Review: Annecy International Animation Film Festival (2019)
Located in Annecy, France, the Annecy International Animation Film Festival was founded in 1960 and has been held annually since 1997. This year, the festival took place 10th-15th June, boasting its usual range of screenings and events: features, shorts, student films, television shows, commissioned works, and VR works (Fig. 1). The shorts in particular displayed a wide collection of animated techniques and materials. Highlights include the clay-on-glass musical retelling of America’s first circus elephant in The Elephant’s Song (Lynn Tomlinson, 2018), the self-reflexive Pinscreen exercise Jim Zipper (Alexandre Roy, 2018), and the impeccably smooth stop-motion porcelain animals of Winter in Rainforest (Anu-Laura Tuttelberg, 2019). Alongside these new works, Annecy also holds a series of meetings, conferences, WIP screenings, master classes, keynotes, pitches, and exhibitions, providing content designed for animation students and practitioners as well as for fans. Considering the length of this list, it was impossible to see or attend everything that Annecy has to offer. Hence, I focused specifically on the screenings of new works. As I did so, I began to consider how these texts function as examples of fantasy and animation. A number take place in traditional fantasy settings, such as White Snake (Amp Wong and Ji Zhao, 2018), The Prince’s Voyage (Jean-François Laguionie and Xavier Picard, 2019), and The Wonderland (Keiichi Hara, 2019). Others utilized animation to incorporate fantastical imagery, representing poetry in Ville Neuve (Félix Dufour-Laperrière, 2018), a dog’s perspective in Marona’s Fantastic Tale (Anca Damian, 2019), or an artist’s neurodegenerative disease in the short Mémorable (Bruno Collet, 2019). The following post is less a review of this year’s festival than the attempt of my sleep-deprived brain to find connections between the different entries, to think about how they can complement existing lesson plans and research for animation scholars. Foremost, I recognize how various texts utilize animation and its fantastical potential in the construction of bodies, of places, and of events. The following paragraphs focus on key features from the festival as well as complementary shorts.
The midnight screening Aragne: Sign of Vermillion (Saku Sakamoto, 2018) is a horror film about young woman named Rin who realizes something sinister is happening in her new apartment complex (Fig. 2). Director Saku Sakamoto worked on this project alone for 18 months, circumstances that are apparent in the final product – although I do not mean that as a sleight. Aragne: Sign of Vermillion does not feel so much like a theatrical release as it does something you would find linked on a web forum at 2.00am; something only a few dozen other people have seen. It’s strange, singular, and inscrutable in a way that a studio with more manpower and a larger budget would not allow. In addition to the disorienting narrative, this quality is also apparent in the rendering of the main character’s body. Sometimes within the same scene, Rin alternates between traditional animation, with dynamic movements and expressions, and a 3D computer-animated model that floats through the world with dead doll eyes. On one hand, these switches can be disruptive, indicating a lack of time or money. On the other, they complement both the unease felt by the main character as well as the general theme of bodies being mutilated and repurposed. Rin’s body is at as much the mercy of the animator as it is of serial killers, government experiments, and giant bugs.
The inherent plasmaticity of animated bodies and their material possibilities for transformation was naturally a reoccurring motif across the festival, often in the service of fantasy storytelling. Some shorts explore this malleability by depicting characters whose bodies undergo radical changes either for comedic purposes – as in Symbiose (Paul Raillard, 2018) – or for more grotesque ends – as in These Things in My Head – Side A (Luke Borne, 2018). One of the more intriguing entries was the student film Bath House of Whales (Kiyama Mizuki, 2019), which tells the story of a woman taking her daughter to their town’s public baths. While nudity was a common subject of these shorts, the director’s use of paint on glass and character designs resist erotic or comedic readings, allowing the text to more subjectively embody the point-of-view of the child protagonist.
The Swallow of Kabul (Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, 2019) tells the story of two Afghani couples suffering under Taliban rule (Fig. 3). In doing so, the film constructs an animated version of “Kabul” distinct from but nevertheless representative of a real place, complementary of other Western depictions of the area. Rachel Brook (2019) has previously written an editorial on this “re-animation” of Othered cultures – including the “Kabul” of The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey, 2017) – for this website. However, there is more to the “Kabul” of the Swallows of Kabul than simply being a Western construction of a non-Western place. The backgrounds look like washed-out watercolor paintings, matching the character design and allowing the two to fully integrate. The aesthetic also instills a sense of nostalgia, as people visit the ruins of cinemas and bookstores, wondering whether they have a future in this place.
Some texts from the festival approach this subject in a more self-reflexive manner. The feature Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles (Salvador Simo, 2018) dramatizes the making of Land Without Bread (Luis Buñuel,1933), emphasizing how even this documentary constructed a “Las Hurdes.” In the film, the legendary surrealist justifies his actions by saying that he is still recording a truth through fantasy even as he stages events for the camera. The short Tany Mena (Kim Yip Tong, 2018) presents an “Antanarivo, Madagascar” as illustrated by the city’s inhabitants. However, The Common Space (Raphaële Bezin, 2018) tackles this subject most explicitly, presenting a collage of how “Rome” has been constructed over the course of decades of cinema.
Finally, Zero Impunity (Nicolas Blies, Stephane Hueber-Blies, and Denis Lambert, 2019), which chronicles the use of sexual violence in current armed conflicts, was Annecy’s sole animated documentary feature (Fig. 4). Bella Honess Roe has already written extensively on the topic of animated documentaries, including how the medium can help ensure anonymity for the interviewees and how it can foster empathy in a viewer (2013: 78-9, 89-90, 108). In this regard, Zero Impunity is typical. The film does occasionally use animation to protect the identities of their subjects in interviews and reenactments. However, it also employs the technique for public figures, including some who are also featured in live-action footage. The animation itself is detailed and stiff, as though seeking an objective distance, rather than sensationalize real-world events.
A few of the short films also use animation to tell either their own stories – such as in Chin Up (JoAnne Salmon, 2018), in which the director describes her life with Treacher Collins syndrome – or those of others – such as in Happy Ending (Eunju Ara Choi, 2018), which sets the testimony of a Korean sex worker to animation. However, one of the most effective uses of animation to reconstruct real-world events was the short Girl in the Hallway (Valerie Barnhart, 2018), in which Jamie DeWolff recounts how his inaction indirectly resulted in a young girl being abducted and killed. While the narrator’s words and delivery would be powerful on their own, director Valerie Barnhart’s use of charcoal, Conté – a type of crayon made out of powered graphite or charcoal mixed with a wax or clay base – pastel, and graphite visualize and complement his shame and righteous anger, reconstructing the emotional truth of the event rather than specific details.
This has been a brief snapshot of my thoughts and experiences at Annecy this year through a consideration of fantasy and animation, and the terms by which this relationship is playing out in a variety of shorts across a multitude of filmmaking contexts. I also hope that those reading this post may be able to incorporate these films into their lesson plans or their own research as they become available in theatres, on home video, or on streaming and download services. It is important to pay attention to places like Annecy, to animation festivals, both in how they provide opportunities to study animation’s past as well as to bear witness to its future. I hope that more animation scholars try to attend next year.
Brooks, Rachel. “Fantasy and the Re-Animation of Othered Cultures,” Fantasy/Animation (January 25, 2019), available at: https://www.fantasy-animation.org/blog/2019/1/25/fantasy-and-the-re-animation-of-othered-cultures?rq=brook.
Honess Roe, Annabelle. Animated Documentary (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
Francis M. Agnoli is a doctoral candidate at the University of East Anglia, where is research focuses on the ascription of race to animated bodies in contemporary U.S. television animation. He has previously earned his MA at the University of Iowa and his BA at Loyola University Chicago. His work has been published in the edited collection Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018).