Třeboň 1-4 May 2009
Teplice 7-10 May 2009

My second AniFest, after my first sally to the Czech Republic and its proliferative animation festival just last year (1), found me in the privileged position of representing not just Senses of Cinema, for whom I had again pledged to cover the festival, but also the festival itself, whose ranks I had enthusiastically agreed to join for the festival’s duration. Over that period I was charged with the responsibility of contributing a daily column to the festival’s newsletter, one written “from another perspective” – thus adding a third term, that of “Australasian”, to my swag of representations sported at the festival.

As my insider status made for an altogether more profound degree of engagement than I had with AniFest last year, my report on its 8th edition cannot itself then help but come “from another perspective” than the norm. Having been made privy to action behind the scenes of this vital, multi-faceted festival, this was qualitatively a very different experience for me to that of mine last year.

To better convey a sense of the many flavours of my 2009 AniFest experience, I will include select snippets – and, in the interests of better storytelling, occasional cannibalisations – of my newsletter contributions in this report. This will still allow for plenty of room for the bread-and-butter of festival reportage, to wit, commentary on the films screened and on the festival’s wider successes and failings. In the interests of digestibility, however, yoked to recognition of the impossibility to cover in depth the full breadth of the festival’s programming, my chief focus will be on what I considered highlights amongst the short and feature films entered into competition.

But first: a little more setting the scene.

We are convinced that by expanding into two locations, AniFest will not lose any of its attractiveness, but on the contrary, it will appeal to more visitors, young animators and new fans …

– Barbara Tůmová, Managing Director, Anifest s.r.o. (2)

Idiots and AngelsThe timing of the opportunity granted me to access the festival from within was interesting, for AniFest, by now a well-established and internationally respected fixture on the animation festival circuit, had nonetheless entered something of a transitional phase. A largely new team, headed by new management, had been assembled to stage the 2009 festival. Furthermore, AniFest, hitherto staged exclusively in the lovely Southern Bohemian town of Třeboň, was expanding into the more sizeable North Bohemian city of Teplice. While it was announced that all films entered into competition at AniFest would screen in both locations, it was made clear that each half would have its own focus and targeted demographic; the Třeboň leg was to be pitched more at established filmmakers and industry professionals, while the Teplice leg would be run more with an audience of young and student filmmakers, children and the general public in mind.

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We’ll pick up the action now in the first half. It’s one day into the festival; I’ve been in the country barely a day-and-a-half and my first column was run the day previous, my having submitted a piece for the first day’s newsletter introducing myself, and the otherness of my perspective, before I’d left Australia.

From my third column, published May the 3rd, but written the afternoon prior:

It’s mid-afternoon […] and I don’t know whether it’s the hangover from Opening Night‘s festivities, some scintillating animation seen earlier today, or jetlag, but I’m feeling positively giddy! No doubt it’s a combination of all these, and other elements too; for example, there’s a lively market in the Town Square selling all manner of tempting knick-knacks and delicacies, loads of friendly and interesting people traipsing about the festival, and there’re many hours of tantalising screenings still to come before I call stumps this evening, none more so than a documentary […] on the only recently re-discovered Russian animation pioneer Alexander Shiryaev.

But first, a quick reflection on the day’s viewing so far. I’ve seen a terrific package of new Czech shorts, with Stanislava Mikušová’s O první kočce domácí (About the First Domestic Cat) a real highlight. And the retrospective package of Italian masters was full of wonders, with Bruno Bozzetto’s very wry Grasshoppers (1990) and Manfredo Manfredi’s bleak but beautiful Labyrinth (1976) the most memorable of a strong selection.

A Belated Premiere - Alexander Shiriaev

Indeed, A Belated Premiere – Alexander Shiriaev (Victor Bocharov, 2003) proved a real eye-opener; its extensive footage of Shiriaev’s trick films, stop-motion and extraordinary puppet animations from the first decade of the 20th century demands a re-write of the history books. That said, I could tell some of the audience were struggling with it, and sadly, some left prematurely; the film is structured chronologically, meaning it’s chiefly concerned early on with his celebrated dancing career. Those animation buffs who did stick around though I’m sure must have felt amply rewarded.

The program profiling great Italian masters was but one retrospective program of many on offer: there was also a session dedicated to works of an Italian “new wave”, and several sessions devoted to the charming works of Eduard Hofman, a very important figure in Czech animation, spanning the 1940s through to the 1980s. “Treasures of Austrian Animation” featured a lecture from Thomas Renoldner accompanied by screenings profiling Austrian animation practices dating back to cinema’s pre-history (!), which I’m cursing myself for having missed, and a package of shorts by renowned Czech animator Jiří Barta complemented an exhibition in Třeboň of sets, sketches and props from his new, children’s stop-motion feature, Na půdě aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny (In the Attic, or Who Has a Birthday Today?, 2009), a screening of which was a late, unofficial addition to the program. Alas, I was more impressed by the exhibition than by the film! And that’s not even to mention programs curated by the festival president and various of the jurors, or a package of shorts specially compiled to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain

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In my excitement and sense of responsibility at being a part of the festival team, I have to admit a little bit of cheerleading sometimes inflected my column contributions. I don’t think it was especially gratuitous, but it was something I was mindful of throughout.

From my fourth column, published May the 4th:

Bless the invention of the laptop, which enables me to write today’s column sitting in the sun in Masaryk’s Square! I have already had a terrific day at the festival, even though I am yet to see a film today. (I have though seen Bill Plympton’s new feature, Idiots and Angels, since my last column. A full house last night greatly enjoyed his trademark mordant humour and signature graphic style – I don’t think Bill Plympton is a ‘people person’!)

Today I have mostly been witness to the behind-the-scenes, business end of animation, sitting in on an exciting pitching forum and lunching afterwards with its participants. Full credit to all involved, including Mike Robinson, who chaired proceedings, and to the panel of Catherine Robins, Jackie Edwards and Nelson Shin, whose collective feedback to the nervous but impressive pitchers was always generous and constructive. Great news: the panel all seem keen to return next year to see how the projects have developed.

I also made my Czech TV debut today… I was interviewed about the festival, and why I had come such a long way to be here. Hopefully my answers made sense!

During the festival, Česká televize were running a nightly 5-minute long report from AniFest; I think my contribution, once overdubbed in Czech and edited, in the end ran to just a humbling few seconds of enthusiastic hand-waving and blathering. Still, the limelight would seek me out again yet before the Třeboň leg was over… But before we get to that, I’d like again to refer to Bill Plympton’s new film, and let that instead serve as a segue:

There were just the three feature-length films in competition this year, with the wordless and noir-ish Idiots and Angels (2008) the clear stand-out. Unmistakably a Bill Plympton film, Idiots and Angels is concerned with an unlikeable fellow who wakes up one day to find wings growing out of his back. Desperate to rid himself of them at first, it’s not long before he comes to see the potential to profit from the advantages they grant him; ditto the other characters who orbit his squalid, Charles Bukowski-esque life. It’s as if Plympton understands flying dreams are universal to ground-bound human beings, and that, furthermore, were we somehow blessed with the ability to make those dreams a reality, we’d only use the gift of flight to less-than-noble ends. Fortunately, the wings in Idiots and Angels seem to have a mind all of their own – lucky! Because mankind simply cannot be trusted with superpowers.

Idiots and Angels went on to win both the Prize for the Best Feature-Length Film and the festival’s Grand Prix.

Sita Sings the Blues

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2009) is a highly original treatment of an age-old epic tale, that of the Ramayana, and relates the story of Sita, a Hindu goddess wrongly impugned by a foolish husband, told in parallel with the story of Nina, a present-day San Francisco-based artist whose husband, working from faraway India, dumps her by email. To ease her troubled soul, Sita is wont to burst into song, on which occasions she mouths the words of standards provided by 1920s songstress Annette Hanshaw. Additionally, from time to time three bickering shadow puppet narrators waylay proceedings until they settle upon a single satisfactory take on aspects of the Ramayana, of which many variations and interpretations exist.

Sita Sings the Blues is awash with a variety of disparate and colourful 2-D animation styles, drawing in equal measure from Indian illustrative traditions as well as on the strengths – and limitations – of certain animation technologies, with highly geometric Flash sequences used in the musical numbers, and simple, crudely animated cut-out figures depicting episodes from the Ramayana.

It’s certainly original, but it’s somehow just not quite as fun as I thought it should be. In spite of all its ingenuity, it grows a mite repetitive. But I feel a right churl for complaining at all, as Paley has made the entire film, representing several years’ work, freely available for anybody to download, seeking no material gain as a condition upon its dissemination or broadcasting! You can access it here.

Lastly, Pedro Rivero’s La crisis carnívora (Animal Crisis, 2007) is a coarse Animal Farm-esque allegory in which a pact made between all the jungle animals not to eat one another constantly teeters on the brink of violent dissolution. Its coarseness is both in its use exclusively of Flash animation, which, while allowing for a sustained aesthetic, here offers little nuance to the characterisations, and also in its dialogue, which is liberally riddled with profanities. It’s a comedy… and it is funny, sometimes. It’s a shame though that it didn’t really get me laughing aloud until the closing credits rolled, whereupon there were some very amusing ‘outtakes’ featuring the film’s most compelling character, a sniveling, Machiavellian hyena.

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From my column published May the 8th:

Today’s hangover is testament to the effervescence of the launch of AniFest’s second half. Sitting in the Concert Hall of the Teplice Cultural Centre for the Opening Ceremony, I was very impressed with the procession of representatives from, and trailers for, AniFest’s numerous partner festivals hailing from far and wide. This was illustrative for me of the great sense of camaraderie and fraternity that I am constantly reminded exists amongst animators and their fellow travelers. I was further impressed with the great spirit at the reception afterwards, where one could readily find oneself chatting with luminaries, both established and [nascent], as well as with any number of other lovely, friendly folks in various ways associated with the industry. Not for the first time I considered myself very lucky to be here, as to find myself amidst such a congregation of international animating talent in my remote homeland of Australia is nigh on unthinkable. It’s been wonderful not only to see the new films by the likes of Paul Driessen and Priit Pärn, but to also freely and informally chat with them has been a real joy and a privilege.

On mentioning Paul Driessen and Priit Pärn, I’ll avail myself of a second opportunity to segue, this time onto a discussion of some of the outstanding short films in competition.

Paul Driessen was a member of this year’s festival jury, which was comprised of a mighty contingent of animation luminaries (3). On top of his jury duties, he introduced a hand-picked selection of his wonderful animated films dating back to 1972’s Air, and including his latest short work, The 7 Brothers (2008), made with his son Kaj, and which also screened in competition. (It was a shame though that only his fellow juror and one-time collaborator (on the hilarious Uncles & Aunts No. 2 (1992)), Michaela Pavlátová, had the pluck to throw him a few questions during his Q&A.)

The 7 Brothers

The 7 Brothers stands as a very fruitful collaboration between father and son, with the former responsible for the script and animation, and the latter for live-action sequences in which each of seven Grimm brothers, in a cobblestoned plaza late at night, stumble in turn upon inspiration for cruel and humourous new fairytales. These are then animated in his father’s signature hand-drawn style, a style – flavoured by a certain sensibility – that often reminds me of that of an equally celebrated comic artist, Sergio Aragonés.

Never mind that his faux-naif graphical style has long been highly influential and widely mimicked (if, in some quarters, also rather reviled); Elu Ilma Gabriella Ferrita (Life without Gabriella Ferri, 2008) could not be mistaken for the work of anyone but Estonian animation legend Priit Pärn (albeit here working in collaboration with his wife, Olga Pärn). Coming in at a cool 44 minutes, Life without presents several disturbing scenes from a love life besieged by the demanding attentions of a highly remonstrative child, a burglar and the film’s own tendency to wander off along sinisterly whimsical tangents. It’s fascinating and unpredictable, just as with so many of Pärn’s animations before it, and demands at least the one repeat viewing.

In Stephen Irwin’s striking The Black Dog’s Progress (2008), the frame fills up with looping black-and-white flipbook animations, with each flipbook in itself, or in conjunction with some of its neighbours, forming little tiles of narrative space-time, which viewed in toto relate the dreadful life of a poor, unwanted black dog. Sorenious Bonk’s strings-heavy post-rock score wails away all awhile, adding considerably to the dark mood, beautifully matching the highly expressionistic visuals and the fragmented narrative’s apocalyptic climax.

An amazing 25-minute-long melange of 2D and 3D animation and exquisitely rotoscoped documentary and instructional film, Dennis Tupicoff’s Chainsaw (2007) is surely the first film made to explore the connections between power tools, adultery, the rodeo, mortality, and the cult of celebrity, with the film’s sprawling, fragmented and unsentimental narrative haunted by the ghosts of legendary couple Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, and bullfighter extraordinaire Luis Miguel Dominguin. It’s a superb piece of work, which, as the only Australasian in the village, I was bemused but ultimately delighted to be asked to accept an award for, on behalf of its Australian director, at the Closing Night ceremony in Třeboň, marking a second surreal step into the public eye for me on this trip. (The prize was for Best Animated Film of 15 to 60 Minutes.)

Once a Wallace and Gromit tragic, it pains me to say I was underwhelmed by A Matter of Loaf and Death (Nick Park, 2008). This is in no way to suggest it was bad, just… not fresh, and hellbent on cramming as much as possible into its half-hour running time, somewhat at the expense of the subtlety and quaint charm common to other films in the series. If only Park and co. at Aardman had allowed themselves a few more minutes of screen-time to let Loaf breathe a little, as its breakneck pace and over-the-top meta-textuality conspire against it re-capturing the magic of 1993’s classic The Wrong Trousers. I still got a few hearty laughs, and numerous chuckles, out of A Matter of Loaf and Death – but there was nothing in it to worm its way into my heart half so much as did once an evil penguin with a penetrating gaze and a rubber glove strategically placed upon its head.

While on the subject of clay, it becomes apparent very quickly that the title of Bruno Collet’s atmospheric stop-motion short Le Jour de Gloire (The Day of Glory, 2007) is to be taken ironically. Clay WWI soldiers emerge from the trenches in appalling conditions to face certain death before a swirling camera, the very stuff of their dying animated bodies merging anonymously with the apocalyptic landscape around them. Sometimes the medium is indeed the message!

Muto

Muto (Blu, 2008) is astonishing, all the more so when seen on a big screen; I only mention this as Muto has been circulating online for some time now, made freely available for (non-profit) dissemination by its creator. In Muto, Blu uses any number of quite unlovely multi-storey walls in public spaces in Buenos Aires and in Baden, Germany, as palimpsests for fabulous surrealistic stop-motion animations. Getting your head around what this must physically have entailed is just one aspect of this film’s power to boggle minds; it’s furthermore a visionary imagination that birthed the extraordinary figures that come fleetingly to life on these walls in the first place, all of them subject to spontaneous morphing into all manner of other ‘lifeforms’ which will then hurtle all over the place, beetling around corners, even spilling off the walls and wandering along the ground in search of new adventures. I gather Muto has since spawned a few pale imitations from the world of advertising. Pay them no heed; Muto is the original and the gobsmacking real deal, and you can watch it – and marvel – any time you feel like it, here.

3D computer animations are of course nowadays staple festival fare; exemplary work in the medium this year came courtesy of the U.K.’s Smith and Foulkes with This Way Up (2008), a very funny, very English slapstick comedy of errors in which father and son undertakers make a dreadful, cross-country hash of a simple undertaking job. Smith and Foulkes cut their teeth on commissioned work, and the jauntily bad-taste This Way Up, with its beautifully sustained aesthetic, represents their first wholly original work; may many more follow in its wake, as the jury would no doubt concur: they awarded it a Special Prize.

Fabrice O. Joubert’s French Roast (2008) mined a similar comedic vein, and exhibited every bit as much aesthetic brio. A businessman seated in a café is mortified to discover himself short of money to pay his bill and so does his utmost, without moving, to stall the inevitable; as time passes, a small cast of colourful characters come and go in ingenious, but not too ostentatious, plays with the frame’s depth of field, each of them, including a tramp, a nun and a policeman, involved in certain surprising enterprises that could help the businessman out of his predicament if only he wasn’t such an unperceptive clod.

Geza M. Tóth’s Ergo (2008) takes a highly original approach to portraying the fraught nature of social relations, and could be considered a latter-day animation technology companion piece to Jan Švankmajer’s famed stop-motion spectacular Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982). Two lonely figures move independently of one another through a 3D landscape of their own movement’s making. For one, every new step forward prompts a new pedestal to emerge for it to stand upon, rising up at furious speed from the depths below, while simultaneously its previous step disintegrates. For the other, each fresh step adds to a landscape that looks, underfoot, like one vast sprawl of organ pipes; perhaps that is in fact what they are, for with each step taken by either figure, a note chimes resoundingly. Of course, these two figures are destined to meet… but will opposites attract, or cancel one another out?

Jérémy Clapin’s tragicomic Skhizein (2008) examines the maladjusting physical and psychological consequences of being stuck precisely 91cm removed, along one 2-dimensional plane or another, from the rest of the world after being hit by a falling meteorite. Its is a brave, but clever opening gambit: at the outset, we see a supine, big-headed 3D character impossibly floating above the ground in what otherwise passes for a successfully realised, if somewhat stylised, 3D interior space: in fact, it’s recognisably a psychiatrist’s office. But this jarring incongruity is immediately explained: and so begins the telling of a strange story told to a psychiatrist by a protagonist who is, need it now be said, at all times exactly 91cm from where he ought to be. It’s a very elegant narrative manoeuvre, and a compelling premise to boot, which Skhizein milks effectively for laughs and pathos alike over its 13 minutes running time.

Dix

3D animation addressed psychiatric matters in Dix (Ten, BIF Collective, 2008) too. A nervous but handsome young live-action man Marc (Ian Faure) attempts to eradicate his OCD-inflected walking habits through counseling. It’s not until nearly 2 minutes in that we sight any animation. But then Dix starts to flit between scenes in the psychiatrist’s office and a veristic 3D psychic streetscape, wherein Marc is placed square in centre-frame, stepping-stones for him to negotiate descending en masse to fill out the frame deep towards the horizon. With his counselor’s vocal assistance, he attempts to step forward, which he will slowly manage to do, and will continue to do, in fits and starts. But each time he should waver, well are we ever treated to some virtuoso – and extremely bloodthirsty! – 3D animation – as poor traumatised Marc is subject to a succession of highly grotesque slicings and dicings from the whole concrete world around him rising up against him. No-one would begrudge Dix winning the Prize for the Best Animated Film of 5 to 15 Minutes.

Traditional animation techniques were employed in another notable short concerned with an individual with non-normative psychological make-up. In Mon petit frère de la lune (My Little Brother from the Moon, 2008), Frédéric Philibert presents, in shimmering, hand-drawn 2D, a small girl’s account of her autistic younger brother’s very unusual ways of responding to the world around him. Ever looking up towards the stars, he tellingly appears throughout this very sweet short film as if a spotlight is trained on him, standing him out against the mottled black background upon which all other characters appear merely sketched in outline. There’s no mistaking, then, who’s the centre of this story’s universe, and it’s made clear just how difficult it can be to get through to a child who exists in a bubble, who operates at a remove from the rest of the world. However, his sister is gently determined to find some way in…

Lastly, old school puppet animation had a fine ambassador in Maria Mouat’s On i Ona (A Man and a Woman, 2008), based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Old World Landowners”. It’s a sumptuous, unashamedly sentimental production, and – best I can tell – well conveys through its puppet protagonists and masterly mise en scène something of the experience of being in the maundering twilight of one’s life.

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From my final newsletter column, published May 10th:

As AniFest draws to a close, I’ve been catching as much animation as I possibly can whilst retaining some semblance of sanity. The last several days have been a wonderful, if dizzying, audiovisual and cross-cultural information overload.

One of the things I’ve appreciated most is how AniFest looks both forwards and backwards. Festival President Giannalberto Bendazzi, introducing [a program of] his favourite animated films, [declaimed] that too little is widely understood about the history of this protean artform, but AniFest is helping remedy that, cultivating in animators and the public alike a better understanding of where animation has come from, the better, in turn, to contextualise and inspire where it’s heading.

Regarding the new breed, I caught an outstanding program of new works from ADIFAC, a school in Brussels, which featured a number of highly original and entertaining shorts. It was but one program of many I’ve seen which augur well for animation’s future, and which, alongside the tremendous hospitality I’ve enjoyed, make me keen to return to this faraway land when next it stages another animation festival – bring on AniFest 2010!

Nice Day for a Picnic

Yes, it’s time for the summing up, even though the paragraph above reminds me I hadn’t until now even touched upon the international schools competition, pitting the selected collective outputs from various prominent animation schools against one another. The ADIFAC works were indeed outstanding, deserving winners of the Prize for the Best Film Collection in a School Competition, with the superb Nice Day for a Picnic (Monica Gallab, 2008) amongst their number, an absurdist roundelay replete with human drones repeatedly enacting strange, occasionally macabre, interconnected rituals, and which was a prizewinner itself, for Best Student Film.

As one last gesture to acknowledge the vast gamut of the 2009 AniFest’s program, and the impossibility of my doing it all justice in this report, it behooves me to at least mention any additional prizewinners heretofore unspoken of: the ecologically-minded They Will Come to Town (Thilo Ewers, 2008) took out the Prize for the Best Animated Film of up to 5 Minutes; Kristina Dufková’s Usnula jsem (A Tear is Needed, 2009) took out the Jury Award for the Best Czech Animated Film; The Street Cleaner on the Moon (Konstantin Golubkov, 2007) won the Prize for the Best Animated Film in the Commissioned Film Category, and My Holidays (2009) won Natalia Chernysheva the Audience’s Choice Prize for the Best Internet Animation.

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With Třeboň two hours south of Prague, and Teplice a little over an hour northwest of the capital, and with two days further separating the festival’s two legs, most festival visitors, the general public and the innumerable international festival guests alike naturally came only to one town, or to the other. This made overall for a little less exuberant an audience than last year’s, when all the festival’s activities were wholly concentrated across seven contiguous days within Třeboň alone.

The splitting of the festival also meant there was a lesser commingling of folks at the higher ends of the industry echelons with those still emerging, excepting programmatic opportunities given the latter in such as the festival’s Pitching Forum. In fact, there could only have been less capacity for networking generally. It also made for more sedate festivities at each location’s Opening and Closing Night Ceremonies; mercifully, these four quite elaborate productions, each of them three days apart, were nothing like as protracted and jejune as last year’s, although they were still not without elements of unfathomable zaniness. A little anticlimactically, the Closing Nights were each slightly shorn of a sense of occasion through considerably lower numbers of revelers in attendance than there would have been had the festival occurred in just the one location.

However… the dates for AniFest 2010 have been announced: the festival will run 18-23 May, considerably closer to the start of summer, and, tellingly, running the course of a single unbroken week. This clearly suggests the festival will be staged in the one location, which will immediately address some of the matters raised just above. This year’s splitting of the festival can in fact best be read as the AniFest team considering the merits of one prospective host in 2010 against another, rather more than as a concerted move to base the festival in two discrete towns here on in. Methinks this is a good thing!

So: which location will emerge as AniFest’s sole host? Fairy-tale Třeboň is far the prettier and more atmospheric town, and is my sentimental choice, but Teplice, not without its charms, looks to have better infrastructure and more potential to accommodate the festival as it continues to grow. Stay tuned.

And while I have already gathered there are to be some more changes in the AniFest team, I’m hoping they won’t be at all widespread, for I think there’s a terrific group of people there whose experience and love of animation cannot help but ensure that, irrespective of whether it’s Třeboň or Teplice that lands the 9th AniFest, the festival will again be a vibrant, congenial and profusely-programmed affair, and damned if I won’t want to be there again! I’m looking forward to it already.

AniFest website: http://www.anifest.cz

Endnotes

  1. See Cerise Howard, “AniFest Destiny: The 7th AniFest: International Festival of Animated Films”, Senses of Cinema no. 48, 2008.
  2. “Festival News – No 0”, a press release issued by AniFest dated 19 February, 2009.
  3. This extraordinary array of talent included Nelson Shin, Petr Sís, Ludmila Zemanová, Bärbel Neubauer, Michaela Pavlátová, Peter Fašianok, Eva Gubčová, Penčo Kunčev and Maria Procházková, with Italian animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi serving as President of the Jury.