collective hypnosis.

Flut (Flood), Malte Stein, Germany, 10 min, Competition 5.  

Creepy almost uncanny visuals loop us into a young man’s world haunted by his suffocating mother and the almost intolerable pressures of peer judgement.

Acid Rain, Tomasz Popakul, Poland, 26 min, Competition 3.

A whirlwind of imagery and sound, this short follows a troubled young woman as she hooks up with the wrong kind of guy. Pulled into psychedelic drugs, raves, break-ins, and mesmerizing puke, this film is about serious danger wrapped in a glorious palette of UV and new age colours.

The Six, Xi Chen, China, 2019, 5 min, Competition 3.

Created by the same animator who did A Fly in The Restaurant, The Six is Xi Chen’s eighth short film. His aesthetic is reminiscent of the Estonian animators and their powerful, solidly built, hand-drawn characters. With a soundtrack built only from sound effects, Xi Chen’s powerful yet simple narrative spotlights a fascination with the simplest of everyday moments.

Kids, Michael Frei, Switzerland, 2019, 9 min, Competition 1.

This black and white, simply drawn line animation explores the basic quandaries of group dynamics - how do we decide who is in charge? To what extent can the individual define themselves against the power of the crowd? Also adapted into a game, Frei plays on the fragmented way viewers interact with films online.

The Physics of Sorrow, Theodore Ushev, Canada, 27 min, Competition 5.

One of Theodore Ushev’s most painterly films, this animation uses an encaustic technique more traditionally seen in centuries old hanging artworks and Egyptian sarcophagi. Combining wax and pigments, Ushev paints us a passionately personal film based on Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov’s novel of exile and identity. Classic Ushev, not to be missed.