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The Animation Pimp: A Tale Told by an Idiot

Animation could stand to generate a bit more outrage.

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure, while the intelligent are full of doubt.

          -  Justin Beiber                  

Outside of South Park, The Simpsons and, say, Family Guy, animation rarely elicits much outrage – certainly nothing – thankfully - even close to the tragedy in France when terrorists murdered – among others - artists for their history of satirical cartoons (i.e. artistic expression). When there is such a thing in animation it’s more along the lines of someone being “miffed” or having their “feathers ruffled.” That’s surprising given that animation is a visual medium that, like cartoons, should have the power to ding our minds a lot faster than words. As Jeet Heer wrote in a recent article in Canada’s The Globe and Mail:

As you read these sentences, you are taking time to riddle them out, to figure out what I’m saying, a process of decoding that takes time to unfold as your eyes move across the page. But if you flip over to the editorial cartoons in this paper, you’ll get the gist almost immediately.

Cartooning has further power because it’s in a language few of us speak. Almost all of us use words, but few draw. If I called you a “dolt” you’d have words to answer me. But if a talented cartoonist drew a picture showing you to be a gibbering idiot, it’s unlikely you could answer in kind with a comparable image. In effect, the cartoonist has a voodoo magic to turn us into pincushion dolls, to be harmed without the power of fighting back.

So why hasn’t that happened in animation? Is it because people don’t take animation seriously? Perhaps it’s because no one even watches short films except artists and insiders? Is it because this community contains many rather nerdist OCD people who, as a friend reminded me, “get more worked up over someone incorrectly referring to the year of a Warner Brothers cartoon than the actual content.”

This extends to the flipside too. In 2014, for example, there was no end to the McLaren praise. In fact, there’s never any end to it. McLaren has reached the echelon (alongside Norstein, Back, Miyazaki, The Quays and Svankmajer) where critical responses have been supplanted by sweeping appraisal. May the Gods help you if you were to suggest that Evelyn Lambart should receive more credit for her contributions to McLaren’s films or that some of his films were tedious formalist wankfests (e.g. the fittingly titled, Narcissus) or that Frederick Back’s The Mighty River makes staring at a wall for 30 minutes seem riveting.

When there is controversy it rarely expands beyond irate monologues from people with selective hearing.  In my dealings with controversies over the years I’ve found that those who protest the loudest have no interest in entering into a healthy dialogue about other possible readings of a film. They’ve made up their mind that said work is offensive and that’s that.

This past year, for example, there were mild groans about Piotr Dumala’s film, Hipopotamy. It’s a challenging, provocative film that has men, women and children acting out the roles of hippopotami. Male hippos will sometimes kill their young ones to reestablish their dominance. When you take the concept and put it in human form, it’s infinitely more disturbing. Seeing men snatch toddlers from their mothers and murder them only to have the mothers eventually return to the men is horrifying. Is Dumala saying the victims always return to their abusers? Are all men beasts? Is this a misogynist film?  Does Dumala look down on women? Is it a comment on human history? Are we any just vicious animals at our core?

I really don’t know the answer. Yet, the outraged voices I heard in Annecy, Ottawa and elsewhere all seemed so sure about the meaning of the film after a single screening. Dumala was in Annecy and though he patiently answered questions as best he could, it was clear that the outraged critics really had no interest in what he had to say. They’d already made up their minds.

Later in the year there was also some modest booing during a screening in Ottawa – if you’re going to boo, then fuck modesty, let it ROAR! Following the screening, an enraged woman expressed her views about the film to one of my colleagues. The colleague attempted to engage the woman in a dialogue about the film but the woman had no interest in hearing anything other than her own voice.

Personally, Hipoppotamy won’t be on my list of all-time favorite films. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s an interesting film. It’s beautifully animated and paced, made by an animator with a long, acclaimed filmography and appears to be attempting to provoke a healthy conversation and debate about relationships, humanity, violence, sexuality, domestic violence, and psycho hippos.

Another film that grinded the gears of a few folks in 2014 was Priit and Olga Pärn’s Pilots on The Way Home. Questions were raised about its portrayal of women as sexual objects along with its graphic sex scenes that had some folks shouting pornography. Certainly, I can understand that some were bothered by the image of a woman’s body parts – even if she was non-existent, merely a figment of male fantasy– being kept inside separate suitcases only to brought out and put together for the purposes of sex. Still… can an argument not be made that Pärn is in fact critiquing and ridiculing male behaviors? The audience, it could be argued, might very well be seeing the world through the gaze of male twits (if I’m wrong, then well, we are still seeing the world through the gaze of a twit).

Frankly, I’m more incensed that this decidedly Estonian film and more specifically the Pärn name were piggybacked on (oops… I mean “co-produced”) by the National Film Board of Canada… but that’s another story for another day.

So, yeah, that was about it for animation scandals in 2014 (well, except for accusations of wage fixing that has resulted in mass protests on the lots of Disney, Sony, DreamWorks and Pixar. Oh wait, sorry, I was wrong. There were no protests. There was no wage fixing. Carry on. Nothing to see here.)

The most disturbing controversy I was party too occurred back in 1998 after we (or rather, our International Selection Committee) screened a Polish student film by Tomasz Kozak called Black Burlesque in competition.

Drawn in black and white, this raunchy caricature film in the spirit of George Grosz and Otto Dix serves up a twister of political, cultural, sexual, anti-Semitic, and other disturbing imagery. It is not an easy film and was definitely made to provoke…but the filmmaker’s apparent intent was not to ridicule Jews or expose Nazi beliefs, but to harshly criticize his own culture for hanging on to their own intolerant views.

Black Burlesque (which I can’t find online) screened in Ottawa without apparent incident and was even given a Special Jury prize.

Maybe a month or two after the Ottawa 98 Festival, the phone rings. On the other end is a man representing a Jewish association whose name I now forget (we had an office fire a year later that destroyed almost all of our office files. This was the pre-digital age.). The man says that they had received a complaint about a film we screened called Black Burlesque. He was polite, affable and asked if it was possible to contact the filmmaker. Sure, no problem. I put them in contact (with the animator’s permission). 

End of story?

Not quite…

I receive a second call, this time from B’nai Brith Canada. The man on the other end is not so polite or affable. He mentions a complaint (incredible how much impact one – might have been two – complaints can have.) about a film we screened called Black Burlesque and demanded to see a copy of the film.

I obliged.

Anticipating trouble, I asked one of the OIAF selection committee members, Edwin Carels – who had championed the film – if he’d mind writing me a short text explaining his take on the film. He obliged.

Time passes. Phone rings. The B’nai Brith man and his colleagues have viewed the film. They tell me it is undoubtedly anti-Semitic. I asked for an explanation. None was given. I asked if they’d like to read the text Carels had written. They would not. I asked if they wanted to contact the filmmaker. They did not. They were after us for showing this work of hate.  I explained that our festival, most of the audience or even other film festivals (it was shown in Annecy and Anima Mundi among other festivals) did not share their view.

I asked the man again to explain exactly why this film was so offensive? He said that if I wished to hold a debate he would invite the Hate Crimes division of the local Police to come in and participate. I was fuming at this bully but, for once, didn’t say what I was thinking. I asked him what exactly he wanted from us. He told me that we had to change our rules and regulations and put in a statement saying that we will not accept any films deemed… racist, intolerant, or hateful… Something along those words…  Who was going to judge that I wondered? Who was going to be the moral guardian to go through all the submissions we received (then numbering close to 2000)? Surely we’d need an army, a team of Moral Guardians to protect us all.

There was no response.

I’d only been running the OIAF for 2-3 years by that point. This was all new to me. I was enraged but also deeply scared of their threats. I thought… shit… if this goes to the Police… it potentially goes to the media… and BAM… who knows what happens … it just wasn’t worth putting the OIAF at risk even if we felt strongly that B’nai Brith was wrong.

In the end, they sent us a letter that we had to sign. I think it was something to the effect that we’d be more vigilant about the types of films we screened at our festival.

And that was that… ”…not with a bang but a whimper”

What was most alarming to me was the utterly intolerant nature of this organization (admittedly, maybe it was just this one guy. I can’t be sure). Either way, the man behaved like a bully. He had no interest in constructive dialogue or other perspectives. He had no interest in hearing from the filmmaker, the jury that awarded the film or the committee that selected the film. He had NO INTEREST in HEARING period.

I feel lost spasms of irritation return as I think on the cowardice of the original complainant.

Why did that person not approach the organizers, selection committee or jury and express their concerns in an honest, direct manner to stimulate an open and engaged dialogue?

Maybe a conversation would have led all parties to have some understanding and respect for all respective viewpoints?

Instead, the only voice that was heard was the deafening torment of unspoken censorship accompanied by intolerance more unpleasant than anything the menace was perceived to possess.

The sound and fury of cocksure fools signifying nothing,

-

I’ve been guilty myself of emitting sound and fury over the years, but mostly it’s born out of a frustration with a community that I… dare I admit… love.  Animation can be beautiful, poetic, funny, and intelligent, but it can also be too nice, too polite, too soft and too insular.

Animation inspires an array of fleeting emotions, but can it ever provoke meaningful, long-term change to the way we think or live?

I doubt it.

But what do I know.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

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