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58th International DOK Leipzig Festival - 26 October to 1 November 2015 in Leipzig, Germany

With 37 animated documentaries and 94 animated films plus live action films and a special Simpson’s event the Dok Leipzig Festival was so full of content it was impossible to see everything.

The Dok Leipzig Festival in Leipzig, Germany has always screened some animation, but for the first time in its 58 year history the festival presented animation in its own separate programs.  With 37 animated documentaries and 94 animated films plus live action films and a special Simpson’s event it was impossible to see everything.  Screenings were held at various state of the art cinemas close to the Festival Offices in the beautiful Museum der bildenden Künste.  The Art Museum’s collection ranges from works from the late Middle Ages to the 20th Century.

The featured event of the focus on animation was the Simpson’s Night with special guest David Silverman.  David is a producer and animator on the show that chronicles the lives of our favorite residents of Springfield.  He is also a great showman and his presentations are always fun.  At the festival he told funny antidotes about working on the show, showed film clips, and gave drawing tips to a sold out audience who munched on a variety of donuts that were given out at the door to the sold out audience.  Annegret Richter, animation programmer, told me that she even tried to get Homer beer for the event but sadly it was unavailable.

Animation programmer Annegret Richter introducing the Simpsons Event - photo courtesy Dok Press Office

When David is not directing he loves to play the tuba.  Whenever he and Nik are at the same festival David brings his tuba and the duo are liable to pop up anywhere playing traditional Dixieland jazz.  They surprised their Simpson’s Night audience by marching into the cinema and onto the stage playing an up tempo traditional jazz tune as well as playing the Simpson’s theme song during the presentation.  When he was not playing tuba or signing autographs, David served on the International Short Animation Documentary and Animated Film jury.

David Silverman talking while drawing at the Simpsons Event

Nik and David playing the Simpsons theme song

         I was looking forward to seeing Anca Damian’s latest feature film The Magic Mountain which was in the feature   competition.  Anca became one of the very few women to win an Annecy Best Feature Film Crystal on her own with Crulic – The Path to Beyond in 2012.  This story about Crulic, a 33 year old Romanian who died in a Polish prison during the Soviet occupation while on a hunger strike is the first part of her planned trilogy about modern heroes. 

The Magic Mountain, the story of Adam Jack Winkler, is the second installment of the animated documentary trio.  Winkler was a Polish photographer, anti-communist dissident, mountain climber and artist who died in 2002.  A man always on the lookout for the noble cause worth fighting and dying for, his obsession took him to Afghanistan where he joined the Mujahidin’s fight against the Red Army in the 1980’s.

Damian sets the story based on Winkler’s personal archives as a dialogue between Winkler and his daughter using various techniques.  Although I found the story interesting and much of the animation beautiful, the 87 minute film seemed too long.  Many scenes could have been shortened and several edited out altogether.

Along with the competition programs there were numerous retrospectives and special programs one of which spotlighted African animation.  Most of the animation that I see from Africa comes from South Africa and it is frequently a poor attempt to emulate Disney or Pixar.  Belgian historian Dr. Guido Convents presented two programs of Animated Africa:  Sub-Saharan Animation which primarily dealt with local problems and legends.  The programs included films from Zaire, Congo, Burundi, Ruanda and Senegal to Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mozambique, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

Twelve girls from Burundi created Butoyi in a workshop organized by the Belgian based Camera-etc.  The story deals with Butoyi, a brilliant student who is forced to stay at home to help her mother while her brothers go to school.  She dreams of getting an education and independence but knows that this will not happen in her lifetime  if society doesn’t change.

It’s Urgent! By Armel Pululu tackles the problem of the uncivil behavior of drivers and the poor road conditions in the Congo which make it difficult for emergency vehicles to reach their destinations.  My favorite film was Mr. & Mrs. Kokoriko.  Maurice Nkundimana used 2D animation to tackle the problem of female emancipation in Rwanda.   Mrs. Kokoriko, a chicken, protects her family, carries all of the bags, and provides food while her lazy husband demands to be served.  An accident radically alters his way of life and point of view.  The strong stories about regional problems made up for what the two programs lacked in polish.

I have seen several films by the renowned Polish animator Witold Giersz but it was a rare treat to see a retrospective of twelve of the almost sixty films he has made in a career spanning over sixty years.  Working alone on the majority of his films, he has created a unique style of bringing colors to life by painting directly on celluloid. 

Giersz says that he loves animals, especially horses and has combined horses with his painting technique in the four films that comprise his Western series:  The Little Western, The Red and the Black, Horse, and The Old Cowboy.  The tribute ended with Giersz’s latest film Signum.  The film brings to life the Paleolithic art of the Lascaux Caves located in South Western France, mixing actual images from the caves with his drawings.  Using black, red, and ochre, the colors of the cave paintings, he drew and then erased each successive stage of the action on a slab of stone.

 I had the pleasure of sitting next to Witold Giersz at a dinner hosted by the Krakow Film Foundation and although he speaks no English his wife acted as our interrupter.  He told me that the 20,000 year old Lascaux Cave paintings, primarily of large animals that were once native to the region, have always fascinated him.  He knew that he would make a film about them one day but it has taken him a long time to work out the method he wanted to use to bring the animals to life.  He also told me that Signum will be his last film.

Several years ago I sat on a jury with Brigitta Ivanyi-Bitter from Budapest who gave me a copy of the book she wrote about the Hungarian animator and painter Gyorgy Kovasznai.  The book includes four DVD’s which I have watched several times.   Finally, in the program Animated Documentaries from Hungary I had the chance to see several of his films on the big screen.  Kovasznai’s 1963 film The Monologue was the first animated Hungarian film produced after WWII.  The film was forbidden to be screened after its first week run by the government due to the suspicion that the subject and the sarcastic take on 20th century Hungarian history were political and anti-regime.

    Diana Groo, a Hungarian feature and documentary film director; German/Georgian filmmaker Salome Jashi, and David Silverman were charged with the selection of the Golden Dove and Silver Dove winners in the International Short Documentary Film and Short Animation categories.  The Golden Dove along with 5.000 Euros in the International Short Film category went to Swiss animator Georges Schwizgebel for Erlking.  Georges is no stranger to animation fans.  His beautiful and evocative painted on glass films have been winning festival awards for several decades.

Erlking tells the story of a father’s frantic ride through a dark forest on horseback with his sick son.  The child sees visions of the Erlking, who both charms and frightens him.  The Erlking is the name of a spirit or king of the fairies in Danish and German folklore.  The film is based on Goethe’s poem Erlkonig with Schubert and Listz piano music performed by Georges’very talented son Louis Schwizgebel-Wang.

Georges Schwizgebel with his golden Dove - photo courtesy Dok Press Office

Chinese animator Lei Lei was presented the Silver Dove along with 2.000 Euros for Missing One Player.  The four minute film takes the viewer into a world of apathy where people are confronted with the apocalypse.  In the midst of all that three people still want to play mah-jong.  The problem is they can’t because they are missing one player.  The cut-out animation uses vintage patterns, textures, colors, and sounds that Lei Lei’s films have become known for to build an artificial universe mired in an avant-garde atmosphere of melancholy.

Nancy and Lei Lei with his Silver Dove

In the Animated Short Documentary category the Golden Dove and 3.000 Euros was awarded to Wegzaubern (Spirit Away) by Betina Kuntzsch of Germany.  The film is a clever montage of fragments from the medical files of female patients at the psychiatric hospital at the University of Heidelberg.  It paints a painful portrait of women artists who were confined as mentally ill.

The intimate narration is accompanied by a waterphone sound track.  The waterphone is a type of inharmonic acoustic percussion instrument with a stainless steel resonator bowl, cylindrical neck and bronze rods of different lengths and diameters around the rim of the bowl.  It produces an eerie sound that is often used in horror movies. The use of historic magic lantern slides along with the animation creates a nightmarish atmosphere.  Wegzaubern left me with a strange, haunting feeling that was quite unsettling.

Last Day of Freedom by Bay Area filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman received the Silver Dove.  The film is narrated by Bill Babbitt, bother of Manny Babbitt, who still agonizes over his decision to call the police when he realizes that his brother has committed a serious crime that could result in the death penalty.  Manny, an Afro-American Veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, suffered from PTSD.  He found it almost impossible to obtain the mental health care he needed.  The scenes where Bill Babbitt talks about his faith in the American justice system and how he ultimately loses that faith as he watches his brother’s execution are especially painful.  The film is a hard hitting indictment of American society and jurisprudence which uses simple animation, muted colors, and rotoscopy to tell the story of a man who fell through the cracks.

Last Day of Freedom has been nominated for an Oscar this year in the Best Documentary Short Subject category.  Even though I felt that the film was a bit long at 32 minutes, it gives a poignant portrait of what happens to far too many people in America which has the highest incarnation rate in the world.

The Mephisto 97.6 Audience Award for the Best Animated Film went to Florian Grolig from Germany for In the Distance.  The film is about the calm, peaceful life of a man and his chicken who live above the clouds in their attic flat.  Chaos lurks in the distance and each night the impending war draws nearer.  The 5 minute 3D film is a mixture of pathos and humor.  The audience senses there will be no happy ending.

Along with four programs for children and teens there were daily AnimaTalks where the audience could meet the filmmakers and hear them speak about their work.   There were also industry talks, an Industry Lounge, and forums on topics including Art and Censorship and Producing True Stories For Kids.

The Dok Industry Lounge in the museum

With over 1,700 festival guests and screening rooms around the city the cocktail parties at the museum were the perfect place to catch up with old friends and meet festival guests.  There were also evening parties at various locations and late night jam sessions in a specially organized venue where Nik and David played until 3 AM on several nights with the house band who were students at the nearby Music Conservatory.

I can’t thank animation programmer Annegret Richter enough for inviting Nik and me to be part of the DOK Leipzig this year.  Annika Goetz in the press office answered all of my questions and made my job so much easier.  A big thank you also goes out to all of the staff and volunteers of the festival who went out of their way to be helpful, pointing us to the locations of the various screening rooms and events.  I encourage anyone who is a documentary filmmaker or animator to send their work to DOK Leipzig.

You can find out more about this year’s festival and how to apply to the 2016 edition at:

There is also a short video of Nik and David serenading festival guests on the web site.

After Dok-Leipzig I went to the Fredrikstad Animation Festival in Fredrikstad, Norway where I had the honor of moderating the director’s chat.  I’ll write all about my Norwegian adventures in my next article.