Search form

ANIMA BRUSSELS 2009 February 20 – 28; A Festival Close to Home and Heart

Ever since I moved to Belgium I always look forward to ANIMA BRUSSELS each February. The festival is only a half hour train ride from my front door, and it always marks the beginning of Spring to me.  Best of all, it is a wonderful opportunity to see a great deal of Belgian animation.Opening night got off on a high note with a screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful new film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.  I had previously seen Ponyo on opening night of the Anilogue Festival in Budapest but was very glad to have another chance to see this lovely film a second time.  There are so many layers and textures that, as with all of Miyazaki’s films, you can watch it over and over discovering new things each time.

Opening saluts by Steven Woloshen and Ophélie Tailler

This has been a very strong year for feature films and it was nice to see that there are still surprises yet to come in that arena.  Nine feature films were in competition.  I have already written about the much lauded Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley, Bill Plympton’s tour d’ force Idiots and Angels and the beautiful Masayuki Kojima film The Piano Forest. I was particularly happy to have the opportunity to see $9.99, a live action style drama made with puppets. Tatia Rosenthal, the director, was also a guest at the festival.  I first met her several years ago at the KROK International Festival of Animation where her short film A Buck’s Worth was screened.  The Israeli born New York City resident told me when we first met that her aim was to expand her short film based on an Etgar Keret short story into a feature length film encompassing several of his short works. A feature film is a formidable undertaking for anyone, but for a first time director to finance such a project is a herculean task.  It was a delightful surprise to meet her again in Brussels and to see that she has succeeded in her quest to bring the Israeli writer’s short stories to life.  Tatia refers to the film as a dual effort, written by Keret and directed by her.  She has indeed brought his biting comments on our times to the screen with sensitivity.  The Israeli-Australian co-production features the voices of some of Australia’s best known actors such as Jeffrey Rush and Samuel Jackson, and received an ANNIE nomination for best feature as well as a best director nomination for Tatia.  I am sure that many people will have the opportunity to see this excellent film at festivals over the next two years, but I also hope that it will open commercially so that it will have the opportunity to become known to the general public as well.The programmers at ANIMA Brussels have a good sense of humor and made sure that all of the feature films were not totally serious.  Although not in competition, Queer Duck: The Movie was pure fun.  Written by Mike Reiss, better known as executive producer and writer on The Simpsons and The Critic, the film is a totally camp comedy full of references from the world of film, TV and show business.  The character of the gay, anthropomorphic duck debuted on and moved to cable TV channel Showtime in 2002 as a short cartoon.  Although it was not the first gay cartoon it was the first animated TV series to have homosexuality as its theme.  Mike was also a festival guest and presented The Simpsons Back Stage Tour. I have never seen a feature length Bollywood animated film before.  In fact Cheenti Cheenti Bang Bang may well be a first of its kind.  The story is ostensibly based on a Bengali story about two warring kingdoms, the red and the black ants.  Unfortunately it is a terrible film with poorly executed 2-D animation and voiceovers that become very annoying as the grunts and groans in the dialogue droned on endlessly.  The two people I was with walked out after only a few minutes, but being an eternal optimist I hung in there.  I think it is important for festivals to screen a film like Cheenti, Cheent, Bang Bang  I just wish that they had been there to see a better film. because there would be no other opportunity to see it otherwise. Especially for those of Indian origin it was a unique opportunity in Brussels, and in all fairness I have to say that there was a good sized crowd in the theatre for the screening.

The five Short Film Competition Programs contained some films that I consider old friends such as Portuguese animator Zepe’s beautifully complex film Candido, Australian Dennis Tupicoff’s multi layered Chainsaw and KJFG 5 from Alexi Alexeev, which never fails to make me smile no matter how many times I watch it.

It was a great treat to get to see Alex Budovsky’s new animation The Royal Nightmare.  Alex’s work is always a crowd pleaser and this story of an evil King whose life is turned into a nightmare by a pilgrim is no exception. The film is done in Alex’s signature black and white style but unlike his previous films, this one is not music driven.

The Festival has a separate category of awards for films produced in Belgium.  These two Short Film Competitions gave me an opportunity to see some of the best new work created in the Flanders and Walloon regions.  One of my favorite films was Milovan Circus, a puppet animation by Gerlando Infuss.  The story of the rise and fall of a circus artist from star back down to a street performer is shown through flashbacks.  The audience and jury must have agreed with me, since the film won 3 awards and has been selected to compete at Annecy in the Graduation Film Competition.

I was also totally captivated by Ophelie Tailler’s poetic impressions of a world of spiders as portrayed in Une Toile (A Spider Web).  As I watched her strong black and white images I was totally drawn into the rhythmic swaying images floating over the screen.  This was her graduation film and I am sure that she will go on to create even more interesting films, since she says that rather than look for an industry job she wants to continue working in independent animation.

This year for the first time the festival played host to Cosplay Belgium with a two hour session full of costumed performers and audience members of all ages.  Just in case there is anyone out there who has not experienced Cosplay it is short for Costume Play where participates (and audience members) outfit themselves in elaborate costumes representing specific characters from Japanese and East Asian Manga, Anime, comic book and fantasy film characters.  I hope that next year the festival will consider making Cosplay part of the Animated Nights festivities.  I think that the costumes and high spirits of the participants would add a lot to the late night screenings.

Cosplay participant with Franciose Cathala

ANIMA Brussels takes place during the annual Carnival Vacation so it is a great time for the festival to screen many programs designed for the entire family.  This year 7 new episodes of The Little Mole were screened for the very youngest cinema goers and their parents.  The theater, packed with 3 to 6 year olds sat in rapt attention watching Czech animator Zdenek Miller’s timeless mole with the wide eyes and blue overalls, and I have to admit that I was as captivated as any 3 year old.  Last year at ANIMA I bought a DVD with 8 episodes of The Little Mole and when I am feeling overwhelmed by the world, I just disappear into the delightful world that Miller created.  He has said that he was having trouble coming up with an animal to animate that Disney had not already used, but one day he tripped over a molehill and that gave him an idea. The 50 episodes for television were done in 1956 and even though Europeans grew up on them this wonderful children’s classic is unknown in the United States.

The Walt Disney classic Pinocchio was a big hit with young audiences as was Wall-e and the delightful Three Robbers by German director Hayo Freitag.  I first saw this film at Annecy last year and thoroughly enjoyed this tale of Tiffany, the little orphan, who throws her lot in with three robbers as a result of a quirky encounter.  I also like the music by Los Angeles singer/song writer Kenneth Pattengale who captured the tone and mood of the film with his music.

The Saturday morning parent/child brunch is always a lively event, with activities for children of all ages - from face painting for the tiny tots to creating clay critters for the older set.  Of course there was plenty of food and beverage for children and parents alike.  The morning festivities were followed by a special screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Spirited Away.

The activity area for young animators was greatly expanded this year.  Throughout the entire festival young people created their own versions of zoetropes, animated with computers and drew story boards under the tutelage of young professional volunteers.  Every time I stopped by to see what was going on the entire area was abuzz with activity.

Young animators at work

At the other end of the audience spectrum I was really excited when I learned that the Cinematheque Royale de Belgium had organized a Ralph Bakshi retrospective.  I haven’t seen Fritz the Cat in years and was very disappointed that it was the alternative opening night film for those not invited to Ponyo and the party.  Unfortunately it was only screened once so I didn’t have another chance to see it, and sadly, of the 7 Bakshi films that made up the retrospective, only 2 others - Fire and Ice, and Lord of the Rings were screened at the festival, with the rest shown at the museum.

The Animated Nights screening was back again this year showing a potpourri of animation into the wee hours of the morning, with breaks every so often to listen to live music in the lobby and visit the bar.  Bill Plympton, a special festival guest, made a surprise guest appearance at the late night screening much to the delight of the audience.  He introduced his latest short Santa: The Fascist Years.  This was my first opportunity to see Bill’s outrageous look at Santa’s hidden past and it is hilarious.

It is always a pleasure to watch Bill in front of an audience because he has the ability to make everyone in a packed audience feel that he is talking right to them, and his presentation “Conversation With Bill” was no exception.  He compared the story board of Idiots and Angels  He also answered questions from members of the audience, who hung on his every word and drawing. to the completed film and talked about the relationship between writing and images and dramatic structure.

Nik introduced the two screenings of Sita Sings the Blues and answered questions about the film from the audience.  The Festival also invited him to play music on two evenings.  The first night he performed on the main lobby stage and then again the next evening in the upstairs bar.  He was also invited to appear on the ARTE Belgique television program 50 Degrees North where he talked About Sita Sings the Blues, the festival, and composing music for animation and film.

Nik Playing in the main lobby

The noted film critic and documentary film maker Natalia Lukinykh from Moscow introduced her moving tribute to the late, great founder of Russia’s renowned Pilot Studios, Alexander Tatarsky.  I have seen Alexander Tatarsky, or How to Embrace the Immense many times and it never fails to make me smile while bringing tears to my eyes.  We were also treated to four films by Tatarsky, Back Side of the Moon, Lift-1, Gone by Wind and Red Gate Rashemon.  The last film was created with his partner at Pilot Studios, Valentin Telegin who is also Natalia’s husband. Set in 1950’s Moscow, it is a story of a drunken ice skater at an important match.

Nik and Natalya Lukinykh

Canadian Steven Woloshen presented a retrospective of works from his prolific career.  This master of camera-less animation uses every possible technique imaginable from scratching on film to burying it in the ground to create his unusual effects.  Along with the films, Steven commented on the making of each film and showed the “camera” that he constructed to create his work.  During his visit to the festival he also made a film titled Impressions of Brussels which was screened on closing night.

Steven Woloshen with his magic camera

It was a great pleasure to get to know Samuel Lord Black and his lovely wife Kathleen.  He is a very multi talented person having worked in software design, the video game industry, rendering software at Pixar, and has even dabbled in voice acting on features including Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles.  Sam chaired the 2008 Siggraph Competition Jury and presented the Siggraph Computer Animation Festival program at Anima Brussels.

Anima Brussels 2009 seemed to have more special guests and fascinating special presentations than in past years.  Unfortunately there is no way I can write about everything that I saw, but I can assure you that it was a very packed 9 days.

The special exhibits were a real treat.  I have been a fan of the very clever and creative work of directors Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar for some time.  They have collected hundreds of little plastic figures of cowboys, Indians, and horses which they have remolded in different positions, duplicated and repainted to reproduce movement when filmed.  Panique au Village (A Town Called Panic) shows off the multitude of little figures in their original sets for their 20 episodes TV series and later feature film of the same name.

From Strip to Screen delved into the extremely rich relationship between comic strips and animation in Belgium.  From little known beginnings of Peyo, Morris, and Eddy Paape into animation in the golden years of studios such as Belvision and their work with Tintin, Asterix, and Lucky Luke this exhibit took me right up to the present.  Currently there is a new relationship in Belgium between comics and animation with creators such as Eric Blesin, Benoit Feroumont, and William Henne who have one foot in each genre.

Since many of the foreign guests had not visited Brussels before, the festival organized two special tours.  Long-time festival volunteer Norbert Morocutti, who works for the European Union in real life, was a superb guide.   Our trip to The Atomium gave us all a chance to explore this iconic building which was designed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.  Symbolizing an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times, the 9 large spheres are connected by 20 tubes standing on 3 enormous bipods to a height of 102 meters.

Our visit to the Atomium

From the outside it is an impressive structure, but nothing compared to the 360 degree panoramic views from inside.  As with many Expo buildings, The Atomium was not intended to survive the Exhibition but it proved so popular that it has been newly refurbished and has become a major landmark on the Brussels skyline.

The next day our intrepid guide, Norbert, treated us to a train trip to Bruges.  Although I have been to Bruges many times and think of it as a “Disneyland town” for tourists, I can never resist a train ride.  It was also nice to have a chance for a long chat with British Animation historian and writer Clare Kitson.  Clare and I have been friends for a time, but as a member of the International Jury at the festival, she had been very busy and this was our first chance for a good long talk.  On both excursions Norbert took us to superb restaurants where we enjoyed long, leisurely meals.

Nancy with Clare Kitson

All too soon the closing night ceremony arrived and it was time to hear the distinguished juror’s decisions.  The 2009 International Competition Jury was made up of Clare Kitson, New York graphic designer Richard McGuire who created a segment of Fear(s) of the Dark, and internationally renowned photo-journalist Bruno Stevens.  Moebius (Jean Giraud) was also slated to be on the jury but unfortunately he was unable to attend.

Richard McGuire with Nancy

The three members of the Belgian National Competition Jury were animator Marie-Laure Guisset, Antoine Manier who founded Rencontres Audiovisuelles which has become one of the main resources for screening independent films, and Niels Ruell, freelance journalist and film critic.

The Jury for Commercials and Music Videos was comprised of Xavier Buillon, advertising agent, film and music video creator Corin Hardy and animator/producer Toon Loenders.

Following the presentation of the awards the winning films were screened and then it was time for the festive closing night party with lovely food and good wine followed by dancing until the wee hours of the morning.  A list of all the awards and winners is at the end of this article.

Festival directors Doris Cleven and Phillippe Moins not only show impeccable ability and taste in programming a festival but are also the most gracious hosts a festival could have.  I also can’t thank Francoise Cathala and Karin Vandenrydt enough for the many kindnesses they showed me and to the entire festival staff who worked very hard to keep everything running smoothly.  Last but far from least was Mistress of Ceremonies extraordinaire Stepanie Coerten who added so much to the evening programs by really doing her homework so that her on-stage interviews with the guests additional insights into the film.

I am already looking forward to Anima 2010 next year and am anxiously awaiting the great visual treats that the festival will have in store for us.

Results of the Juried Competitions:

International Competition:

Grand Prix Anima 2009 ( 3 000 Euros and Toon Boom Software):

Skhizein – Jeremy Clapin  (France)

Special Mentions:

Hot Dog – Bill Plympton  (USA)

Lies – Jonas Odell  (Sweden)

Dinner in Lisbon – Andre Carrilho  (Portugal)

Best Student Short Film  (Toon Boom and TV Paint Softwear):

Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight  - Felix Massie  (Great Britian)

Best Short Children’s Film  (Toon Boom Softwear):

Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death – Nick Park  (Great Britian)

Best Music Video  (Toon Boom Softwear):

No Place Like Home  - Rosto  (The Netherlands)

Best Advertising Video  (Toon Boom Softwear):

Tiji TV “Le Voyage”  - Yoann Lemoine  (France)

Audience Awards:

Best Short  Film  (Toon Boom Softwear):

Skhizein  -  Jeremy Clapin   (France)

Best Short Children’s Film  (Toon Boom Softwear):

Wallace & Gromit:  A Matter of Loaf and Death  - Nick Park  (Great Britian)

Best Feature Film  (Toon Boom Softwear):

     Kappa no Coo natsu yasumi (Summer Day With Coo)  - Keiichi Hara  (Japan)

Best Children’s Feature Film  (Toon Boom Softwear):

Piano No Moi  (The Piano Forest)  -  Masayuki Kojima  (Japan)

Partners Award  (Belgian TV Award for Best Feature – Television Distribution):

$9.99 – Tatia Rosenthal  (Isreal/Australia)

Belgian National Jury Awards:

Saban Award  (2.500 Euros):

La Svedese  -  Nicolas Liguori

Grand Prix of the French Community for a Film Produced by the French  (2.000 Euros)

La Vita Nuova  -  Christophe Gautry,  Arnaud Demuynck

Zachte Planten  - Emma De Swaef   (2.000 Euros)

TV Paint Award for Best Student Film  (TV Paint Softwear):

Milovan Circus -  Gerlando Infuso

Audience Award for Best Belgian Short Film:

Milovan Circus  - Gerlando Infuso

Patrons Awards:

BETV Award  (1.500 Euros and Television Distribution Rights):

Milovan Circus­  -  Gerlando Infuso

RTBF Award  (1.500 euros and Television Distribution Rights):

De si pres  -  Remi Durin

CINERGIE Award  (Electronic Press Kit):

Jazzed  - Anton Setola

Paola poule pondeuse  - Louise Marie Colon