At work, riding the bus, online…love can be found in some strange places, but tales of companionship and finding that someone special don’t come much weirder than Bára Anna Stejskalová’s stop-motion short Jsme si o smrt blíž (Love Is Just a Death Away). Set in a rubbish dump, where a parasite desperate for friendship inhabits the corpse of a dead dog, this 10-minute animation may be visibly rotten on its surface, but it’s surprisingly sweet at its core.
Introducing us to its reanimated canine as it protects a wounded bird on its landfill home, Stejskalová’s short reveals the real protagonist of its story as it pops out of the dog’s eye socket to retrieve a dangling eyeball. As the dog stares upon the body of the bird – now dead after flying into a lamppost – the audience is transported through its milky-white pupil and into the cavity beyond, where the parasite lives and controls its host. As the story evolves, we soon discover that all this organism wants is company, something to share its existence with, and after failed attempts with a rat and a pack of cockroaches, an unexpected happy ending is just around the corner. It’s a surprisingly relatable tale, considering the bizarre scenario.
It’s that unusual premise that is one of the main appeals of Love Is Just a Death Away, it’s such a fantastical storyline, we just had to ask Stejskalová how she came up with the idea. “My first inspiration was a theme of duality, or schizophrenia and the isolation and loneliness that comes with it”, she explains. Adding that her story is one focused on “being different” and that desire to find a soulmate who accepts you for who you are, parasite or not. For a film centred around death and decay, there’s a great deal of life in Stejskalová’s short, with the resonating takeaway all about how finding that perfect partner can set you free.
If the premise is one part of why the film is so appealing, the other main attraction here is the wonderful craft that brings the unusual universe to the screen. Attracted to stop-motion because of the “magical” qualities of bringing an inanimate object to life – much like the parasite does in the story (not that I’m calling stop-motion animators parasites, of course!) – the animation adds a tangible element to this otherworldly tale. With the aesthetic partly inspired by an illustrated poster of decaying rubbish Stejskalová purchased from IKEA, the filmmaker reveals “the beauty of decay itself” was also motivation for the look, admitting that she’s fascinated with “how pretty mold can look and how lovely flowering rust can be”.
Having seen Love Is Just a Death Away on the festival circuit in 2021, its distinct visuals and heartfelt storyline have stuck with me ever since. I can be quite cold-hearted when it comes to tales of love portrayed on screen, but the unusual setting and characters employed in Stejskalová’s film means it never feels overtly saccharine and difficult to swallow. If anything, by wrapping her sweet storyline behind such an unconventional exterior, it works to magnify the message of the film – one the director describes as being about “the freedom loves brings”.
Part of the Travelling Distribution catalogue, Love Is Just a Death Away won audience and jury hearts at SXSW, Tampere and Palm Springs ShortFest, where it was awarded the Best Student Animation prize. Stejskalová is now working on a new short, which she describes as a “Stop-motion underwater musical called 9 Million Colors“.