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It is hard to believe that the Monstra Animated Film Festival in Lisbon, Portugal is only 8 years old because each year the festival leaves me with a lifetime of memories.  The 2009 edition (March 9 – 15, 2009) moved downtown from its prevision location so that it could reach more of the community. The experiment worked well, with good-sized audiences for the screenings. The majority of the screenings took place in the lavish Art Deco style Cinema Sao Jorge.  The cinema, built between 1947 and 1950 by the British Rank Organization to showcase their films, was once the largest movie palace on the Iberian Peninsula.
There are records of Chinese residents in Lisbon from as early as 1540 and to honor this segment of the population the Museu do Oriente (Museum of Oriental Art) was opened in the heart of the Asian Community last year.   This year it was the ideal site for respected Japanese abstract animator Maya Yonnesho’s 3-day workshop.  She and a group of students “toured” Lisbon via two wall sized pictographs in the museum, which they used as a starting point to create their film Lisbon Mix which was filmed all over the city.  The finished film, capturing the sights and sounds of the city through Maya and her student’s eyes, was screened on closing night.  Along with a retrospective of Maya’s films there were showings of Chinese animator Li-jun Sun’s Zhang Ga! and Through The Moebus Strip by Clenn Chaika from China and the United States.
The Museu da Marioneta (Puppet Museum) in conjunction with Monstra mounted an extensive exhibit of puppets and sets from Jose Miguel Ribeiro’s new film Passeio De Domingo (Sunday Drive).  There were also drawings and photographs used in the making of the 20-minute film, which was conceived in Lisbon, built in Montemor, filmed in Belgium and France and with post production taking place in the Netherlands.  I especially enjoyed the visual representations at the museum of the route that Jose Miguel traveled as he went to these countries working with different teams of professionals in their three different languages.  It was amazing to see the attention to detail that was taken with each character and set.
I have been anxiously awaiting this film because I am a large fan of his earlier film, The Suspect, which won more International awards than any other Portuguese film up to the present time.  When Nik and I screened The Suspect as part of our Ideas In Animation series our audience was delighted with the puppet animation that tells the story of four people on a train that may have a serial killer on board.  Several years ago Nik and I visited Jose Miguel at his workshop in Montemor and saw the first puppets being created, so I was eager to see the film, which was screened at the closing night ceremony.  Passeio De Domingo lived up to my expectations and I am sure we will all have ample opportunity to see this touching humorous story of a family’s Sunday drive that turns into a road trip.
The Museu da Marioneta also showcased Papirossy, a “lung-drawn” animation and audiovisual installation created by Otto Alder, acclaimed animation historian, documentarian, and co-chairman of HGKL (Hochschule fur Gestaltung und Kunst Luzern) in Luzern, Switzerland.  “Lung-drawn” is a confusing phrase that refers to Otto blowing cigarette smoke onto cardboard which was combined with animation to create an effect which he describes as “an installation that visualizes time through imprinted smoke on cardboard to create an effect where time is frozen, the past stays fixed, and emotions are visualized by integrating animation into a mixed media installation.”  Papirossy is the first lung-drawn animation ever filmed and the installation has traveled worldwide.

Set from Sunday Drive

Little Monstra, created to bring quality animation to young people, was expanded this year.  Special morning programs were designed for kids 3 to 6 years old, and other programs were designed to appeal to the 7 to 12 year old set. Emphasis was given to Portuguese animation, but such sure to please films as Oktapodi from France, Gil Alkabetz’s delightful A Sunny Day, and Germany’s My Happy End, winner of numerous audience favorite awards, were also included. A special booklet was given to each child with information about the film programs and suggestions for related activities such as how to make a simple flipbook.  The morning that I visited the young people’s screening it was full of children captivated by the images on the screen and you could hear a pin drop.
Monstra has adopted the system that several festivals have gone to, of alternating feature films and short animation competitions.  This year there were 8 features in competition along with 4 programs of student films and a wealth of special events.
Swiss animation was spotlighted with many special guests and programs.  Switzerland may be a small country with an area of only 40 thousand square kilometers and a population of 7.6 million people, but it has a vast, rich animation history.  Renowned Swiss animator Georges Schwizgebel presented a retrospective of Gisele and Ernest Ansorge films, two of the most important figures in the history of Swiss animation.  Their 1967 film Les Corbeaux is one of the first sand animations to receive international acclaim.  Based on a medieval ballad, the film is still as beautiful on the big screen as it was almost 50 years ago when it first appeared.
The opening night ceremony highlight was a retrospective of George Schwizgebel’s beautiful films.  I have seen the 14 films that were presented many times, but his work always looks fresh and vibrant to me.  More than any other animator I can think of, George merges painting, animation and music into a beautiful art form.  After I have watched a program of his work I can never hear the music that he has animated to without seeing his beautiful images in my head, nor can I imagine his films without their lush musical scores.  A side note is that his son is a concert pianist and plays on some of his father’s films.
The cinema lobby showcased an exhibit of paintings by Georges, who has been called one of the greatest painters in the history of animation. It was fascinating to see the still version of images that he so artfully brings to life.  Following the screening the Swiss Ambassador hosted a lovely reception where wine flowed and lovely canapés were plentiful.

Georges Schwizgebel at his Exhibition

Works by three of the country’s most important up and coming animators, Isabelle Favez, Claude Barras and Cedric Louis, were screened. The new talent program gave me an opportunity to see work by 10 young talents who are the future of Swiss animation.  Max & Co, the Swiss, Belgian, French co-production from twin brothers Samuel and Frederic Guillaume screened in the feature film competition.
Georges Schwizgebel gave a master class, as did the Brothers Guillaume who offered behind the scenes glimpses into the making of Max & Co.  The duo has always worked together, with Samuel being responsible for the animated “decoupage” and editing, and Frederic acting as artistic director.
Student competitions are usually one of the most interesting parts of any festival. It is an adventure to see what fresh young minds have to say, and the films at Monstra offered several nice surprises.  I was very impressed with Chaibreak, a sand animation that takes us on a walk to get a cup of tea.  Ten Indian students made it in an experimental animation workshop. Delwyn Remedios was at Monstra representing the film and he turned out to be not only talented, but a charming and fascinating young man.  Delwyn told me that the reason that he likes to work with sand is that it is formless, so movement becomes much more important than the formations of images. Over dinner he also talked about creative animation in India. I usually only hear about the industrial work coming from that vast country.
Another student work that caught my attention was In Our Home by Iranian animator Martam Kashkoolinia.  In this visually delightful film a little girl introduces her family members, comparing them with animals.  In stark black and white contrast, Anja Kofmel from the Lucerne University of Applied Arts and Sciences, uses black and white in Chirigi to accent the story of a woman recalling her childhood and her mysterious cousin, Chris, a journalist murdered in Croatia in January 1992.
The student competition jury, composed of Carmen Lloret, Spanish professor of Movement in Fine Arts at the University Politecnica de Valencia; Heliana Vilela, Regional Director of Lisbon and Tagus Valley of the IPJ; and animator Joana Bartolomeu, seemed to agree with my opinions by awarding an honorable mention to Maryam Kashkoolinia for In Our House.  Much to my delight, the Best Student Film award was given to Chaibreak.
While I arrived at the beginning of the festival, Nik flew in from Belgium on Friday morning in time to introduce Sita Sings the Blues.  He also conducted a Q & A session after the screening.  Since I have already seen and in many cases written about the eight feature films in competition so there is no need to write more about them.
The international jury awarded the Jury Prize to Sita Sings the Blues, which Nik was delighted to accept on Nina’s behalf. The jury consisted of Georges Schwizgebel, Maya Yonesho, Portuguese musician and actor J.P. Simoes, Duscha Kistler and Lisbon journalist Joao Paulo Cotrim. The festival’s grand prize went to the Israeli/Australian co-production $9.99 by filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal. (Being show in San Francisco in July)

Nancy with Georges Schwizgebel, Dutcha Kistler and Festival Director Fernando Galrito

Along with the anticipated announcement of the award winning films we were treated to the screening of four new Portuguese films.  Tiago Albuquerque’s Dario De Uma Inspectora Do Livro De Records (Scenes From The Life Of A Woman Responsible For The Verification Of The Guinness Book Of World Records) recounted  her trials and tribulations in an animation style that evoked images of Prince Achmed.  Nuno Beato showed another side of bull fighting with in Mi Vida En Tus Manos. In the delightfully drawn Un Degrau Pode Ser O Mundo (One Step Can Be The World) by Daniel Lima,  a woman discovers her sexuality while an artist finds his true vocation. The evening ended with the much-anticipated screening of Jose Miguel Ribeiro’s Passeio De Domingo.  After a week of good conversation and excellent films the closing party was a bittersweet chance to say goodbye to friends.

Nancy and Jose Miguel Ribeiro

We all go to festivals to watch films and there is an added bonus of seeing old friends and making new ones.  The festival bar is always a good place to hang out, but even better is the hotel breakfast room, especially at Monstra where most invited guests stay in the same hotel.  I am not a big breakfast person but who could resist when your table mates are such good conversationalists as Georges Schwizgebel, Maya Yonesho, and Duscha Kistler, noted animation historian and director of the acclaimed Swiss Animation Festival, Fantoche in Baden, Switzerland.
The only morning screenings were for the schools. The panorama and competition programs didn’t begin until 3:30 PM so there was plenty of time for 2-hour breakfast chats and long treks around Lisbon, which is one of the most walkable cities in the world.  In every article I have written about Lisbon I talk about the beauty of the city and the many fascinating places that you can stumble upon.   I won’t take you on my long daily rambles around the city this time, but I did have one very special morning at the Lisbon flea market where I saw so many treasures that I thought about buying another suitcase to get them all home.  Luckily the voice of reason in the presence of Nik was there to keep me from spending every cent that I had with me.
From the moment I was first introduced to Portuguese animation I became intrigued with its unique character.  Although more and more films from Portugal have reached the major European festivals thanks to Jose Miguel Ribeiro, Regina Pessoa, Joana Toste, and Abi Feijo, I never get the feeling that the Portuguese make animation for the world.  They use their special, often dark, sensibilities to tell stories for themselves.  When you watch animation from most countries, even if you can’t understand the language and miss finer points, you can get the humor.  Not so with work from this country which, isolated at the far end of the Iberian Peninsula for centuries, has developed its own culture independent from its Spanish neighbor or the rest of Europe.
Monstra is a festival for the Portuguese people and doesn’t invite a great number of foreign guests, but if you are lucky enough to be invited, it is a very special experience that you won’t soon forget.  Fernando Galrito, the festival artistic director, is a most gracious host who knows his city well and treats his guests to wonderful meals and good conversation.  The festival staff all went way beyond the bounds of normal hospitality to make sure that we were well taken care of.  I am already looking forward to Monstra 2010.
Nik and I were due in Bilbao for Anima Basauri in six days.  Even though it looks like my life is one vacation, it isn’t really because at festivals I can’t just lie in bed and read a book or do nothing.  We hadn’t had a real vacation in years so we took a few days for ourselves on the beautiful beaches an hour north of Lisbon.  I didn’t watch any animation the entire time we were there!  The next episode of our travels will come from Spain where a tanned and rested Nancy goes back into the screening room.

Nancy and the sea