Ministry Messiah

May 4–10, 2006

It seems ironic that contemporary animation’s greatest thematic enemy is the city with its associated horrors of regimented, repetitive work and personal isolation. Ironic because it is of course repetition, separation and an obsession with modern technology that defines the work of the animator. It is perhaps not surprising that practitioners rail against the very essence of their own profession since the finished products tend to give the illusion of absolute freedom (note the importance of metamorphosis in so much animation) while demanding the most excruciating levels of control and order in their manufacture. It is this contradiction between technique and final product that informed many of the films at Anifest 2006, held in Třeboň, Czech Republic.

The two short films perhaps most indicative of this tendency were All People is Plastic (Harald Hund, Austria, 2005) and the Czech Od neděle do soboty (From Sunday to Saturday) (Radovan Marček, 2005). Hund’s dystopian allegory presents a fairly clichéd view of a future – or the present – in which identical people work in front of identical computers and live in identical blocks of flats. Their leisure time is occupied by watching television alone before returning to work only to be replaced by newly upgraded but still visually identical models of themselves. The film’s palette is mainly grey and white except for a brightly coloured toucan which the robotic workers queue up to admire. The computer-rendered imagery is finely detailed and must, of course, have taken many hours of computer time to produce and it is not too fanciful to imagine that its producer most identifies with the worker who, for no apparent reason, decides to throw herself off one of the tall apartment blocks in order to escape the boring inevitability of her life. From Sunday to Saturday offers an almost identical storyline: workers work and sleep in a continuous cycle until one decides to top himself. Marček’s film consists of simple hand-drawn images but again it is difficult not to see the theme of stultifying repetition as being less a comment on contemporary life and more a reflection of the life of an animator.

In the puppet film Crocodile Journals (Lee Nah Yeo, Singapore, 2004) a crocodile disguises itself so that it can live and work in the city. The ruse is rumbled during a fancy-dress party to which the crocodile comes as itself and is exposed when everybody else removes their costumes and realise that the crocodile is real. The film ends, typically it would seem, with the crocodile back in its underground flat contemplating a plaited noose and suicide. The film is saved from adolescent self-indulgence by the charm of the crocodile’s characterisation and a certain clarity of composition.

Hiroshi: Tears in the Wind

Less simplistic was venerable puppet filmmaker Břetislav Pojar’s Hiroshi: Tears in the Wind (Czech Republic, 2005), based on a story by the Japanese writer Yeto Sato, in which a young boy is sent to spend his school holidays in the mountains with a painter friend of his parents. At first the boy is rather shocked by his sudden rural isolation but quickly learns to trust the painter and begins to enjoy his idyllic surroundings and particularly his interactions with wildlife. As winter sets in, however, the painter is forced to shoot a deer in order for them to survive, much to the distress of Hiroshi who is shocked into becoming a vegetarian and begins to draw pictures of the painter as a murderer. All is finally resolved however when the two put on a joint exhibition of their work back in the city and Hiroshi vows to spend all his future holidays in the mountains. Pojar’s unfussy puppet animation does not break with his established style and there is a pleasing unconcern for the social specificity of the story. It is the low-tech artisanship implied by the puppet film that allows Pojar to celebrate the simplicity of natural life without contradicting his own working practice.

The interaction of nature and technology becomes the theme of Naturefiction (Jan Blín, Czech Republic, 2005) where the digital foundation of seemingly “real” wildlife images is continually revealed until the distinction between real and artificial begins to blur. While a chameleon moves easily from tree to matrix, cityscapes quickly turn into plant-like growths that imitate the fractal basis of “natural” representations. Naturefiction resembles Ryoji Ikeda’s datamatics project (not shown at Anifest) in which Ikeda “explores the potential to perceive the invisible multi-substance of data that permeates our world” (through the exposure of data structures in ostensibly natural phenomena. However impressive these technical projects are there does seem to be a certain Matrix-fatigue at work and the mere highlighting of illusion does not seem to offer any interesting way forward. This is also true of all the films that posit nature as the antidote to repressive technology.

The city is in for more naïve criticism from Sylvain Vincendeau in his La tête dans les étoiles (The Head in the Stars, France, 2005) as a man-child escapes to the countryside where he can float amongst the stars. He eventually builds himself a house but is quickly joined by other homebuilders until his hill of tranquillity is as crowded as the city he initially fled. He packs up his stuff and moves to another uninhabited area where he can once again revel in his remoteness. It does not seem as if the film is an ironic critique of back-to-nature idealists who do not realise that they themselves are part of the problem that they are trying to leave behind.

The clash of culture and nature with its associated paeans to the glories of innocent childhood is presented more acceptably in the adventure story Ruzz et Ben (Philippe Julien, France, 2004) which features the two eponymous children on a quest to find their lost kite. During the search they break into a seemingly abandoned factory only to stumble across a primitivist lair presided over by a being made of bamboo and stone. Ruzz and Ben finally realise that the figure means them no harm and they accept its gift of a modified dreamcatcher as their new kite. The equation of a putative aboriginal existence and childhood is in no way new and while this film offers no advance on this possibly demeaning stereotype, it does exhibit a freshness and vitality that belies its rather undemanding concept. The likeable bamboo person and the bricolaged mechanics with which he stocks his magical world are also reminiscent of the outstanding artwork that appears in the Oddworld series of computer games.

I Come By Every Day

One film, however, stands out in that it is a celebration rather than denunciation of city life. Raúl Arroyo and Ramón Gonzalez’s Cada día paso por aquí (I Come By Every Day, Spain, 2004) engagingly creates an abstract animated collage out of the graffiti found everywhere in Barcelona’s Raval district. The film follows recurring themes and images in a kinetic tour-de-force using the walking image of a sprayed-on shadow boy as its linking device. Since much contemporary graffiti is based on stencils rather than free hand spraying, Arroyo is able to use the same image, spray-painted in multiple locations, to create a shifting background beneath a seemingly stable illustration. These images include skulls, toasters, videogame characters, pornography and various other emblems of modern pop consumer culture. The filmmaker also incorporates various bits of street debris, from discarded knickers to fallen leaves, dog faeces or time-lapse rotting rats, as well as his own chalked words and arrows. The sense of continual movement is stressed by pixillated pavements and drainage grills, while Gonzalez’s soundtrack consists of snatches of song, conversation and sound effect as the viewer is moved through the virtual graffiti city. After the initial exuberant setup the film takes a darker turn as images of attacking aliens and crashing aeroplanes lead into satirical graffiti of both George Bush and Saddam Hussein as clowns. Anti-war graffiti becomes prominent and is juxtaposed with various dead pigeons on the street. Bombs emblazoned with the logos of petro-chemical companies fall out of the sky, quickly followed by the detritus of our fast-food culture, making the connection between our own consumption and the war in Iraq. Ants, both real and ripped from biology textbooks, swarm over the city and the film revels in the small revolutions and moments of beauty that only a vibrant city can contain.

Zero Degree

Of the 41 short films playing in competition, perhaps the inclusion of three Iranian films was significant. Two were so allegorical as to lose all meaning but a third, Sefr darajeh (Zero Degree, 2005), presented a 3D soldier executing a bound prisoner in a desert. The action is presented through the point-of-view of a recording video camera and as the soldier realises the enormity of his act and tries to run away, he realised that he cannot move beyond the confines of the camera’s field of vision. In a variation on the classic Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953) template, where the animated character is easily manipulated by the meta-diegetic animator, the soldier in Zero Degree is tormented by the frame of the camera and is eventually forced to the edge of a cliff as the camera tracks right. As the soldier falls off the edge, the film suddenly rewinds to the point where he is pointing the gun at the back of his erstwhile victim’s head and ends. Whether the film is making a comment about the unavoidable presence of recording machinery in modern warfare which makes it impossible for anyone (be they Iranian, American or whatever) to deny personal culpability or whether it is more generally existential in intention is difficult to determine, but in the context of the current political situation Zero Degree could be read as a pacifist warning to both sides.

Of the remaining competition films only a few stood out. Henry Selick’s Moongirl (USA, 2005) is lush and almost too slick but the young boy Leon’s attempt to help Moongirl fix the broken moon is visually exciting in a way many of the other films are not. When the stars form into a convincingly animated 3D deep water angler fish which grabs Leon’s fishing bait and drags him and his squirrel (does any mainstream American animation not feature a loveable sidekick?) to the moon, it is easy to imagine younger viewers being captured in a similar manner. Also in the arena of fairytales is Jessica Langford’s The Gift (UK, 2005) based on a combination of Japanese and Orkney myths. After a young women rescues a seal trapped in a net, it takes her underwater where she meets the king of the fishes and where she stays for a fair while until she asks to return home. Before allowing her to leave, the king gives her a gift, a closed clamshell, which she is not to open until later. Back on the surface she finds that many years have passed and nothing of her old life remains. She opens the shell, but where in the Japanese myth the gift is death, in Langford’s version she turns into a seal in the manner of the Orkney selkie shape changers and swims back into the sea. The Gift is animated in sand, reminiscent of Caroline Leaf’s films both in style and tone.

Two films featured quirky approaches to modern artists. Minotauromaquia, Pablo en el laberinto (Juan Pablo Etcheverry, Spain, 2005) uses clay and plasticine to imagine Pablo Picasso in a labyrinth being hunted by his alter-ego minotaur, a painter and lover but also murderer and anthropophage. Picasso steals some of the minotaur’s chalk in order to mark out a path through the maze and encounters living embodiments from his own paintings which help him in his attempt to escape. While amusing enough, films that try to emulate a painter’s style in a different medium, Akira Kurosawa’s Yume (Dreams) (Japan/USA, 1990) for example, never seem quite satisfactory. In a more pleasing and bizarre manner Vennao karupjao (Brothers Bearhearts) (Riho Hunt, Estonia, 2005) Vincent van Gogh, Henry Toulouse-Lautrec and Auguste Rodin are played by three bears whose mother, a realist painter, has been shot by a man called Shishkin (Ivan Shishkin being a Russian landscape painter of the late nineteenth century). The three bears are forced to go to Paris where they try and eke out a living through their art but eventually join a circus where they dress up as lions and perform acrobatic tricks. The circus heads for Russia where the three eventually confront Shishkin, who now claims the mother bear’s paintings as his own, in front of their own mother’s pelt. This is a fantastically mad film.

City Paradise

In terms of technical achievements, it is clear that in Sklárna (The Glassworks, Czech Republic, 2005), Aurel Klimt’s use of 3D graphics to represent the complex reflections and transparencies of glass was something very difficult to achieve but the anodyne nature of the film (glass blowers create a dancing figure) merely makes it an advertisement for technique rather than being of any interest in its own right. While Klimt’s etiolated characters lack substance, the winner of the short film category, City Paradise (Gaëlle Denis, UK, 2005), brims with sharp characterisation and witty caricature. A Japanese woman arrives in London, a rain-drenched city of impossibly tall and incomprehensible strangers, and moves into a dingy flat where she proceeds to learn useful phrases such as “The rain today is torrential” and “The wind blew off my hat”. On a trip to the local swimming people she knocks her head and discovers an underwater world beneath London populated by three clown puppets who sing in Joanna Newsom’s raspy new-folk voice. London gradually becomes a place in which the Japanese woman is increasingly at home – she can now even understand what her Scots neighbour is saying. The quirky mix of live-action and computer animation combines with the meticulously prepared soundtrack to create a heartfelt city tribute.

Of the many student films screened at Anifest, Cafard (Thomas Léonard, Guillaume Marques and Paul Jacamon, France, 2005) – a reverse Metamorphosis where a man wakes to find that the rest of the city’s inhabitants have turned into giant insects – and 90° (Jules Janaud, Raphael Martinez-Bachel and François Roisin, France, 2005) – an updated Tron in which a figure chases his own head – impressed with their 3D programming skill. Others in this section worth mentioning include: The Chamber (Yu Seock Hyun, South Korea, 2005) – a man walks into room and realises that the scale model in the room is the room itself and the Escher-like conundrum comes to a logical conclusion when he picks up the model and carries it out of the room’s front door; PsiCHO (Libor Pixa, Czech Republic, 2005) – rather ugly 3D animation is redeemed by the cheeky 2D dog which emerges from some spilt ink in another Duck Amuck meta-interaction; and X (Raphael Wahl, Germany, 2005) – in which an astronaut and his ship are replicated innumerable times by a strange organic planetoid and the astronaut struggles to differentiate himself from his copies by marking himself with a big, red X, only for this action to be copied by his simulacra. On destroying the replicator the astronaut sees, just before he himself disappears, that he is also merely another copy since the real astronaut, now the only one without an X, is still in suspended animation inside the planetoid. Amusing character construction also lifts the Worms-like Versus (François Caffiaux, Romain Noël and Thomas Salas, France, 2005) above the ordinary when two opposing armies of samurai try to annihilate each other in turn-based attacks. The clean, abstract geometry of Utoptique (Etienne Boguet, France, 2005) was let down by its dull soundtrack while Jan Koester’s Our Man in Nirvana (Germany, 2005), winner of a Silver Bear at Berlinale 2006, rocked the house with its cod-psychedelic soundtrack, hippy-dippy new age mysticism and wonderful use of shadow puppets which cannot help but recall Lotte Reiniger’s Die Geschichte des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Germany, 1926). Koester’s film’s website is also beautifully designed.

It is also slightly dispiriting but perhaps not all that surprising that a couple of the student films were clearly plagiarised from earlier sources. This is perhaps not the forum to name names, but films that clearly and without acknowledgment take their ideas, technique and storylines entirely from animation masterpieces such as the Quay Brothers’ The Street of Crocodiles (UK, 1986) and Jan Švankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue (Czechoslovakia, 1982) should really not be entered into international festivals (or be submitted for academic qualifications).

Feature films were screened every evening in the town square but tended to be familiar commercial releases: Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, USA, 2003), The Corpse Bride (Michael Johnson and Tim Burton, USA, 2005), Toy Story (John Lasseter, USA, 1995), Robots (Chris Wedge, USA, 2005), Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit (Steve Box and Nick Park, UK, 2005) and Ice Age (Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, USA, 2002). There were however screenings of Lotus Lantern (Chang Guangxi, China, 2000) and Jan Švankmajer’s new film, Šílení (Lunacy) (Czech Republic, 2005). This last film has been on release in the Czech Republic since November 2005 and perhaps was not entirely suited to an outdoor public screening.

FimFárum 2

There were only four feature films in competition and it seems inexcusable that only one, FimFárum 2 (Jan Balej, Vlasta Pospíšilová, Břetislav Pojar, Aurel Klimt, Czech Republic, 2006), was projected on 35mm while the remaining three were projected on DVD, leading to massive image degradation on large screens. This was not entirely problematic for Heidi (Alan Simpson, UK, 2004) and Alosha Popovich i Tugarin Zmey (Konstantin Bronzit, Russia, 2004) since their 2D animation was so basic as to suggest the simplest of flash programming. This was particularly disappointing in the case of Heidi since the 1970s television series based on Johanna Spyri’s 1880 children’s book had been produced by Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki of Ghibli Studios fame and is much loved and admired. Simpson’s film trots out the story of the orphaned girl who is sent to live with her grandfather in the mountains (Hiroshi, anyone?) in a workmanlike manner and the flat backgrounds do nothing to convey the grandeur of the Swiss alps nor does the dull portrayal of Heidi and the rest of the characters stand up to any comparison with the Japanese version. Heidi looks cheap and will be unlikely to win a younger, new audience. It would have been more useful to re-release the 1970s television series.

The Russian Alosha is similarly simply animated but the slapstick tale of a rather dimwitted hero, the bogatir Alosha, on a quest to retrieve the gold stolen from his village by the evil Tugarin is enlivened by a post-Shrek knowingness and, of course, a fast-talking, cowardly horse. FimFárum 2, which won the competition, is a technically accomplished ensemble puppet film by four of the Czech Republic’s best known animators presenting four more oddly amoral fairytales by the actor and writer, Jan Werich. Building on the success of 2002’s FimFárum Jana Wericha, the film presents “Uncle, why is the sea salty?” – the result of a pact with the devil; “Three Sisters and One Ring” – where greed results in humiliation; “Three Hunchbacks from Damascus” – a rather tedious shaggy dog story featuring an Arabic backdrop; and “Tom Thumb” – an unusual retelling of this familiar story. While the various tales are all impressive in their own way, the film as a whole is overlong and tends to drag.

The Danish Terkel i Knibe (Terkel in Trouble) (Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Stefan Fjeldmark and Thorbjorn Christoffersen, 2004) is much less worthy than the other films and also much more fun. Animated in bubbly 3D, Terkel’s story of adolescent bullying, betrayal and suicide owes much to Beavis and Butthead and South Park in its playing of teenage angst for laughs and for its use of copious swearing respectively. An overweight girl throws herself out of a school window when Terkel tries to deflect the class bullies from picking on him by calling her a fat cow. A teacher runs through the blood-splattered children in the playground and says, “Well, at least she didn’t fall on anyone! Ha ha!” The idea that teenagers’ problems can be solved by a more caring adult environment is ridiculed, especially since the grownups are depicted as perverts, violent drunks, ineffectual hippies or psychopathic animal rights activists. The film’s narrator, an ageing hipster teacher with a bowl cut, tries to explicate the moral lessons of the film but eventually gives up and lurches off into the undergrowth as Terkel and his best friend, whose sister had killed herself, laugh off into the future.

The Carnival of the Animals

The Grand Prix of the festival was awarded to Michaela Pavlátová’s short film Karneval zvířat (The Carnival of the Animals) (Czech Republic, 2006) which had premiered at this year’s Finále Film Festival in Pilsen to much raucous audience laughter and acclaim. The colourful drawn animation presents a series of sexual vignettes ranging from adolescent discovery of the opposite sex to self-exposure to dream-fantasy to animal-human couplings and various autoerotic scenarios. Most of the sex depicted is non-genital and heterosexual with the biggest laugh being drawn by a circle of rabbits fellating each other’s ears. While it is obvious that this film was much enjoyed it struck me as crude and vulgar, both in content and visual style. This is particularly disappointing since Pavlátová’s only live action feature film, Nevěrne hry (Faithless Games) (Czech Republic, 2003), is an insightful and delicate political allegory which this animation does not nearly match in integrity or intelligence.

One of the most beguiling films at Anifest refuses easy explication while offering an experience that must surely be described as uncanny. Ministry Messiah (Gints Apsits, Latvia, 2005) is the combination of a short spot commissioned by Diesel (know as “My Angel’s Wings are Broken”) and a slightly longer section made a short while later. The film combines the Victorian newspaper collage of Max Ernst with a Rudolf II alchemical sensibility to create an unnerving portrait of a blind, dismembered king and his burning monkey. This, of course, is a rather facetious description and the journey into the king’s mind is an extraordinary mix of 2D and 3D which creates the sense of an unlimited space in which bloody consequences await. It is also fitting to see this film in Třeboň which boasts the tomb of the Schwarzenbergs, one of the great aristocratic Czech families, in which many of the family’s bodies are mummified but whose hearts have been removed, placed in urns, and are now in a church in their traditional seat of Česky Krumlov, a hundred miles away. It is also suitably grotesque that the crest of the Schwarzenbergs prominently features a crow pecking out the eye of a beheaded enemy and that this crest was recreated out of human bones in the ossuary of Kutna Hora. Ministry Messiah evokes the grand madness and decadence of a mythical Evropa, the vestiges of which can still be seen today. Apsits’ film can be viewed here.

A festival such as Anifest exhibits many more films than any single person could possibly see and it is clear that a younger generation of hyper computer literate animators is ready to take on Europe. It is also clear that most animators make their living from advertising work and one can only hope that the innovation of filmmakers such as Smith and Foulkes (who won the advertising prize) continues to be subsidised by large corporations without demanding too much compromise. Finally, however, there does seem to be too much emphasis on technique and not enough on ideas, as evinced by the simplistic nature/culture diatribes. One commentator on Yuri Norstein’s A Tale of Tales (Russia, 1979) – screened by Anifest’s president, Clare Kitson, alongside her newly published book on the film: Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator’s Journey (John Libbey) – remarked that the film was not easily explicable and represented a “visual philosophy”. Perhaps animation now needs less visuality and more philosophy.

About The Author

David Sorfa is Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. He has published articles on the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, the representation of ecstasy in film and the role of technology in the Vietnam war film. He is currently working on a book about Švankmajer and taxonomy in surrealism. He is co-editor of the online journal Film Philosophy.