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Zagreb Animafest: Friendly Diversity

Deanna Morse reports back from the Zagreb Animafest, finding a friendly and diverse event for the celebration of animation.

The Zagreb festival is a best-kept secret. Organizers want to keep from becoming overrun, too big and too commercial. Unless otherwise indicated, all images courtesy of Zagreb Animafest.

Zagreb Animafest has a dedicated following of filmmakers, programmers, educators and critics. Those who return to the festival year after year, like Joan Gratz, compliment the hospitality, the opportunity to meet and spend time with filmmakers, and the meticulous organization, programming and professional presentation of the work. First timers, like Joe Peery, animation director at Turner Studios in Atlanta, spoke about the friendliness of the festival, and the richness and diversity in the films. Joe also was taken by the urban energy, intensity and beauty of the city.

Jimmy Murakami, president of the festival Grand Competition jury, commented that Zagreb festival is a best-kept secret, and that shhhh! We should keep it secret so that it doesnt get overrun, too big, too commercial, and lose its heart. (At the 2004 festival closing ceremony, Michael Dudok de Wit, as honorary president, called on us to do the same. Shhh!)

Record Number of Entries

Zagreb is no secret to animators every year the number of entries goes up this year there were 1,556 films from 65 countries entered in the competition. After two weeks of intense screening, the selection committee pulled 145 films for the three competitions for the festival, which ran June 12-17, 2006.

I was fortunate to serve on the selection committee for the previous Zagreb, and I can appreciate the difficulty in eliminating so many films. Seeing this volume of films back to back in a compressed time gives a privileged look at the common codes used by animators, and also the variety of new animation being created very few people get that opportunity, or take on that drudgery, depending on your perspective!

In 2004, I wrote an article for AWN discussing the trends I saw in the entered films.

In an article for Animatoon, 2006 selection committee member Heikki Jokinen looked at trends, too. He noted that this was the year of the Guernica and the horse. He also complained that too many films show us an alarm clock frequently tossed out the window.

This years selection was very solid. An international overview, the competition included experimental work as well as more traditional story films. It did seem like there might have been a bias towards films that were hand-drawn on paper; this gave visual richness to the screenings.

Honorary President Koji Yamamura receives a Zagreb heart and heartfelt thanks from festival during director Margit (Buba) Antauers speech at the closing ceremony.

Winning Films

There is often speculation about who will win at festivals. But every film chosen for screening is already a winner. The odds of making it through the selection process are so slim; one out of every ten films entered gets into competition. But of course, there are juries, and opinionated viewers! Heres the complete list of winners.

Several award winners from other festivals are on the Zagreb winners list. I was on the jury at KROK and SICAF this year, where we honored the dreamlike Milch by Igor Kovalov and the playful Wind Along the Coast by Ivan Maximov. And it was no surprise that the audience award at Zagreb went to About Ivan the Fool, by Mikhail Aldashin and Oleg Uzhinov with its funny twists and impeccable timing.

Since it is a biennial festival, there were several familiar films in competition, like Ryan. But there were also new works, including the award winning Dreams and Desires Family Ties by Joanna Quinn. This quirky film brings back her character Beryl, featured in Girls Night Out and Body Beautiful. Beryl offers to videotape a wedding, and general mayhem breaks loose. Some of the most visually rich sequences are when her camera is attached to a dog, but the view is unpredictable throughout, and the film is beautifully animated in Quinns trademark style. This film took both the Grand Prize and the International Critics Award. Quinn will be the honorary president for Zagreb 2008.

My favorite new film didnt get an award at this festival. Rabbit, by Run Wrake, animates designs inspired by a childrens reader, to create a world where nothing is what it seems. With lively colored shapes, labels for everything, and adorable evil children who get their comeuppance, I was drawn into the unpredictable story, unlike the Dick and Jane of my youth.

Comments on Programming

Besides myself, many others commented on the skillful programming of the films at Zagreb Animafest. The way the programs flowed was seamless. The composition allows the audience to see subtle connections between films. At the same time, I felt I was led to appreciate each animation individually. I asked the festival director, Margit (Buba) Antauer, if she could share any secrets on how she determines the order of films.

Buba said, I will never forget 1992 when I did the programming for the first time. I wanted to honor a film which I personally adored. It was a very contemplative film surrounded with a few real audience catchers. I was sitting in the hall waiting for my film (Kucias: Through the Field) to be screened but my senses were still occupied with the previous film and my favorite simply drowned! My timing was completely wrong! I learned a lot from that case, and I try to be more careful nowadays

Dreams and Desires: Family Ties, by Joanna Quinn, took both the Grand Prize and the International Critics Award. Quinn is scheduled to be the honorary president for Zagreb 2008. © Joanna Quinn (right).

Before I start I already have four main premises: the length of a program (around 110 min + intermission), include only one longer film per program, the filmmakers in attendance should be evenly distributed through all programs, and also the countries of production!

As I watch all films with the selection committee, I try to remember stories, design and the rhythm of each work. Within my frame I start to put the pieces together like in a puzzle until in my head and in my heart I have the feeling that they fit, that they wont hurt each other, or steal from each other. I never forget that they will be screened in a huge hall in front of a very heterogeneous audience. Sometimes consciously and sometimes even unconsciously, threads run through the chosen program I am really quite nervous before each screening.

Besides the filmmakers, the Zagreb festival draws an informed and appreciative local audience. I was often surprised at the enthusiastic response from the locals who valued a variety of film forms including abstract works. I attribute part of that response to Bubas careful programming.

Rabbit by Run Wrake, an audience favorite, didnt win any honors at Animafest. © Run Wrake.

Festival Traditions

Zagreb Animafest started in 1972, as a biennial festival, so this was the 17th festival. It is the second oldest animation festival in Europe. As of this year, it will be an annual event, with feature films in October of odd numbered years, short films in June of even numbered years.

Always growing, the festival develops new traditions. This year the festival instituted a new media competition, where people were invited to vote on-line for the entries. They continued to have a childrens jury, a tradition started at the last festival.

Eighteen special programs provided a wide range of animation, including best music videos, best of UPA, profiles of Shanghai Studio, Croatian computer animation, animation in Serbia and tributes to individual animators Oscar Fishinger and Fyodor Khitruk (the Lifetime Achievement Award winner).

New York embraces the Big Apple as its symbol, and the city of Zagreb has adapted a ceramic painted heart. But Zagreb Animafest is known for the trademark bowler hat. The festival hall was filled with playful sculptures and prints from the late designer Zvonimir Loncaric.

I love the city, which is not really a tourist city, but full of open-air cafes and coffee shops, bustling foot traffic and helpful locals. For me, it is like walking through an architecture museum. Surrounded by turn of the century buildings, some with beautiful art nouveau decoration. And although I am not into soccer, we were all swept up by the World Cup energy the night that Croatia played Brazil.

Funny Money for Participants

One of the quirky treats of the festival was receiving an envelope of Animafest currency. This festival money was good at 12 restaurants, including macrobiotic fare, McDonalds, traditional Croatian food and the best fish house in town. Paying for your grilled calamari with monopoly money was a treat!

Heres another fun festival treat. French filmmaker Yannick Mahe sent a thank you starring those characters from the festival money. She sent it as a spontaneous, little and personal thank you for the organizers, but agreed to share it with us!

Many filmmakers commented on the intimate warmth of the festival. Small enough that you can easily meet new people. But large enough to be a festival. More than 250 filmmakers and guests participated, representing 43 nations. It was fun to recognize them on the street, with their bright pink festival bags and badge holders. The festival covers the costs of accommodations and meal allowances for directors whose films are screened and also gives some money towards travel. I asked festival director Antauer to tell me about the participation this year. She said, Several countries that are not usually present at major festivals were represented, including all countries of the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Romania, but also a few Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans and many French people much more than previous years.

View the charming thank you note French filmmaker Yannick Mahe sent to Animafest starring characters from the festival money. © Yannick Mahe.

This year the festival hosted ASIFAs General Assembly, held every three years. ASIFA (Association International du Film dAnimation) is the oldest organization for animators. The goal of ASIFA is to promote the art of animation and encourage international understanding among animators. Eighteen board members participated in long days of meetings as we worked to try to build and strengthen the association.

Thank God for Zagreb!

At opening night, John Canemaker was honored for outstanding achievement in animation theory, and this Renaissance man received a second honor being in the appreciative audience while his film, Moon and the Son, was shown in competition. John said, Zagreb Animafest is an especially bright jewel in the crown of animation festivals. It is well produced, beautifully run, full of joy and warmth, respectful of the filmmakers and dignified in its presentation of their films and the award ceremonies. And it is located in one of the worlds most beautiful and walk-able cities. What more could you ask for?

At the awards ceremony, Ronald Bergen, the president of the International Critics Jury, described the experience at the festival as living in the mad parallel universe of animation. But what was really real was the quality of the program.

The only complaints I heard about the festival was that the theater cafe was too expensive, and there were issues with the sound quality during some of the projection. It turned out that part of this was due to filmmakers not sending the projection format for their tapes, as Quinn explained and apologized during the award ceremony.

Perhaps Grand Prize winner Quinn best summed up festival week. When she accepted her two top awards, she complimented Buba, the festival volunteers, the organizers and said how happy she was to be here. She held her heavy Marble Z trophy high and called out to the audience, Thank God for Zagreb! We laughed and applauded along with her.

Deanna Morse is an animation artist and a professor at Grand Valley State University, Michigan. Last year, she served on the jury of SIFAF (Korea) and KROK (Ukraine) animation festivals. She is on the international board of ASIFA, and serves on the advisory boards of the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Kalamazoo International Animation festival. A retrospective of her animation and experimental films are published in an award-winning DVD Move Click Move.