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4th French Institute Alliance Française (fi : af) Animation Festival - 5-15 February: Online from New York City

Founded in 2018, the fi : af Animation First Festival was initiated to introduce French animation to New York City audiences.

Founded in 2018, the fi : af Animation First Festival was initiated to introduce French animation to New York City audiences. This year the event was held online and for the first time was available to all residents of the fifty states and United States Territories. 

The festival kicked off on opening night with the American premiere of Remi Chaye’s Calamity Jane, a childhood of Martha Jane Cannary. The film begins with a ten-year-old Martha Jane on the Oregon Trail with her father and two younger siblings. En route, when her father suffers a serious accident, young Martha takes over driving the covered wagon and looking after her brother and sister. Along the way she discovers the freedom of dressing and acting like a boy.  Despite the protests of the rest of the wagon train she refuses to give up her newfound freedom. When she is wrongly accused of theft, young Calamity sets off after the actual culprit to clear her name, creating havoc everywhere she goes.

Her fight against sexism and a male-dominated society makes for a colorful and entertaining film that the entire family can enjoy. As well as taking top honors at Cine Kid 2020, Calamity took home the 2020 Annecy Best Feature Film Cristal. At Animation First, over 900 households watched the opening night film.

In a separate presentation, Calamity Jane’s director Remi Chaye told the audience that little is really known about Calamity’s real life because she lied a great deal about herself. As a consequence, much of the film is imagined as to what her childhood was like. It is a known fact that the family did leave Missouri headed West with a wagon train.

On the Oregon Trail

Chaye’s team used landscape paintings and antique drawings on old train posters as references to create the strong, bold colors of the prairie and the Rocky Mountains. They had to learn how to deal with flat landscapes and clouds to give the impression of vast open spaces, a thing he said that most people in France are not used to.

Calamity Jane was in production five years from the inception of the idea to the finished film, using fifty-six thousand drawings and a team of one hundred artists.  The film is a mix of traditional and digital animation and is a French/Danish co-production. Currently, it is available in French with English subtitles, but there will soon be an English language version. The film is one of the three finalists for the Cèsar Award in the Best Feature Film category.

Chaye said that he wants to create strong role models for young people, especially girls and wants his films to talk about what it is like to be a girl or boy and what the consequences are for people who cross the line that society imposes. His 2016 film Long Way North was also about a strong young girl, a 15-year-old Russian aristocrat named Sasha. When her explorer grandfather goes missing on an expedition to the North Pole, Sasha sets out to find him and his missing ship. Long Way North was also shown as part of the festival.

Remi Chaye’s next project, which he is currently writing, will be an animated musical about misery. It will be the story of a young girl living in Paris at the end of the 19th century in a shantytown who becomes a singer a-la Edith Piaf.

The debut film Josep by Le Monde cartoonist Aureline Froment, aka Aurel, delves into a seldom discussed, painful chapter of French history. It also pays homage to an illustrator. Josep is a powerful film about the Catalonian artist Josep Bartoli who was an anti-Franco activist during the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, while fleeing Spain across the Pyrenees to France along with 500,000 other refugees in hopes of finding freedom there, but instead he was captured by French police and held in a series of overcrowded, squalid refugee camps. The prisoners were given little or no food or medical attention and were ill-treated by most of the guards.

During the entire time of his confinement, Bartoli drew sketches of life in the camp, depicting his fellow prisoners and guards. Thanks to a sympathetic young gendarme, Josep managed to escape and eventually made his way to Mexico, becoming one of Frida Kahlo’s lovers.  Later in New York City, he befriended well-known artists, among them Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. He later painted film sets in Hollywood until he was blacklisted. Bartoli died in 1995 leaving behind brown and grey Goyaesque sketches of life in the refugee camps.

In conversation with moderator John Canemaker, Aurel and scriptwriter Jean-Louise Milesi, along with Josep’s widow Bernice Bromberg, talked about the making of the film. Aurel became interested in the Retirada, as that dark period of history is called when by accident he discovered a book written by George Bartoli, the artist’s nephew, about families in French concentration camps, which was illustrated with Josep’s sketches.

Josep Bartoli’s original artwork

Aurel discussed the challenges of turning the drawings into a film and selecting palettes to focus on different periods of Bartoli’s life with screenwriter Jean-Louis Milesi. Milesi is noted for writing the scripts for A la Place du Coeur (Where the Heart Is) and Marius and Jeannette. Milesi has been nominated for a Cesar as well as the European Film Awards. Known as a live-action scriptwriter, he said that when Aurel asked him to undertake the project he didn’t think about whether it would be live-action or animation. For him the real challenge was that as his first historical film, there was so much material that he had to make difficult decisions about what to use. Aurel wanted to be very clear about which drawings were Bartoli’s and which were his. Bartoli’s drawings are very spidery and detailed, so Aurel used broad, bold lines to denote his work.

Bernice Bromberg has been the primary guardian and promoter of her husband’s work since his death. She first met Aurel and Jean-Louis after the first draft of the script was complete and showed them Josep’s drawings, paintings and sketchbooks. The director said that Bromberg had been very supportive of his project from their first meeting and did not try to interfere with the film, which took 10 years to make. Josep is nominated for the Cèsar Award in the Best Feature Animation category.

I was delighted to see the Paul Grimault classic film Le Roi et l’Oiseau (The King and the Mockingbird). Grimault is considered an icon and is one of the fathers of French animation. His films are delicate in style, lyrical, and satirical.

The King and the Mockingbird

Based on the Hans Christian Anderson story The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep, the film follows a young girl and a chimney sweep who are on the run from a tyrannical king. With some help from a talking mockingbird, the lovers manage to evade the king who is determined to marry the pretty shepherdess. The film, completed in 1952, has all of the charm of 1930’s animation with outrageous machines and a robot that makes the one in Metropolis look like a midget.

This satirical and surreal film is still relevant today as it tells a story of the corrupting nature of power. Evil King Charles V+III=VIII reminded me of Donald Trump both in appearance and behavior, throwing temper tantrums whenever he didn’t get his own way.

The King and the Mockingbird took 30 years to make and another 34 years to be released in the United States. The film is credited with inspiring the celebrated Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to create Studio Ghibli.

A separate program, The Animated World of Paul Grimault, screened eight newly restored short films of his made between 1942 and 1973. While his short films became increasingly political, they retained his trademark poetic style and satirical humor.

The Note Seller

My favorite of the shorts is the silent Le Marchard de Notes (The Note Seller) from 1942. The ten-minute black and white film features a merchant who sells musical notes in a store shaped like a music box complete with a dancing ballerina on the very top. The film’s hero is a boy with a whimsical face and a smiley face on the seat of his pants. He can change the pant’s face when he wiggles his ass tauntingly at the music man. Various musicians wander aimlessly in and out of the picture, blowing horns that make no sound until they buy notes from the merchant. A mobile piano roams at random throughout the film. The cast of characters also includes a musical note-eating goose who wears a bonnet and has a dog tied around her neck like a scarf.

The Note Seller introduced characters and themes that appear in many of Paul Grimault’s later films.

The Little Soldier

The 1947 film Le petit soldat (The Little Soldier) is an adaption of another Hans Christian Anderson story.  It tells the story of a budding romance between two mechanical toys, a ballerina and a toy soldier. The soldier is conscripted into the toy army and while he is away, Jack-in-the-Box tries to seduce the little ballerina, who is repulsed by his nasty leers. When the little tin soldier returns wounded from the war missing a leg, Jack tries to kill him by taking his heart-shaped winding key. When that doesn’t work, he tries to drown him in the icy river. In a dramatic climax, the ballerina saves her toy soldier and Jack gets caught in a steel trap. The action takes place in a world of vibrant colors that so many of Grimault’s films are known for. Although it is not as surreal as many of his other films, the classic story is beautifully told.

Any new film from Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Davy Durand, the team that brought us Ernest and Celestine, is a treat. This time it is Chien Pourri – la vie à Paris (Stinky Dog – Happy Life in Paris), based on books by Colas Gutman and Mare Boutavant.

Stinky Dog lives in a Parisian garbage can. His faithful friend Chaplapla (Flatty Cat) lives in a pizza box next to him. Stinky Dog isn’t the world’s greatest thinker but he is happy living in his trash can with Flatty Cat close at hand. In the five episodes that I watched which were put together in a sixty-minute program, Stinky Dog looks for a canine love interest, tries to go on holiday, and meets the snobbish cat and dog who live in the house next to his garbage can. He also goes on a hunt for the Statue of Liberty which he is convinced is in Paris. Somehow his plans never work out quite right but Flatty Cat is always there to save the day.

The slapstick 52 episode television series is aimed at six- to ten-year-olds. I enjoyed the nice artwork and charming stories which took me back to my inner six-year-old self.

Wes Anderson with puppets from Isle of Dogs

The festival had two special guests this year: Wes Anderson and Kristof Serrand. Anderson was the festival’s first-ever American guest. He curated a program of four of his favorite films that inspired him. At the top of his list was a rarely screened Hindi version of the 1942 classic Bambi, with French subtitlesFor the Hindi version, a new score was created. Due to the Indian government’s scrutiny of foreign films at the time, Bambi wasn’t released in India. The Hindi version was screened in Hollywood and won a Special Achievement Award at the 1948 Golden Globes. Due to rights issues, the festival screened the Hindi-dubbed version with the film’s original score instead of the Indian score.

Bambi remains as beautiful and timeless as when it was first released and it is impossible to watch it without a box of tissues at hand.  Whenever I watch Bambi, I am amazed at the snarling dogs drawn by Retta Scott, the first woman animator at Disney.

Bambi is considered to be one of the first environmental films, a poignant commentary against violence and one of the few times that Disney veered from his usual cartoony style to depict animal characters and their environment in a natural style.

Anderson also selected Martin Rosen’s 1982 The Plague Dogs. This beautifully animated adaptation of Richard Adam’s novel is almost too painful to watch, but in this age where pain is inflicted on research animals of all sizes, everyone should have to watch this film.

The Plague Dogs

Two dogs, Snitter and Rowlf, manage to escape from a research laboratory located on National Park land. They had been repeatedly abused in the name of scientific testing. Once free they meet Tod, a cunning fox, who helps them to survive in the wild. Even though the laboratory director tries to keep their escape quiet, an increasing number of sheep are being killed on the moor and it is rumored that the dogs who are killing them are carrying the Bubonic Plague. You know that there can’t be a happy ending for the two dogs or Tod. If you didn’t finish your box of tissues with Bambi you definitely will with The Plague Dogs.

The third selection by Anderson was Suzie Templeton’s 2006 adaptation of the Prokofiev classic Peter and the Wolf. Unlike previous versions of this traditional fairy tale Templeton foregoes a narrator and sets Prokofiev’s beautiful score in the modern-day Russian countryside. The film won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Animated Short and the Annecy Audience Award.

Peter and the Wolf

With Wes’s final selection it was time to put the handkerchiefs away and smile as A Doonesbury Special brought back memories of 1977. Based on Gary Trudeau’s enduring Doonesbury comic strip, it was originally aired on NBC on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, November 27, 1977.

This twenty-five-minute special finds the six principal characters of the strip’s early years, Zonker Harris, Joanie Caucus, B.D., B.D.’s airhead girlfriend Boopsie, Mark Slackmeyer and Doonesbury still living together in the commune next to Walden College.

Along with animators Faith and John Hubley, Trudeau ponders an important question of the ’70s: Do you sell out your idealism and your thirst for political and social change as you get older? Or more specifically, do you stop building a commune to build a condo?

The commune members

As Mike Doonesbury searches for the meaning of life, he muses on gender and race relations, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, football, and pot-smoking, bringing an unexpected profundity to this holiday prime time special. A Doonesbury Special won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar in 1978.

Unlike most other festivals, Animation First has only one competition. The Animation First Student Short Competition was initiated this year to showcase the work of students from six schools, three from American schools and three from French schools. The United States schools were California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts), Ringling College of Art and Design, and School of the Visual Arts (SVA). France was representative by EMCA, Gobelins l’ Ecole de I’ Image, and Rubika.

Each school selected five graduation films from its 2020 class to be entered in the competition. The films were divided into two programs, one of American films and another one of French films. The thirty films competed for Best French Film and Best American film as well as an audience award. Acclaimed French animator Kristof Serrand (The Prince of Egypt, Kung Fu Panda, and Abominable) acted as jury foreman. Two students from each of the six schools were also jury members.  A list of all of the winning films is at the end of this article.

Kristof Serrand

Kristof also gave a live talk from his home in Paris where he recently returned to live after a long stint working in Hollywood. During his presentation entitled Kristof’s Cabinet of Curiosities, he talked about what has inspired him and led to his life full of art. He began at the age of four or five when he became fascinated with a book of Dore engravings in his parent’s library. His enjoyment of Tin Tin and Smurf books led him to comics. His innate curiosity made him want to know who these artists were, and he initially wanted to be a comic book artist.

Kristof attended the Beaux-Arts de Paris where he discovered Klimt, Lautrec, and Bosch along with illuminated manuscripts and Japanese art and as well as studying at Gobelins, L'École de L'Image.

I was fascinated to learn that Kristof had worked on The King and the Mockingbird. He spent twenty-five years in Los Angeles where he was head of Character Animation at DreamWorks. One interesting fact that he revealed was that he had no problem moving from 2D to 3D because he loves acting even more than drawing. After his long tenure at DreamWorks Kristof has recently returned to France to accept the position of Netflix Character Animation Manager for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

This was the most entertaining presentation I have seen since on-line festivals began. Kristof’s charming personality and his love of art-filled my entire living room with joy. The talk was so well organized, full of humor, and each piece of artwork that he talked about was pictured on my screen, often in collages with other pieces related to what he was speaking about.

He also must be quite a packrat because he was able to show us samples of his earliest work. The hour flew by and left me wanting to hear more from this extremely talented and knowledgeable man.

Florence Mialhe

There was also an informative presentation by Florence Miailhe from her studio, in an old Parisian warehouse. The renowned animator said that first she was a painter but now animation has taken over her production. Her background as a painter is evident in her films, where she uses paint, pastels, and even sand to express movement directly under camera, covering up layer upon layer, ending up with just the final image.

Among her numerous awards in 2002, she won a Cesar in the Best Short Film category for Au premier Dimanche d'août (A Summer Night Rendezvous). In 2015 Florence received an Honorary Cristal from the Annecy International Animation Festival in recognition of her body of work. Her impressionist style films reflect the attention to detail in everyday life with a mastery of color and detailed design.

Much of her talk centered on her soon-to-be-completed first feature-length film The Crossing, which she has been developing since 2010. The film is about migration, linking today’s migration with those of the past generations.

The film is a very personal undertaking inspired by her mother’s story, where her family was forced to flee Odessa. The film is based on testimonies and memories left by those who fled their homelands. Florence’s mother was a painter and some of her artwork is used in the film. I am looking forward to seeing what I expect will be a moving story portrayed with beautiful visuals.

Animation First was packed with so many interesting programs that I was glued to my couch for eleven days. It is impossible to go into detail about all of the programs but I will try to give you an overview of some of the other things that I watched.

The six films in the Focus on African Animation came from Ghana, Tunisia, Madagascar, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burkina Faso. Adopting her best-selling graphic novel, Aya of Yop City into a feature film, Marguerite Abouet, along with co-director Clement Oubrerie, have brought the colorful life of 1970’s Yop City in Adibjan, Ivory Coast to life. I didn’t know what to expect from the 2013 feature film but I found the story of nineteen-year-old Aya both humorous and touchingly sad as she struggles to make a place for herself in her world.  The film has great music too.

The Animated Docs program ranged from looking inside psychiatric hospitals where the aim is not to cure people but rather to make them happy and content, to looking into children’s heads as they talk about growing up.

There was also a Best of Annecy 2020 program as well as two programs of New French Shorts. Family Friendly Shorts was designed for the entire family to enjoy together.

I wasn’t sure how Virtual Reality would work via television but it did work quite well. The exploration of the great cathedral Notre Dome de Paris, pre-fire damage, took me to the very top of the amazing building to give me a bird’s eye view of the magnificently sculpted gargoyles on the upper reaches of the cathedral. I was also led up stairways and into alcoves that are closed to the public. It was a most enjoyable experience.

Another VR experience took us into the prehistoric murals in the Cave of Chauvet. It is a Paleolithic cave in Southern France that houses impeccably preserved examples of prehistoric art. The public is no longer allowed to enter the cave, but we got to see the magnificent drawings on our computer screens by moving the cursor around the picture left, right and up or down. That allowed us to view the numerous, diverse animals that are both painted and engraved on the interior walls of the cave. It was a rare treat.

Approximately 28,000 viewers from 958 cities across the United States, as far away from New York City as Hawaii and Alaska tuned into the Animation First screenings and events. The $20 pass for the entire festival was extremely reasonable. The pass gave full access to all screenings, talks, workshops, and VR experiences for the entire fifteen days of the event.

I want to thank the festival staff for sending me a special invitation and pass to join Animation First even though I don’t live in the United States, and I hope that I will have the opportunity to join the festival again next year.

 As much as we all want to get back into the theatres to watch film as it should be shown on the big screen, I think that the online version of the festival reached a wide audience throughout the United States. This is very important since opportunities to see foreign animation are very limited in that country. I realize how much work goes into running a festival much less putting it online, but I hope that the organizers will consider putting the 2022 festival online so that they can reach the audience outside of New York City who can not travel there to watch animation. If you live in the United States or one of its territories be sure to check out Animation First.

I was back on my couch to enjoy Anima Brussels and will share the adventure with you in my next article.

You can learn more about fi : af Animation First at: