From ‘I Lost My Body’ to ‘The Swallows of Kabul,’ cultural, narrative and aesthetic diversity reign in this year’s expanded feature film competition.
Non-Hollywood animated feature films have matured and grown substantially during the last decade. There was a time when it would be a challenge to find enough decent animated features for a festival competition. But, that’s not the case today. During the last few years, animated feature competitions have actually become, well… competitive.
This year’s Annecy Festival has acknowledged that by introducing a second Animated Feature competition, Contrechamp. Replacing the Out of Competition (i.e. Panorama) programs, Contrechamp provides a space for those more provocative, eccentric and edgy features that don’t quite fit comfortably into the festival’s main competition. It's a questionable decision, like the festival’s segregation of “edgy” short films into the Off Limits competition. It’s great that Annecy has become more open to unconventional animation, but why not let everything compete together? A good film is a good film, right?
Anyhow... between the two feature competitions, there are a total of 18 films being screened. 10 are competing for the feature Cristal Award while the other 8 are up for the Contrechamp prize. This year’s crop are all very diverse works from a cultural, narrative and aesthetic perspective. You can see Masaaki Yuasa’s latest, Ride Your Wave, a competent but not spectacular work from the Annecy 2018 Feature Grand Prize winner (Lu Over the Wall). There’s also Buñuel in The Labyrinth of the Turtles (Salvador Simó), a live-action film disguised as animation, that follows a period in the great Spanish filmmaker’s career. The Relative Worlds (Yuhei Sakuragi) and The Wonderland (Keiichi Hara) are typically ambitious Japanese films that drag on more than a tad too long. And if you’re looking for a film that never stops talking and that might potentially offend you, check out the Chilean film, Homeless (José Ignacio Navarro, Jorge Campusano, Santiago O'Ryan)
Regardless, unless you’re sober, skip the parties and are an animation fanatic, there’s no way this side of hell that you’re going to see all of these features during the festival. But it’s worth a try.
Here are six films from the two Animated Feature competitions that you should make the time to check out.
I Lost My Body (Jeremy Clapin, France)
We might as well start with the film that’s rightfully getting the most buzz after taking the Critic’s Week prize at Cannes’ (an award usually won by a live-action film). Already celebrated for his innovative short films (Skhizein, Palmipédarium), Jérémy Clapin’s debut feature (whose worldwide rights have already been nabbed by Netflix) is a striking work of poignant beauty that follows the life of Naoufel, a young man struggling to find himself after the death of his parents along with his dreams of being a pianist and astronaut. The film is divided into two storylines: in one we follow Naofel’s life in Paris where he pursues love and purpose; in the second, his severed hand roams the mean streets of Paris in search of its body. Smart, poetic and funny, I Lost My Body deftly explores identity, grief, love and courage.
Children of the Sea (Ayumu Watanabe, Japan)
As a young girl, Ruka encounters a ghost in the water at the Aquarium where her dad works. Years later, at the start of summer break, the feckless schoolgirl heads back to the Aquarium and meets two mysterious boys, Umi and Sora. The boys were raised in the sea by dugongs. Drawn to the boys, Ruka gets caught up in a complex mystery about the disappearance of sea creatures.
Children of the Sea, like the other Japanese films in competition, is a tad long and slow in places, but this trippy, visually explosive piece of supernatural philosophy is like a sea version of 2001: A Space Odyssey: complex, sensory-twirling and utterly hypnotic.
Ville Neuve (Félix Dufour-Laperrière, Canada)
Eschewing the frequently mindless excess, racket and predictability of mainstream cinema, Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s intimate and poetic hand-drawn film reimagines the turbulent, anxious time of the 1995 Quebec referendum on independence that almost saw the French province vote to leave Canada.
Summer by the sea on Quebec’s Atlantic coast. Joseph moves into a friend’s house. He convinces Emma, his ex-wife, to join him there. While the 1995 referendum campaign on Quebec’s independence is thriving, houses are burning, speeches are clashing as lovers find each other and fall in love again. Will they part once more?
In this poetic, intimate and visually stunning film, personal and collective destinies resonate in the coastal village of Ville Neuve. Joseph will fall and later rise, for a fragile redemption in a Quebec, perhaps, at the dawn of its independence.
Set in Taliban-controlled Kabul in 1998, Zunaira and Mohsen, a young couple, struggle to navigate through a violent, harsh and paranoid society, hopeful that their love, passion and idealism can one day open the path for a better future. Those dreams come to an abrupt end after a senseless act of violence.
While The Swallows of Kabul falls into the category of live-action in animation clothing (i.e. animation being used solely because it’s cheaper to produce), this is a potent film that I’m guessing could never have been shot in Kabul. While Swallows follows some melodramatic tropes, it remains a compelling and relevant story about the ridiculous suppression of women – and people in general.
In a time where the world is feeling increasingly divided and veering towards sub-mental attitudes about gender, sexuality and nation, The Swallows of Kabul offers a sliver of hope as it cautions us about the horrifying consequences of extremist mentalities.
Anca Damian’s third feature is a departure from her splendid animated documentaries (Crulic, The Magic Mountain). At death’s door after being struck by a car, a small dog remembers her various owners: a tightrope walker, construction worker and his facile spouse, and a young girl and her family. Though they are all different, and sometimes not so pleasant, the dog loves them all. And that’s really what is at the core of the film: love. That we should strive to see the beauty in everyone. A tad naïve perhaps, but that’s certainly a vibe we could all use these days.
What elevates the work beyond being a trite little tear fest (and, yes, you will feel weepy at the end) is the vibrant animation and backgrounds. Matching the unpredictable and erratic life of our canine protagonist, the backgrounds are intense, vivid dreamscapes that capture a raw, blinding and disorientated existence that fuses memory, nightmare and dream.
Happiness, as the film’s closing song, suggests, is a small fleeting thing that we should jump as high as we can for.
Away (Gints Zilbalodis, Latvia)
Gints Zilbalodis is a young Latvian animator who has been making ambitious short films since he was in high school. His shorts have met with mixed success at festivals, partially because they have – in my view - perhaps followed live-action approaches a tad too much. Still, you could always feel that this was a talented artist. That is finally on full display with his debut feature, Away. Made entirely by Zilbalodis, this truly one-man band film is astonishing. Told without dialogue, we follow a boy, who has become stranded on an island, as he attempts to flee a giant dark spirit and find his home.
This minimalist, tense and quiet film is filled with gorgeous, emotive scenes (notably the spectacular Mirror Lake chapter) as the boy (and his small bird sidekick) desperately flees what he assumes is a sort of giant Grim Reaper. The ending is wonderfully oblique and open ended.