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‘A Greek Tragedy’: Women, Animation and the Classics at Annecy 2015

Nicole van Goethem’s 1985 Cristal and 1987 Oscar-winning short stands out in Annecy 2015 homage to female animators.

'A Greek Tragedy' by Nicole van Goethem.

I’m watching the 2015 Annecy International Animated Film Festival with the eyes of an outsider. What I see is a colorful enthusiastic crowd of artists, students and professionals gathered on the banks of a crystal clear lake framed by mountains and mediaeval architecture.

Admittedly, I’m usually part of a seemingly less colorful crowd - the niche of academics doing research on the ancient Greek and Roman world. What is a classicist doing at Annecy? This year my colleague James Brusuelas and I took on a challenge: can we animate an ancient Greek performance? Ask Ron Diamond from Acme Filmworks and the answer is yes, we can, and we should.

And so we found ourselves talking with Ron about Greek drama, animatics, ancient daily life and storyboards. If you’ve ever seen an old piece of papyrus, the name of our Oxford-based project, Broken Scenes, will come as no surprise. The script we chose, a 1500 year old knockabout farce, a Greek Mime, was found in an ancient garbage dump in Egypt. It’s just a patchy sheet, torn up and full of holes. But no worries! Ron’s expertise and the creative vein of our animator Greg Holfeld are now helping us bring this fragment back to life as an animated short.

The crystal clear waters of Lake Annecy.

As a classicist who’s taking her first steps into the world of animation, I’m curious about any previous contact between the two fields. This year at Annecy I’m lucky to discover Een Griekse Tragedie (A Greek Tragedy), a short film by Flemish animator Nicole van Goethem, featuring three female statues in their last effort to keep together what remains of an ancient Athenian temple consumed by time and looting. This short was awarded a Cristal at the 1985 Annecy Festival (as well as an Oscar in 1987). Thirty years later, fifteen after the author’s death, while Annecy pays tribute to the female presence in animation, A Greek Tragedy was screened again as part of the special program on ‘Cristal Women.’

Nicole van Goethem repurposes a controversial chapter of archaeological history - the British campaign that saw the famed looting of the Parthenon marbles from Athens - shifting the focus to the theme of women’s oppression as symbolically embodied in the Caryatids, the female statues that uphold the Erechtheion temple. The looting, at first a source of fear for van Goethem’s animated Caryatids, turns into an unhoped-for chance of liberation. As they fail to sustain the last surviving fragment of the Erechtheion under the blows of a pickaxe, they free themselves to dance on the far-reaching horizon behind the temple that has trapped them for over a millennium.  

Greece's Erechteheion Temple.

As a classicist (and a woman), I find A Greek Tragedy a little masterpiece. Delicately humorous, aesthetically enjoyable in its depiction of the decadent Athenian Acropolis at the dawn of a new day, the short concisely and effectively addresses the topic of women’s oppression and self-liberation. Thus, it stands out in this year’s homage to female animators as a thoughtful and thought-provoking celebration of lightness, freedom, and self-determination. An excellent example of how the classical world can still talk to us through the creative medium of animation.

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Erechteheion image credit: Mark Cartwright shared under Creative Commons.

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