Anima is a sprawling, eclectic event in a sprawling, eclectic city. Founded in 1982 in Brussels, it remains the only animation festival in Belgium, and compensates with a programme of oceanic proportions. Visitors can choose between shorts, features, exhibitions, workshops, industry events and virtual reality installations. There’s even a late-night pyjama party, complete with VJ sets and screenings of the festival’s zaniest films. I was sad to miss it, if relieved that I didn’t have to reveal my nightwear to the European animation community.
This year’s edition, which ran March 1–10, featured 123 shorts in competition. They were mostly, but not exclusively, narrative, and understandably skewed toward the Franco-Belgian sphere (Miyu Productions, French indie animation’s great upstart, had at least half a dozen works in the mix). As a result, there was plenty of the sort of slick, visually ravishing films at which these countries excel. The trend for shorts about mental health, which has been growing for some years now, was in evidence; Floor Adams’s Mind My Mind, about an autistic teenager who suffers from debilitating social anxiety, won the audience award.
On the other hand, there was a paucity of overtly political films. This is true of short-form animation in general, though it struck me especially at Anima. It could be due to the priorities of animation courses, the relatively cloistered conditions in which animation is made, or the personalities of those who make it; the debate is worth having. What’s certain is that long-form animation is going its own way: features at Anima touched on everything from the Balkan wars (Chris the Swiss) to official corruption (Tito and the Birds).
A note on the winner of the grand prix. Reruns is by the Dutch multimedia artist Rosto. Like most of his films, it takes its cue from a song he recorded with his band, but it pushes further into autobiography than the others. An avatar of the artist drifts through an underwater realm, in which he encounters his own jumbled dreams and memories. At one point, he envisions his whole life unfurling in a single growth spurt, from child to adult to skeleton. The imagery, a mix of CGI, puppets and live action, is typically macabre, but the tone is almost elegiac – an element that would soon take on new meaning. Just as the jury decided to reward his film, the news came in that Rosto had died of lung cancer. He was 50.
Here, then, are my picks of the programme’s crop. They won’t be available online for a while yet, but when they are, we’ll be the first to let you know.
Dir: Nara Normande (France/Brazil)
Sand animation is having a moment, but never has it been used more effectively than here. Normande grew up on Guaxuma, a beach in northeast Brazil; she recounts her childhood in this eponymous film, mixing real-life photos, sand (both 2D and 3D) and puppets. Gradually, the film focuses on a special friendship and its sad fate. This is dangerous territory – autobiographical shorts about an important personal relationship are a dime a dozen, and most are solipsistic and dull. Guaxuma works, partly because Normande sets a rich scene before telling her tale, and partly because the film’s aesthetic enhances the poetry of her narration. The shifts between media seemed random at first, but eventually I decided that they signal different stages of remembrance, the realism of the photos segueing into the abstract, idealised forms of the sand. A delicate work, just on the right side of sentimental.
Dir. Paul Bush (Portugal/United Kingdom)
Those familiar with Bush’s work know the drill. The veteran British filmmaker is fond of creating stop-frame animations from images of a given thing in its many varieties. He’s applied the technique to body parts (Lay Bare), museum exhibits (The Five-Minute Museum), and more. For Ride, he was given access to a vast, semi-secret collection of motorbikes in Portugal; the resulting film shows machines of all colours and sizes, rapidly juxtaposed to create a thrilling, shifting Platonic ideal of a bike. Bush’s mastery of lighting and composition (not to mention the excellent work of his sound designers) make all his films a joy to watch, and his witty riffs on his subjects’ specific properties keep the formula fresh. Here, he contrives a very simple story around the idea of a bike enthusiast, which I’d spoil the film by revealing. Just see it – you’ll smile.
Five Minutes to Sea
Dir. Natalia Mirzoyan (Russia)
As bathers relax on a nondescript beach, a girl sulkily waits for her mother to let her swim. As she counts the minutes, her roving viewpoint takes in the scene around her, rendered in sparse brushstrokes that toy with abstraction. This becomes a canvas for her vivid imagination. Mirzoyan made waves in 2012 with Chinti, a tale of an ant animated entirely with tea leaves; Five Minutes to Sea is more conventionally made (with paper and marker pens), but more playful in its use of its medium. The Armenian director revels in pure animation, tweaking and recombining the features of the beach in surreal ways – yet, just as the girl goes for her long-awaited swim, the story swerves deftly and unexpectedly into a wistful mood. This is a sweet, gentle film, probably too unassuming to win many prizes, but it stayed with me long after the festival’s tide had receded.
Dir. Jorn Leeuwerink (The Netherlands)
Leeuwerink’s disarming fable opens as a cutesy animal caper and ends as an utterly bleak indictment of mob hysteria. When a mouse discovers that its favourite flower has been stolen, it enlists its forest friends to help recover it. But they get carried away with their task, resulting in a horrific miscarriage of justice. In the context of the programme, Flower Found! felt like a political work, even if its message is cloaked in allegory. Leeuwerink has form in mordant satirical cartoons, but this, his graduation film from HKU University of the Arts Utrecht, is his strongest yet. The plot is perfectly paced, keeping the audience guessing as it shades from comedy into horror, then tragedy. It has been on the festival circuit for a while, and every time I see it, I’m struck by its narrative clarity and purpose – no mean feat, especially for a student film. It won Anima’s award for best student film.
Dir: Akihiko Yamashita (Japan)
When a small group splintered from Japan’s revered Studio Ghibli some years back, all eyes were on its new venture. Studio Ponoc launched with Mary and the Witch’s Flower, little more than a Ghibli derivative; for its second offering, it has taken a sharp turn and made a three-part anthology film, Modest Heroes. Invisible, by experienced character designer Yamashita, is one of those parts. The story centres on a salaryman who nobody can see. After a very bad day, he is ensnared in a freakish misadventure which I took as a metaphor for a suicide attempt. As expected, the narrative’s fantastical centrepiece is animated with plenty of flair, and the bleak subject is mirrored in the gritty palette. I’ve picked this film not out of love – the story is too arbitrary, the symbolism too obvious – but because it marks a bold statement of intent from one of Japan’s most important animation outfits.