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24th Encounters Festival: September 25-30, 2018 – Bristol, England

Being both a live action and an animated short film festival, the Encounters Festival schedule was packed with film programs of every description.

When I was invited to be on the Animation Jury of the Encounters Festival I had no idea that it encompassed so many different programs.  Being both a live action and an animated short film festival, the schedule was packed with film programs of every description.  Along with the Animation Jury, there were 6 other separate juries covering everything from Brief Encounters, Immersive Encounters, Children’s films, Deaf Shorts, Young People’s films, to the Depict works.  There were short film competition programs and both Brief and Immersive Encounters competitions awarded their winner 2,000 pounds each.  Immersive Encounters, created in 2017, showcases a mixed media program of thought-provoking documentary, dance, music videos, animation, and fictional film.

The competition for and about deaf people was in its third year.  It was created to increase awareness of films about and by deaf people.  To honor the 100th anniversary of women receiving the right to vote in England, all of the leading ladies roles in the program Deaf Shorts: Sister Act were played by deaf women.

The animation jury - Aneta, Nina and Nancy

Along with my fellow jurors Aneta Ozorek, Artistic Director of the KLIK Animation Festival and award-winning animator Nina Gantz, I watched 6 programs that were all strictly animation.  The 71 films that we watched were selected from 550 submissions in the animation category.  Other programs included some animation with the live action shorts which were not eligible for the awards we were giving.

Our six programs were organized around themes.  Program 1 was Other Worlds, films that “transport you to deep space and beyond where memories and emotions collide in alternative and hyper-realities” according to the catalogue.  In this program, I liked The Market of Lost Things.  The 6’19’’ film by Swiss animators Zaide Kutay and Christelle Serrano tells the story of a girl who wakes up one day without her face and needs to find a new one.  Where can she possibly go to find one?  The Market of Lost Things turns out to be a place where creatures of all sorts gather to find mislaid and forgotten objects.  Zaide and Christelle made the film while students at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts.  The university’s film department is known for its excellent, often quirky, student films.  This film has nice character design and I especially liked the background designs which combined interesting patterns and designs with a vast array of colors.

Program 2, Happy Sad, was exactly what the title implies.  Wildebeest fit in this category perfectly.  It is a very strong film that has won numerous international awards.  Belgian directors Nicolas Keppens and Matthias Philips begin the 19-minute film in a very upbeat mood with the main characters Linda and Troyer going on their dream holiday, an African safari.  It all turns terribly wrong when the couple gets left behind in the wilderness.  The film is full of sardonic Belgian humor with a very serious point to it: Just who benefits from these Ecotourism and safari camera trips?

In awarding Wildebeest the 2,000-pound Animation Grand Prix, our jury said “This is a film that addresses a very serious subject with an incredible sense of humor. It was obvious to the jury that the creators of this film treated their characters with respect and love”.

Wildebeest

What would you do if you were told that you had an incurable disease and did not have long to live?  Sunniva Fluge Hole offers a look into one woman’s answer to that question in her 3’57’’ animation Liv.  Instead of just waiting to die, Liv takes matters into her own hands and goes to the mountains to live out the rest of her days in the wilderness and have the freedom to choose how and when she will die.  Liv is Sunniva’s graduation film from the Art University Bournemouth, England.  The characters are done in 2D (ToonBoom Harmony) but what really makes the film are the story and the beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds.

The 4th Program was titled Heterotopia.  The term is a concept by philosopher Michael Foucault to describe cultural, institutional, and discursive spaces that are ‘other’:  disturbing, intense, incompatible, contradictory or transforming.  There were several films in this program that fit that description and made a lasting impression on me.

Estonian animator Ulo Pikkov consistently creates films that stay with me long after my first viewing of them.  His 10’44’’ Letting Go (Lahtilask Mise Lugu) is no exception.  The premise of the film is based on the Japanese belief that by releasing a paper doll into the sea a person lets go of an evil spirit.  This multi-layered animated documentary is about a young girl, Agnes, from an orphanage who wants to let go of the shadows that haunt her.  The dolls in their hypnotic dance are made of bad memories which can pierce your heart like a nail.  The film captures the essence of what it can mean to be an orphan.

In Room, a 6’ animation by Michal Socha from Poland, the room is a geometric space drifting freely in space.  Inside of the room, there are no windows, doors, or furniture, only a bodiless head that is constantly trying to get out of the confining space.  Room employs a surreal style to represent the passage of time and a situation where there is no way out.  The film kept my attention until a color sequence popped up which was unnecessary and broke the spell of the black and white film for me.

Screening 5, Rhyme, Rhythm, and Reason was all about where not making sense makes perfect sense.  This program contained one of the most unbelievably, outrageously, improbably funny, yet sweet animated films that I have seen in a long time.  In awarding the 1,000 pound Encounters Best of British Animation Award to the Brothers McLeod, Greg and Myles, for their 8 minute 33 second film Marfa we said “The jury has no idea how two British guys could go to ‘Bum Fuck Egypt’ (a World War II army expression that means the middle of nowhere, with no disrespect meant to Egypt) which certainly applies to Marfa, Texas and captures the heart and soul of a small Texas town so perfectly”.​

L-R: David Sproxton, Aneta Ozorek, Greg McCloud, Nina Ganz, Nancy and animation programmer Kieran Argo

The film, which debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival was inspired by an unexpected stay in Marfa when illustrator Gary and writer Myles had their car break down in the town.  The film also screened at the 2018 Marfa Film Festival.    

Located in a remote corner of far West Texas, Marfa with a population of fewer than 2,000 people is an unlikely place to hold a film festival, but they do hold one every year.  Even more improbable is the fact that this sun-drenched desert town has become an art mecca.  Giant and There Will Be Blood were filmed in Marfa.  The town is also home to the strange phenomena called the Marfa Lights. Numerous people including famous meteorologists have reported seeing seemingly sourceless lights dance on the horizon southeast of the town in an area that is nearly uninhabited and very difficult to get to.  The mysterious lights are sometimes blue, sometimes white, and appear randomly throughout the night regardless of the weather.  They can be seen year-round from the viewing platform outside of town.

Marfa

I have passed through Marfa though I have never been there long enough to capture its essence as fully as the BAFTA-winning McLeod Brothers did with Greg’s witty hand-drawn illustrations and the catchy dialogue, interviews, and poetry that Myles created for the film.    They have also put out a book, Marfa: The Book of the Film, with drawings and some captions from the film.

Our jury awarded a Special Mention to Obon. Obon is a Japanese Buddhist festival where a person honors the spirit of one’s ancestors.    The 15’ film is a German/Japanese production by Andre Hormann and Samo (Anna Bergmann).  In this animated documentary Akiko Takakura, one of the last remaining survivors of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, receives the spirits of her parents during Obon and is haunted by memories of how in the midst of the terror and suffering all around her she found a rare moment of closeness with her strict, authoritarian father. Director Hormann says that the film is all about Akiko finally experiencing at the age of 19 what it means to receive fatherly affection.

Akiko is 1 of only 10 people within a radius of 500 meters from ground zero to have survived the atomic bomb blast.  Her friend and colleague Satomi Usami, who was next to her when the bomb went off, died in the blast while Akiko survived by sheer luck.  She remembers extraordinary details of that terrible day and her stories bring them to life.  She is now 92 and still lives in Hiroshima.

Akiko’s story is very powerfully told and given the world situation today very relevant.  The animation is beautifully done and the musical score created and performed by Berlin-based composer Daniel Regenberg adds just the right note to the film.  To get the rather eerie effect on the soundtrack Daniel played on the strings of his grand piano.  He then recorded the sounds and layered them over each other.  We unanimously agreed to give a Special Mention “to a film that captures a well-known part of history in a unique and personal way”.

I’ve always gotten a great laugh from John Waters’ Scratch and Sniff films but I had never imagined Wallace and Gromit in Smell-O-Vision. Encounters in partnership with Anima 18 presented Scratch ‘N Sniff Cinema at the festival where you could not only watch Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit but smell it in all its glorious Smell-O-Vision too.

From stinking Bishop to Bunny Burps, the audience immersed its senses in the duo’s first feature-length film from the very creative people at Aardman.  According to Curse of the Were-Rabbit creative director Merlin Crossingham “We spend ages working on how our films look and sound because that is how cinema works.  Entertainment for your eyes and ears.  So having the ability to add smell to the cinematic experience is tantalizing, your nose will be left out no longer”.

Anima 18 shows films that are too “mature” for little kids.  Now, that perennial family favorite Wallace and Gromit have finally stepped over the family-friendly line with Smell-O-Vision.  Audience members were given a special card containing weird and wonderful smells linked to scenes. It takes Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit to another dimension.

I knew that Aardman had developed a Virtual Reality department but I didn’t realize that Bristol is in the vanguard of creative Virtual Reality production.  According to the National Immersion Economy report, Bristol is one of the United Kingdom’s top cities for creative VR.  The UK Tech Innovation Index ranked it as one of the UK’s most innovative cities also.  Cutting edge creative VR work is emerging from the city and beginning to gain international recognition.

Limina Immersive is a company that provides portable VR equipment to venues and at Encounters, they created a Virtual Reality theatre.  The program spotlighted VR projects from 6 Bristol producers that covered a diverse area of subjects.

VR has become much more interesting to me now that it is being used to tell stories.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see all 6 VR pieces but I am very glad that I saw We Sing In Blood and Fire by the multi-talented writer, director, and animator Hazel Grian.  In her 12’30’‘ VR opera she celebrates how a community comes to terms with extreme violence. 

One night several years ago, alone in her home in Bristol, Hazel was brutally attacked by an intruder and left for dead as her house burned.  In her extremely stirring VR experience, Hazel shares with us the citywide response to her attack.  Sing In Fire and Blood is a work in progress, the first part of a series of VR pieces.

Sisterhood Is Anna OK?  From Aardman and BBC Studio directed by Camila Ruz took the viewer on an emotional journey to piece together both sides of a true story, stepping into the shoes of twin sisters Anna and Lauren to discover how their lives were changed in an instant after an accident.  

Another special attraction at the festival was Country Focus. These programs featured animation and live action films from Georgia, Ghana, and Italy.  Georgia has a rich tradition of producing short animation.  In 1983 director Davit Takaishvili won the Palm d’ Or at Cannes for his 10’ animation Chiri (Plague).  In the film, one color assumes power over all the other colors and destroys them.  In the end, the dominating color dies in its one color world.

More recently Ana Chubinidze’s 2016 film The Pocket Man has won numerous awards at animation festivals worldwide.  In her 8’ film, a little man lives in a suitcase on the sidewalk.  After his home is repeatedly kicked over by a stranger the little man discovers that the culprit is blind and his preconceptions about the man were all wrong.  The little man jumps into the blind man’s pocket and with the assistance of his “musical straw” he helps his new friend avoid obstacles on the sidewalk when they are out walking together.  The Pocket Man is the first Georgian, French, Swiss co-production.

I am particularly fond of Georgian animator Sandro Katamashvili’s ode to his grandmother Bebo (Granny).  Set in a Georgian town on a warm night, Granny sits at her sewing machine working hard to sew an endless piece of cloth as life goes on around her.  Sandro told me that the film was inspired by the memory of his grandmother on just such a night. 

The program was organized in conjunction with the Georgian National Film Center, and Encounters hosted a delegation of Georgian Filmmakers and professionals from Tbilisi City Council.  Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia.  There was a Georgian drinks reception where I had the chance to meet members of the Georgian delegation.

Along with the Accra Animation Film Festival, Encounters presented a program of animated shorts from all over Africa.  Accra Festival is held every July in Accra, Ghana.  The festival focuses on supporting and promoting African animators by giving them a platform to showcase their work.  The 7-day festival includes screenings of international as well as continental African animation along with cultural programs and master classes.

The day after the African screenings there was a West African Breakfast where I got to meet the members of the Ghanaian delegation.  This was followed by the Ghanaian Animation Talk which focused on the animation industry in Africa and opportunities that are available there.

Aardman lobby Aardman lobby More original artwork

The animation jury was invited to visit Aardman Studio Headquarters on Gas Ferry Road.  Aneta, Nina and I got to peek behind the scenes to see where all of the magic happens.  The lobby alone is worth a visit.  Along with the ten foot Shaun the Sheep and other members of the sheep family, Bitzer looks at you over the famous stone wall.  A large Gromit and Morph are there to greet you at the door and all the other famous characters are scattered around the lobby.  As you walk down the hall to the studios the walls are lined with photos from the early days of Aardman and framed original artwork from various projects such as the 2007 short Pierce Sisters by Luis Cook.  The film won a BAFTA for Cook, a director at Aardman.

Wall of memories Wallace's mouths and Gromit The model building area Morph is everywhere

The most fun part of the studio was the model building area which was chock-full of familiar characters. There was a box containing Wallace’s numerous mouths, characters from Creature Comforts, and all of the other beloved Aardman characters adorned shelves and table.  There was just too much to take in, really.  Aardman does not offer tours to the public so I felt very privileged that we were invited for a private tour.

Feathers McGraws all ready for the auction Wallace and Nancy sharing a park bench

Aneta and I discern another side of Gromit ​ ​

As exciting as the studio visit was, my personal tour to see the well-known characters to be auctioned off for Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal was even more exciting.  This year Feathers McGraw joined Wallace and Gromit to raise money for Bristol Children’s Hospital and Special Care Baby Unit at St. Michael’s Hospital.

Feathers McGraw ready to go to a new home Steam punk Gromit

66 sculptures of the three characters were decorated by such well-known people as Wes Anderson, Amy Timms, and Peter Lord.  Nick Park even gave Feathers McGraw a new look.  All of the pieces were on display at locations throughout Bristol from 2 July to 2 September so the public could follow a trail around the city and get a close up look at them.  This year the trail had the mastermind penguin Feathers McGraw on the loose again and the dynamic duo, aka Wallace and Gromit were out to track him down.

Nancy's favorite Wallace A gaggle of Gromits

Nancy with Wallace and bench designer Helen Jarvis  

Following the viewing, the sculptures were taken to a special tent erected behind The Mall at Cribbs which is quite a ways out from downtown Bristol.  I was taken to The Mall where I got to have a private tour. I could sit on a bench with a life-sized Wallace and pet the amazing Gromit.  This was a true highlight of my visit to Bristol that I will never forget.  A few weeks later the auction raised over £1.62 million for the hospital.

Over the 6 days of Encounters, there were so many exciting films that it was impossible to see everything but the programs and events that I did attend were excellent.  The festival home is at Watershed Cinema located in former warehouses on the harbor side of the River Avon.  It is a great place for a festival with several screening rooms, multi-use areas and a restaurant that serves delicious food and drink.

Nina enjoying dessert at one of the many fine restaurants we were taken to for dinner Chuck Jones' gift to the watershed

I want to thank Festival Director Rich Warren and Animation Programmer Kieran Argo for inviting me to be a member of the Animation Jury.  Kieran took very good care of Aneta, Nina, and me treating us to delicious meals at lovely restaurants and providing us with a fine selection of Bristol beer.  A very big thank you goes to Kieran for arranging our tour of Aardman and my trip to see the Auction sculptures.

You can learn more about the 2018 festival and how to submit your film to the 2019 edition at:  www.encounters-festival.org.uk

From Bristol, I flew directly to Moscow to join the KROK boat for a very special edition which I will tell you about in my next article. 

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