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Iconic Zagreb Animator Borivoj Dovnikovic Passes at 92

The global animation community mourns the loss of the great Croatian animation director, author, founder of the Zagreb School of Animation, and former ASIFA Secretary General.

On Tuesday, February 8, 2022, the animation world lost the great Croatian animator Borivoj Dovnikovic at the age of 92. One of the founders of the Zagreb School of Animation, Bordo, as he was better known by, was much loved for his sense of humor, childlike enthusiasm, and love of fun, as well as for his remarkable artistic skills. He was also a treasured part of ANIMAFEST, the Zagreb Animation Festival.

Born in Osijek, Croatia (then Yugoslavia) in 1930, Bordo grew up with Walt Disney and Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) as his idols. In 1945 he created his first comic strip “Udarnik Ratko” (“Striker Ratko”). By 1949 he had moved to Zagreb to attend the Academy of Fine Arts where he began to hone his natural skills as an animator, director, cartoonist, illustrator, and comic strip creator.

In 1950 he joined a group of cartoonists from the weekly humor magazine Kerempuh to produce the first Yugoslav artistic animated film, Veilik Miting (The Big Meeting). The film is considered to mark the beginning of what began as Duga Film Company and later became the legendary Zagreb Film Studio. By 1961 Bordo had completed his first solo film Lutkica (The Doll).

Bordo had a profound interest in the fate of the “little man” in contemporary society.  ANIMAFEST producer Paola Orlic remembers “A BIG thing that I respected so much; you know how he ended his emails that he was writing to me? With the letters SFSN meaning Smrt Fasizmu Sloboda Narodu (Death to fascists, Freedom to the People).”

His films visually utilize a lot of white or neutral backgrounds with simplified, cartoony characters.

One of my favorite films is his 1971 The Liberator. A man is tethered to a ball and chain and obviously can’t go anywhere. The “liberator” runs up to the man, hands him a flag and a medal and then runs on. The 59 second film says so much about leaders who promise the poor a better life but in reality, do nothing to free them or give them anything to improve their conditions.

The 1978 Learning to Walk (Skola Hodanja) (9 minutes) is the story of a man who has always walked the way his mother taught him. Four of his friends take turns trying to teach him their style of walking convinced that each one’s way is the only way to walk. The little man has a difficult time getting away from them, but eventually he does and goes back to walking the way he has always walked.

Bordo was one of the founders of the television series Professor Balthazar, which ran from 1967 to 1977. The show was one of the most successful projects to come out of the Zagreb School of Animation, with many renowned Croatian animators working on it over its 10-year history. Watched by children throughout Eastern Europe, Professor Balthazar is a kindly scientist who always solves his neighbor’s problems with the aid of his magic machine. In 2006 the Professor became the official mascot of the City of Zagreb.

Bordo’s films have won numerous awards both nationally and internationally.  Krek (The Frog) won the Silver Bear at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival. The film is about a guy who enlists in the army and brings his pet frog (krek) along with him. His sergeant wants conformity in the ranks and does everything he can think of to get rid of the frog.

Speaking about Bordo’s films, Daniel Suljic, Artistic Director of the Zagreb Animation Festival says, “Bordo left us his films, simple, based on gags (as Ronald Holloway stated in his ‘Z . . . Is for Zagreb’ book), but always deeply human, in love with the “small man.”

In addition to his many other accomplishments, Bordo also wrote a book, “Skola Crtanog Filma” (“School of Animated Film”) published in 1983, which inspired and taught many young animators. Daniel Suljic told me that “Way before YouTube tutorials, my, and many other animators from different countries (the book was translated and published in several countries) main source of knowledge on how to animate was Bordo’s book. When I first started doing it myself as a student in Vienna, I did a lot of exercises based on his instructions from the book and I know that other people did the same. He taught us how to walk, just as the name of one of his best films, School of Walking did.”

From 1994 to 2000 Bordo served as Secretary General of the Association Internationale du Film d’ animation (ASIFA). In 2011 he was honored with the ASIFA Lifetime Achievement Award for his original artistic work and his exceptional contribution to the launching and development of the art of animation in Croatia, as well as the promotion of animated film throughout the world.

Bordo’s presence will be sorely missed at the ANIMAFEST Festival. Suljic, the Festival Artistic Director, sums up Bardo’s importance to ANIMAFEST as, “He and his wife Vesna Dovnikovic were dedicated visitors of the festival in Zagreb — the one he was involved (with) from the beginning, regularly as a filmmaker with films screened in competition and winning awards, in the organization, and later as festival director from 1985 to 1992. Recently, he didn’t miss any edition, at least to attend the opening session and the picnic, and was always ready to tell stories about the beginnings of (the) Zagreb school of animation or the festival and to meet old and new friends.”

He designed the festival logo, a stylized Z, as well as posters for the festival in the early years, which always featured Mandlek, a man in a bowler hat. Paola Orlic sums up many people’s feelings about the great animator and friend in this way, noting “He was so funny. We will truly miss him a lot. Maybe ANIMAFEST has Mandlek mascot but for me Bordo was always and will always be the only true symbol of ANIMAFEST Zagreb.” Bordo was the recipient of the ANIMAFEST Lifetime Achievement Award at the 27th edition of the festival in 2017.

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the festival, and Bordo was slated to play an important role in the festivities. Luckily, he was interviewed right after ANIMAFEST in June of last year for the documentary Croatian National Television is making to mark the celebration of 50 years of ANIMAFEST.

Like many of us who knew the great man, Suljic is finding it hard to believe that “Bordo is gone. We never thought that it is possible, and I still somehow hope that we will meet at the 50th anniversary of the festival just as we planned over the telephone recently.”

I can echo Daniel’s words and I will be at the anniversary celebration to raise a glass of William rakija to my friend Bordo.

Margit Antauer, director of Animafest Zagreb from 1992 to 2006, known as Buba to her friends, is a long-time close friend of both Bordo and Vesna. Her words are a fitting tribute to her friend’s life. “Borivoj Dovnikovic - Bordo was one of those rare persons who, one would think will live forever – because Bordo never ever grew up for real. In his heart and in his mind, he was like an innocent child, with a thousand questions on his lips, with that sparkling shine in his eyes, with an endless quest for the new worlds and unknown horizons, with an overdose of curiosity for people and life around him. A magician of small gestures, a master of simplicity, and still a wise man who taught me how to understand and love animation! Much more than this, for me he is and he will always be a true friend together with his beloved wife and life companion Vesna, who was for many years the pillar of his existence, his voice and his sight.

Friendship never dies! I’ll keep it remembering him and recalling numerous unforgettable moments which Bordo, Vesna and I shared during the long years of our amity!”

Borivoj Dovnikovic is survived by his beloved wife of 49 years, Vesna Dovnikovic.

A commemorative celebration of Bordo’s life will be held on February 17 in Zagreb at Cinema Tuskanac.