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TWO CAPITALS, FIVE CINEMAS, AND A RIVER OF ANIMATED FILMS: The Anilogue Festival in Budapest and Vienna, Nov. 27 - Dec. 3

I barely had time to unpack the warm weather wardrobe that I took to China and replace it in with heavy winter clothes for my trip to Budapest for the Anilogue Animation Festival.  Festival Director Tamas Liszka and Programmer Kreet Paljas hosted a very ambitious undertaking with 4 days of screenings in Budapest followed by 3 screening days in Vienna.  All programs were screened in both cities with films screened in the original language, with Hungarian translations in Budapest and English in Vienna.

Anilogue Festival directors Kreet Paljas and Tomas Liszka with Thomas Renoldner

The three competition screenings were an excellent cross section of styles, mediums, and content.  There were several of my favorite films that I had seen many times this year, such as Alexei Alexeev’s hilarious KJFG 5 and Glow by British animator Jo Lawrence. It always sends a chill up my spine.  The film is based on the story of Grace Fryer, one of the “Radium Girls” who worked at the Radium Dial Company in New Jersey, during the 1920’s painting clock dials with radium.

There were some delightful new surprises. I am constantly amused and delighted by Estonian animation.  Dialogues by Ulo Pikkov is an absurdly humorous film, drawn directly on film, and was a burst of color combined with absurd figures.  Lovesick by Spela Cadiztells of a couple truly made for each other.

I was extremely pleased to see a new film by Swedish animator Jonas Odell.  His previous work, Never Like the First Time,  told 4 different stories of first sexual encounters and  his new film Lies, looks at 3 liars - a burglar, a boy, and a woman, is based on documentary interviews.

The opening night screening was held in the magnificent , a sumptuous Moorish hall. It makes you feel that you are at a very special first night event, and indeed it was.

Inside the Urania National Film Palace

The opening night feature was the real highlight of the festival, Pony On the Cliff by the Sea, Hayao Miyazaki’s new film. It is a delightful flight of fancy about Ponyo, a young goldfish girl and Sosuke, a 5-year old boy who befriends her. The little gold fish girl, daughter of the Queen of the Ocean and a human father, longs to be a human girl. It is a charming tale of desire and longing. The strong family theme is a new route for Miyazaki.We are never told why her father lives under the sea, but his struggle to force her to return to the ocean where she belongs is the focus of the picture.

The film opens with an ecological message as we see the bottom of the ocean where a gigantic net is trapping its catch along with a vast array of trash that humans have discarded into the sea.  Ponyo barley escapes capture, but her head is wedged inside a glass jar.  She is washed up on the beach where young Sosuke finds her.

More than in any of his previous films, Miyazaki uses humor and the theme of the strong bond of familia love to portray not only the friendship between the two young people, but also the relationships between Ponya and her father and Sosuke and his mother.

The great master of Japanese anima created lush visual effects with special attention to the depiction of the sea. Japanese maestro Joe Hisaish, who has scored 8 other Miyazaki features, has composed a beautiful musical score that matches its visual flights of fancy. He has created  rich and varied music woven though out the film in numerous variations on his main themes ending with a piano solo of Ponyo's theme performed by Hisaish.  He also utilizes full orchestrations, solo violin, and a haunting soprano solo for the Mother of the Sea theme.  Ponya's Lullaby emphasizes the childish innocence of the film.

As the end credits roll the film's theme song is sung again. When the film was released in Japan the song became a great hit, rising to number 3 on the charts. There seems to be no neutral opinions about it. I have heard it called everything from one of the most annoying sounds ever heard to naively charming.  Decide for yourself, but I was not charmed, nor did I come out of the theatre humming that tune. The movie, made up of 170,000 hand-animated images, is slated to open in theatres in the United States later this year.

Following the screening a reception was held in the lovely theatre bar, which was used throughout the festival as a place to gather between films for a drink and conversation.  Screenings were also held at the nearby Toldi Art Cinema, an excellent screening location with a casual and comfortable bar. It was the setting for another festival party.

Nina Paley’s award winning Sita Sings the Blues received a warm reception.  Nik introduced the 4 screenings, 2 in each city.  He also conducted a Q & A following each screening.

Along with the 32 films in competition and the feature films screened, there were many special presentations.  I had been anxiously awaiting the new film by my friends Priit Parn and his lovely wife Olga Marchenko, so Life Without Gabriella Ferri was on my must see list.  The dramatic story is about love, locked doors, a faceless thief, a wounded stork, lost laptop, and the O’Key Sisters, 2 virtual prostitutes and Gabriella Ferri who is never seen in the film.  All of this is packed into 35 minutes full of entertaining animation that definitely did not disappoint me.

The World Panorama program was packed full of films that have garnered honors at major festivals around the world, ranging from Kunio Kato’s The House Of Small Cubes which won the 2008 Annecy Crystal and most recently the Academy Award to French animator Jeremy Clapin’s very funny Skhizein, winner of the Annecy 2008 Audience Award.  We had all seen the Sony Bravia Play Doh commercial on TV with hundreds of colorful bunnies running all over Manhattan, but it was delightful to see it on a big screen in the Panorama program.

I thoroughly enjoyed the program of award winning Hungarian animated short films, and the prestigious French animation school La Poudriere was showcased with a selection of their most acclaimed films.  The Red Bull Animated Night, an all-night marathon, screened in both cities. It had something for everyone, with over 40 films from the 4 corners of the globe.

Michaela Pavlatova and I were friends when she lived in San Francisco before returning to Prague, her native city, but I had not seen the Academy Award nominated Czech animator in several years.  I was delighted to find out that she was a member of the jury and thoroughly enjoyed the retrospective of her films that she introduced. It was followed by a Q & A session.

Nik and I presented a screening and talk on the history of music driven animation.  Nik also conducted a 5-day workshop on composing music for animation.  One of his students brought a film that he had made so that Nik and the group could work on composing and recording music for it.  The work area upstairs in the Urania National Film Palace Building was perfect for the workshop.  The festival also provided Nik with a very nice and very competent tech person to help him set up equipment.

Nik with workshop students n Budapest

Budapest and Vienna are beautiful cities.  Screenings did not begin until late in the day, so while Nik held his workshops all day, I spent my free time taking long walks that included a stroll along the Danube.

Not only was Anilogue an impressive animation festival for me it will always hold a special place in my heart for its warm hospitality, fabulous meals, and a very special outing that that Michaela and I were treated to by the festival staff.  Budapest is the home of several fabled hot spring baths and the Szecheny Spa is one of largest spa complexes in Europe.  Built in 1913, this luxurious water palace features indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, as well as steam rooms and saunas.  The large circular outdoor hot pool features three concentric rings, the large outer one for soaking and paddling in, a small center soaking ring, and a wonderful whirling corridor where currents of hot water propelled us round and round a circular route.  Michaela and I felt like two young girls as we sped around giggling and gossiping.  It was cold and rainy, but sitting in the outdoor pool with clouds of steam rising from the water I felt completely relaxed.  The amazing therapeutic effects of the water stayed with me for days.

Széchenyi Spa

All too soon it was time to leave Budapest and board a bus for a 240 Kilometer ride to Vienna, another breathtakingly beautiful city.  The Vienna leg of the festival screened a repeat of the Budapest programs at three theatres with the exception of Ponyo On the Cliff by the Sea, which was not shown.  Several of Nik’s composition students traveled to Vienna with us, where the workshop continued.  Unfortunately, the back bar area of the Schikaneder theatre was not very conducive to work.  Since it was not only a bar but also the festival headquarters people were constantly coming and going, which made it difficult for the group to stay focused.

The center of Vienna was alight with Christmas decorations.  Each block or two had row after row of colored lights in different complex designs strung down the center of the streets and store windows were gaily decorated.  While Nik continued his workshop, I took advantage of the free days to explore the city.

Quite close to our hotel was one of the most wonderful open air markets that I have ever seen.  From early morning until well after dark, it has everything that you could ever want with row after row of fresh spices, beautiful fruits and vegetables, and a number of stalls with magnificent displays of fresh fish.  The sights and smells overwhelmed the senses and the market cafes were the perfect place to have a glass of wine and people watch.

The festival staff continued to treat us to exceptional hospitality.  One evening they took a group of us to one of the best meals I have ever eaten at Beograd, a local Serbian restaurant.  I have never had calamari prepared in such a delicate manner and of course there were copious amounts of wine to accompany the meal.

It was a great pleasure to spend time with my fellow ASIFA International Board Member, Thomas Renoldner, who lives in Vienna.  Thomas arranged a reception for us sponsored by ASIFA Austria at the chapter’s exhibition space, ASIFA KEIL in the central museum corridor, Museumsplatz.  It was a lovely chance to meet chapter members in a relaxed atmosphere.  As an added treat Nik played music with percussionist Don Reitz. Don, who works in the exhibition department of the Kunst Museum of Modern Art, invited us along with our friend Thomas to tour the museum that featured a retrospective of Austrian artist Peter Kogler.  His most impressive piece of work is a large 3-dimensional installation created for the Kunst exhibition. It comes to life through computer animation and video projections which keeps the entire room in vertical motion.  The sound installation interacted with the projected images to create a mesmerizing effect of moving walls.  After dark, Kogler’s trademark, larger than life projected white rats, moved across the outer facade of the museum building in labyrinthine paths.

Don Reitz, Nik and Thomas Renoldner

The closing night award ceremony was held at the Film Casino.  This years’ Anilogue jury was composed of Adam Wysiwyz of Poland, Hungary’s foremost sand animator Ferenc Cako and Michaela Pavlatova.  They awarded the Grand Prix to Muto, an ambitious, surrealistic animation painted on walls in Buenos Aires and Baden, created by Italian artist/filmmaker Blu. (You can see it on YouTube and other web sites.)

Each juror also awarded a Special Award to the film of his choice.  Ferenc Cako selected French filmmakers Nicolas Pawlowski and Alexis Ducord’s Cracks, the tale of a man who has one passion in life, a potted plant.   Michaela chose Alexei Alexeev’s very clever KJFG No. 5, and Adam Wyrwas gave his award to Weiss by Florian Grolig from Germany. Grolig describes his black and white animation as, “In the middle of white is monotone balance, jolly blasé marking time.  One definition of space is the absence of embarrassing contact.  Yet gridlock is definitely death.”  I’m not sure that I get anything like that from the film but I did find it visually intriguing.

Audience members in both cities voted for the Audience Award. The combined tally voted Lovesick by German animator Spela Cadez the winner for her tale of a couple who are the perfect example of the old adage that there is someone perfected suited for everyone.

Following the announcement of winners, the 5 nominees for the Cartoon d’Or were screened.  Sponsored by Cartoon, the European Association of Animated Films, it is the only European prize specifically for the animation industry.  The nominees for this prestigious prize are the winner’s of the top nine Animation Festivals in Europe.  The evening ended with a closing party in the theatre lobby.

Kreet and Tamas, the festival directors, far exceeded the bounds of hospitality, treating us to many lovely meals and an almost endless supply of beer and wine.  The enthusiastic volunteers were always cheerful and very helpful.

Anilogue was founded in 2003, andthe 4 day Budapest leg of the festival, ran seamlessly, at least from the viewpoint of a guest.  Although the festival has a 6 year track record, this was its debut in Vienna, and invariably every new festival is a challenge to launch.  Given the massive task of moving staff, guests, all films and equipment in one morning with the first Vienna screening starting at 4:00 PM, it’s a miracle that there weren’t serious problems. When I asked festival director Tamas Liszka why he had decided to take on such a herculean task, he replied without a moment’s hesitation “I love a challenge” and he definitely got it. This was a learning year, and I know next year will be much easier for the entire staff.

The festival generously arranged for Nik and I to stay 2 more days in Vienna after they returned home.  For our one free day we walked out to the beautiful Belvedere Museum that was built in 1722 for state occasions and to display works of art.  It is home to an outstanding collection of works by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt as well as art treasures from Medieval and Baroque periods down to 21st Century works.  We spent 4 glorious hours strolling from room to room soaking it all in.

After a walk around the beautiful formal gardens we went to the Lower Belvedere which was built as Prince Eugene’s magnificent private living quarters. The Baroque building, completed in 1716, with the Hall of Grotesque, Marble Gallery and Golden Room were enough to take my breath away, but the special exhibit was what I really came to see.  Gustav Klimt and the KunstschauI overwhelmed my senses with beauty and creativity.  The exhibit commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Kunstochan project, which had a pioneering influence on the development of Viennese modernism.  Several of the original 54 rooms from the exhibit had been reconstructed in minute detail even down to the original wall paper designs.  The exhibit made it easy to see why Klimt and his colleagues have had such a lasting influence on the world of art and design.

The next day we were invited to give a workshop at the University (akademie der bildenden kunst [Academy of Fine Art] and institut fur bildende kunst [Institute for Visual Arts]),  where our friend Thomas Renoldner teaches.  Nik and I screened animation and talked with his students and guests about a wide range of subjects from copyright laws to the most effective way for an animator to work with a composer.  We received a very enthusiastic reception and 2 students stayed to talk with us about their work long after the formal presentation was over.  Thomas also gave us a tour of the school work spaces and gallery so that we could see firsthand the high quality of the work that the students are producing.

As the sun set, Thomas, Nik and I shopped in the open air market a few blocks from the university.  Ladened with a great variety of fresh fish and vegetables, Thomas drove us to his house where his wife and two daughters gave us a lovely, warm welcome.  It was a pleasure to scrub mussels and chop vegetables with them as we talked and laughed.  After many days of restaurant food it was a treat to have a home cooked meal.  Thomas is a superb chief and the meal was beyond our wildest expectations, only equaled by the good conversation.  The time flew by, and all too soon the wonderful evening was over.

Very early the next morning we were on the train back to Budapest, where our old friend Susanna Szabo met us. We became good friends several years ago at KROK and she has repeatedly asked us to visit her in Budapest.  After an evening of walking around the city under her excellent guidance we ended up for dinner at a charming restaurant with the unassuming name of M.  The only thing more charming than the food was the décor.  Every inch of the walls and ceiling were covered in brown wrapping paper with black line drawings of home furnishings.  Piles of books, lamps, a parrot in a cage, a phone on a stand and flowers in a vase, all of the little homey touches, were there down to a drawing of a ceiling fan with a real cord hanging from it, ready to cool you on a hot summer evening.  Kreet and Tamas joined us later for drinks and a final farewell.

The next day Susanna had a special treat in store for us.  In marked contrast to the luxurious water palace I had visited the week before she took us to the 400 year old Kiraly Thermal Bath, one of the best remaining examples of a Turkish Bath House, with domed cupolas topped by the Turkish crescent moon.  A good long hot soak in these beautiful surroundings got us ready for our next adventure.

Susanna had asked us to give a presentation at the Arts Secondary School where she teaches in Bodajk. We stayed in Mor, where the school has a guest house for visiting faculity.  It is a totally charming  village with a winery and art center.  Nik and I were immediately reminded of Napa Valley before it became so chic and overdeveloped for tourists.  We fear that Mor will soon suffer the same fate since it is only an hour from Budapest and is thoroughly charming.

After an evening of good conversation and wine in front of a wood burning stove with Susanna we woke in time to take the bus a few kilometers down the road to Bodajk where the Art Secondary School is located. With Susanna acting as translator, Nik and I screened a program of animation to a packed auditorium of students and faculty.  For a group of students in a small rural town whose knowledge of animation is limited to Cartoon Network, they proved to be an avid audience and asked a myriad of good questions.

Nik spent the afternoon with Susanna’s animation class screening more films and talking about how to select music for their works.  We ended our visit by viewing the students’ sketchbooks and storyboards.  Nik and I always enjoy visiting animation classes and this was an especially rewarding experience.  Many of the students told us that they had never met anyone from outside of Hungary, much less an American, and they had many questions to ask us about our life which seemed so foreign to them.

That night we took the bus back to Budapest to be ready to catch an early morning train back home to Gent.  The ride through Austria and Germany was beautiful.  We arrived back home late that night with a head full of beautiful memories of a fantastic two weeks.