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I know that spring is on the way each year when it is time to travel to Lisbon for the MONSTRA Animation Festival (March 11 through 21).  After the long, hard winter in Northern Europe, the prospect of Portuguese sun was doubly appealing.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the festival, Artistic Director Fernando Galrito dedicated the first four days of screenings to showcasing Portuguese animation. Opening night traced the history of Portuguese cinema, beginning with the 1923 political satire O Pesadelo de Antonio Maria (The Nightmare of Antonio Maria) directed by Joaquin Guerreiro.

Comic strip characters inspired most Portuguese animated films until the 1960s. The rise of domestic television advertisements took the work in a different direction.  Then in 1974 following the Carnation Revolution new opportunities opened up for the countries animators.

Two of the major influences after the 1974 revolution were the TV series hosted by Vasco Granja and the founding of the Cinanima Animation Festival in Espinho.  Gramja introduced his television audiences to animation ranging from Eastern Europe to North America on his show Film Animation that ran for 16 years.   He was greatly influenced by Norman McLaren who became his close friend after they met at Annecy.  Gramja strove to carry McLaren’s message of peace to his viewers.

The second influence has been Cinanima, founded in 1977 and held annually in Easpinho, Portugal.  It is not only a major festival presenting and nurturing Portuguese animation, but over the years it has become recognized as an important world-class event.

Portuguese animation has a distinctly unique character all its own.  I have always felt that because of its isolated position on the western side of the Iberian Peninsula, the native animators have created works primarily for their fellow countrymen, strongly influenced by their intense connections to their literature and the sea.

Portuguese women working in animation show a special sensitivity toward the way they view life.  In the last few years they have become prominent on the international scene as a screening at Monstra honoring 14 women working in a variety of mediums and styles pointed out.  Regina Pessoa’s Tragic Story With A Happy Ending has won international awards including the 2006 Annecy Crystal and the Best Animated Short Film at Cinamina the same year.  Joana Toste’s films are appreciated world wide for her ability to tell everyday stories that have quirky, humorous twists.

To round out the picture of Portuguese animation, Monstra paid tribute to producers, musicians and scriptwriters with three separate programs highlighting their achievements.  They are all too often the unsung heroes of animation.  It was pleasing to know that in Lisbon large audiences turned out to see their heritage on the big screen.

For many festivals four days packed full of film would be more than enough, but not for Monstra.  On the fifth day of the event the International Jury members and festival guests began to arrive and the festival took on an international flavor.  Priit Parn, Michaela Pavlatova and Bill Plympton each introduced a program of their films. Retrospectives of Canadian, French, Russian, Polish, Finish, and Brazilian animation were screened along with the short film and student competitions.

As part of her National Film Board of Canada presentation, NFB producer Marcy Page showed a clip from her latest project Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life.  The 25-minute film is adapted from Maurice Sendak’s book of the same name. Marcy was part of the production team which also included Spike Jonze and Vincent Landry.  Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, the duo that made Madame Tutliputli, brought the story of Jenny, a sealeyham terrier who sets out in the world to find experience and adventure to life on the screen.  The animated Jenny is perfect, just as I pictured her when I read the book, one of my favorite stories.  I did feel that Meryl Streeps voice didn’t capture Jenny’s personality though.  I am looking forward to seeing the entire film.  The Warner Brothers, NFB co-production has since then been released directly to the Blue-Ray Version DVD as a short with Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The NFB plans to release its own DVD of the film sometime this summer.

Marcy’s husband, the extremely gifted composer Normand Roger, screened films for which he created the music.  His melodic sounds have added to the atmosphere of such memorable works as Alexander Petrov’s Old Man and the Sea, Michael Dudok De Witt’s moving Father and Daughter, and Regina Pessoa’s Tragic History With a Happy Ending.

Marcy Page and Normand Roger in the festival cafe

Special treats for me were programs of the legendary Czech puppet animator Karel Zeman.  I had not seen his feature length The Tale of John and Mary in a long time so it seemed as creative and entertaining as the first time I watched it.  This time I was particularly aware of how much Karel Svobado’s music added to the film.  A selection of Zeman’s shorts  shown included the classic The Christmas Dream (1945) that he made with Hermina Tyrlove.  It won the Best Animation award at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival.

Czech animator Jiri Barta has had a long career creating stop-motion films that have received critical acclaim. At long last Barta has returned to the screen with In the Attic:  Who Has a Birthday Today?  The stop-motion film, aimed at a young audience, reveals the secret lives of old and forgotten toys that come alive when humans aren’t watching.

I have become increasingly interested in animated documentaries.  The possibilities of telling painful, difficult stories that would often be unbearable in live action films for both the viewer and storyteller are unlimited.  The 2 ani-doc programs covered the full range of human emotions.

I was delighted to see three of my long time favorite ani-docs, A is for Autism, Never Like the First Time, and His Mother’s Voice.  Commissioned by BBC’s Channel 4, Tim Webb’s A is for Autism is a collection of live action and animated sequences that offer insight into different aspects and forms that autism takes.  The film gives a very rare glimpse of the private, personal world of autistic children and adults.

Animator Jonas Odell’s Never Like the First Time looks at four people’s first encounter with sex while Australian Dennis Tupicoff told the story of a mother’s anguish when her son is shot in the emotionally wrenching His Mother’s Voice.

I had not seen Andy Glynne’s moving My Blood is my Tears before.  His look at what causes some young people to turn to self-harm is beautifully animated, but very painful to watch.  His exploration into the relief that physical pain seemingly provides from emotional pain is a perfect example of the power the ani-doc possesses.

Jury members had their work cut out for them.  The short film competition jury was composed of Pourtugese actor Filipe Duarte, Normand Roger, Polish animator Michaela Pavlatova, Brazilian film maker Marcos Magalhaes, and Deb Singleton, Director of the Bradford Animation Festival.  They watched six programs of  films in competition.   The five programs in the student competition were viewed by Eastonian animator Olga Parn,  Portuguese director Sandra Ramos, Wilson Lazaretti of Brazil, Burak Sahin Turkish animator and Humberto Santana, Portuguese director and cartoonist.

Even though I had seen many of the films in competition, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Olga and Priit Parn’s evocative Divers in the Rain again. The film garnered the Monstra Grand Prix award.

Of course there were new films to discover. The biggest treat for me in the competition was 7 Brothers, the new Paul Driessen film.  This is his first film made in conjunction with his son Kaj.  The film, a mixture of animation and live action, reveals that contrary to popular belief there were actually 7 Brothers Grimm and that the stories they wrote end differently than the tales we are familiar with in books and films.  Kaj studied live action film and Paul’s work does not need an introduction.  Working together the team has created a most original, humorous short.

Canadian Patrick Beregron created Loop Loop from a 33 second video sequence that he shot from a train bound for Hanoi, Viet Nam.  He then stitched the images together into one long panoramic image, intergrating other moving images into a smooth video loop.  The 5-minute film, a mix of animation, abstract film, and documentary, is a feast for the eyes.

   Programs of animation from around the world were screened for school children each morning at the Cinema Sao Jorge.  In what the festival called “the Little Monster Around Lisbon” there were also screenings in the Museum of Ethnology in conjunction with the museum’s educational services, two screenings a day in local elementary schools and in two movie houses in other parts if the city.  The festival is trying to make it easier for people to see animation with their outreach screenings.

For older students several festival guests gave workshops.  My husband Nik Phelps and Serbian animator/illustrator Rastko Ciric led a daylong workshop where students created a simple film with a spoken word sound tract.  For some of the participants this was their first foray into animation.  When I visited the workshop, they were all hard at work.  Their film was going to be shown on closing night, but for some reason it wasn’t.  I felt very sorry for the students who came that evening specifically to see their completed work on the big screen.  A few awards were also inadvertently not announced at the closing ceremony.

Nik and Rastko with their workshop students

Latvian director Vladimir Leschiov’s workshop took his students on the exploration of the metaphor as the fundamental dynamic in animation.  Other Masterclasses were led by Mickaela Pavlatova, Normand Roger, and Priit Parn.  Bill Plympton gave a master class on creating films with little funding to a packed audience who hung on to his every word.

An exploration of the basic concepts of animation was designed as a parent/child workshop led by Wilson Lazaretti.  Wilson is well qualified in this area since he is the founder and director of the Nucleo de Cinema Animacao de Campinas in Brazil, one of the oldest existing children’s animation workshops.  He has also launched an ambitious project of taking animation workshops to indigenous children and adults in the Amazon Rain Forest.

The 10th edition of MONSTRA was also a celebration of dance and music.  They showed the highly regarded documentary about Russian cheographer Alexander Shiryaev who used animation to aid in planning his intricate ballet steps as early as 1900.  I saw the Shiryaev documentary and films in Annecy a few years ago and their intricate techniques are a visual delight.  There was also a program of his films and two other programs of shorts that explored the intimate relationship between animation and dance.

On opening night Festival Artistic Director Galrito conceived of a unique presentation.  Five architects who had never animated before created a film that was screened as a live dancer interacted with the images.  Musicians accompanied the images and dancer.  Even though the piece did not always work, it was an interesting experiment.

On another evening Portuguese film composer Manuel Tentugal, animation director Jose Miguel Ribeiro, and digital technology expert Victor Student created sounds to a projected image controlled by Jose Miguel moving a light wand.

Portuguese animation legends Jose Miguel Ribeiro, Fernando Galrito, and Abi Feijo

The cinema Sao Jorge lobby became an art gallery.  There were original artworks used in the Portuguese films shown at the closing night ceremony.  Work by festival guests  included original drawings from Vladimir Leschiov’s sensitive film Wings and Oars and a collection of Priit Parn’s drawings.  These works gave a firsthand look at the remarkable talents of these two brilliant animators.  Two large windows displayed sets from director Andre Letria’s television series Foxy and Meg.

The Museu da Marioneta in conjunction with MONSTRA hosted a display of sets and characters from Desassossego,  a new Portuguese film directed by Lorenzo Degl’Innocentti.  Desassossego was one of a group of new Portuguese films that were premeired as part of the closing night ceremony.  Jose Miguel Ribeiro’s latest claymation, Passseio de Domingo (Sunday Drive) which was first screened last year was also shown and Pedro Serrazina also premiered a new film. He created the beautiful, evocative black and white animation Tale About the Cat and the Moon(1995).  Unfortunately all of the premier films were in Portuguese with no English subtitles that made them very difficult for me to totally understand.  I look forward to seeing subtitled versions of the films in competition at another festival soon.

The highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Monstra awards.  The honor of the best Portuguese film went to the very talented Zepe (Jose Pedro Cavalheiro) for Candido, a tale of misspent love and manipulation.  Gregor Dashuber from Germany received the Best Student Film for Never Drive a Car When You’re Dead I met Gregor and his equally talented composer/sound designer Marian Mentrup at the Festival in Stuttgart last year and was immediately attracted to their film about an awkward hero who stumbles across a long forgotten piano that changes his world.  It leads him outside to play a final funeral march to all of the deadbeat figures on the sidewalk.  A complete list of all winning films is at the end of the article.

A new feature invented by MONSTRA this year was the interactive flipbook.  If you flipped the pages in one direction you saw a complete animation.  Flipped in the opposite way some parts of the animation are missing so that each person can complete and customize their book.

A final surprise awaited us at the closing night party where two collectible wine labels created by Bill Plympton and Priit Parn were unveiled.  The labels were commissioned by a vineyard owner who is a festival supporter.

Nancy celebrating with a Balthazar of Portuguese Douro with the Bill Plympton wine label

After 10 days of magic at MONSTRA it was hard to think about returning to the real world.  There are no words sufficient to thank MONSTRA for all of their generous, warm hospitality.  Festival Artistic Director Fernando Galrito is the perfect host.  Production Director Ines Lampreia and her hardworking staff made sure that everything ran smoothly.

There are lots of other wonderful memories of Monstra 2010 from delicious long meals with fellow festival guests to seeing Adam Elliot’s brilliant Mary & Max again with a packed audience.  I also love my memory of the night Nik and Rastko performed songs in the festival café.

Rastko Ciric and Nik performing at the Monstra Cafe

Galrito, Inez, and the staff deserve great praise for the generous hospitality that they extended to their guests.  Good film programs and wonderful hospitality set to the backdrop of a beautiful city makes MONSTRA a not to miss festival each year.

MONSTRA 2010 Awards

Jury:  Filipe Duarte (Portugal), Normand Roger (Canada), Michaela Pavlatova (Czech Republic), Marcos Magalhaes (Brazil), and Deb Singleton (England)

Grand Prize RTP 2/MONSTRA 2010 Best Short Film ( Purchase of Film and Guaranteed Screening on RTP 2) – Divers In The Rain – Olga & Priit Parn (Estonia)

Special Jury Prize - The Da Vinci Code – Gil Alkabetz (Germany)

Best TV Series – Log Jam – Alexey Alexeev (Russia/Hungary)

Best Portuguese Short Film – Candido – Zepe (Jose Pedro Cavalheiro)

Best Film for Young Audiences – Les Escargots De Joseph – Sophie Roze (France)

Best Sound Track – Divers In The Rain – Olga and Priit Parn (Estonia)

Special Mentions:

Dialogos – Ulo Pikkov (Estonia)

Orgesticulanismus – Mathieu Labaye (Belgium)

Amourette – Maja Gehrid (Switzerland)

Please Say Something – David O’Reilly (Ireland)

Le Petit Dragon – Bruno Collet (France)

RTP@/ONDA CURTA AWARDS – Presented by Joao Garcao Borges, Program Director):

Nuvole Mani – Simone Massi (Italy)

French Roast – Fabrice O. Joubert (France)

Allons-y! Alonzo! – Camile Moulin Dupre (France)

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs – Konstantin Bronzit (Russia)

The 7 Brothers – Paul & Kaj Driessen (Netherlands)

Matieres A Rever – Florence Miailhe (France)

Wings and Oars – Vladimir Lesciov (Latvia)

STUDENT FILM JURY:  Olga Parn (Estonia), Sandra Ramos (Portugal), Wilson Lazaretti

(Brazil), Burak Sahin (Turkey), and Humberto Santana (Portugal)

Best Student Film - Never Drive A Car When You’re Dead­ – Gregor Dashuber (Germany)

Best Portuguese Student Film – A Grande Tarefa Do Senhor Poulet (The Great Task of M. Poulet – Andreia Costa

Special Mentions

Lebensader ­– Angela Steffen (Germany)

Train of Thought – Leo Bridle & Ben Thomas (England)

Portugese Student Jury Awards:

Best Student Film – Prayers For Peace  - Dustin Grella (EUA)

Best Portuguese Student Film – Sendo Um Feto (Being a Fetus) – Joao Alves de Sousa

Audience Choice Awards:

Best Student Short Film – Signalis – Adrian Fluckiger (Switzerland)

Best Short Film – Passeio De Domingo (Sunday Drive) – Jose Miguel Ribeiro (Portugal)