Mikhail Gurevich reports from the 2021 edition of Ottawa International Animation Festival.

It was, in any case, almost a constant refrain on OIAF director Chris Robinson’s lips: well, here we are, again – but nevermore-nevermore… hopefully, that is. This time (Sept. 22 – Oct. 3), as the last, it appeared to be his show in a way, e.g. format/framing; and felt perhaps even cozier in that: as if visiting with a friendly-open, albeit by definition a bit sarcastic, host at some parlor or lounge; he was playing this role in the endless pan-zoom-session, literally-technically, for sure, and figuratively-socially. He would in (virtual) person introduce programs-screenings of the day, with a twist, sometimes awkward (for some, maybe, like myself) but engaging nevertheless, and hold life chats with participants, able-happened to beam-up, afterwards, on top of prerecorded extended talks. Who would think that this mode turns out to be so personalized in a peculiar way…

No less peculiarly, a virtual meeting space appeared – the salon of sorts, presumably – here and now arranged with ‘tables’ to sit around in a company of choice, spare ‘chairs’ permitting… not necessarily/always a given. Still, to have a whatever chance, even if cursory-shaky, to visit-greet-chat, was if not gratifying, then promising, like a hint to an old-good or new-better world. All through this strange (prolonged) season of ours there seemed to be yet another competition within and across festivals-platforms – in inventing those ‘spaces’, to different extent truly-spookily virtual, called to offer a communication environment of some kind. None quite successful in mission or even in feel, to my taste-experience, though it might be just a personal issue, of course. Well, in the bargain, yes, this year in Ottawa, they had some real-life components as well, but to this I cannot testify, alas.

If nothing else, the festivals schedules this year stood more or less in regular order. By its position in the sequence, as the last of the big-principal ones – and/or thanks to my wide-open exposure to the entire cycle, this blessing in disguise, I’ve enjoined, along with many, probably – OIAF competition inevitably was offering quite a few already familiar titles. And so, also inevitably, I will now have to skip in observation certain entries, especially those that have been already reviewed-noted in this space. So, I will go then for personal selective picks, within cursory, as usual, look at the entire line-up, over and across awards and categories.

Moreover, at OIAF competition screenings-programs, in their online versions anyway, everything is mixed together, entries of sub-categories – student, commissioned and such - go in common flow, for better or worse. With some degree of inconvenience (maybe, say, for critics-observers specifically), it might have certain merits: you have to categorize on a go and on your own, while absorbing all the short-animated matter as a single-integral element of nature of sorts – as it really exists in the new brave screen universe, I’d suspect. And then, everything is comparable on this plain-level playfield.

Let’s start, however, with the main line. Grand Prize for Short Animation, not quite commonly, went to practically a debut film A Bite of Bone (Honekami, by Honami Yano, Japan), made apparently under the wing of mentor-turned-producer Kōji Yamamura – with plot-line/subject/theme, rooted, rather commonly, in childhood deep impressions-memories, not to say traumas, as it deals, with light-touch courage, yet still seriously with death and fears, even if given through vague reflection of, supposedly, kid’s consciousness. And also – through a pretty thick patina of form. As jury comments: “This film was made on top of traditional techniques. <…> In an image composed of dots, we freely cross places and memories as if we are all small dots.” Director herself readily evokes a ‘pointillism’ as stylistic reference, though also admits that it came about almost by chance, like technical means at hand, to easen the stylistic choice. Frankly, I don’t see here ‘pointillism’ per se, with its specific semantic train; rather an inventively comforting substitute for ‘flickering’ texture/backgrounds. And probably I’m not that ready to melt into those dots without a trace, or some reflections-reservations on my own. Some colleagues see here a singular vision transcending into broad metaphors, and even strong cultural undercurrents, like traumatic militaristic history in the background. Maybe so; or the dotted aura appeared to be suggestive for sympathetic reading in. To my humble taste, however, it’s not entirely mature work (yet), uneven and vulnerable at times (like overdone voiceover in overstressed childish tone); but nevertheless, surely filled with beautiful dots of insightful-tense feeling – and big promise, no doubt.

Among lesser noticed entries in the main competition was Guard of Honor (Goda sardze, by Edmunds Jansons, Latvia) – impressive in its own right and manner; looks to me in part like a distant homage to Zagreb school, in terms of design and tempo, and in social fable (sub)genre – with originally fresh development of all the facets, and pinching-ironic coda. And from today’s Zagreb (if not the ‘school’ proper, than found footage from the flea market over there, as indicated): Events Meant to Be Forgotten (Dogadjaji za zaboraviti, by Marko Tadic, Croatia) – edgy-smart exercise in animadoc or beyond its conventions, audacious and tactful image-making on top of photo-filmic matter, extracting meaning out of the very process-undertaking, as it seems. To leave alone strikingly expressive, in places, material itself, under careful close gaze and sound of poetic meditation; a requiem to vanishing scenery of civilization in certain parts indeed. Could’ve been right in place, though, at experimental/doc festival/program; or framed as installation – as in fact it was, at the preceding stage of the same, supposedly, idea-project, at Venice Biennale a few years back. (Maybe exactly for those reasons, if not some other kind of logic, it was marked as ‘non-narrative’ here…)

A propos categorizations, again. Among ‘Craft’ awards (a distinct gesture of OIAF) Best Design went to Abandoned Village (Mitovebuli Sofeli, by Mariam Kapanadze, Georgia) and Best Animation Technique to Steakhouse (Špela Čadež, Slovenia, Germany & France); both duly recognized (and both noted already in ZF), but I’d rather switch allocations: awarding Best Animation Technique to Kapanadze’s film and Best Design to Čadež’s film would do more justice to true merits of artistic choices and even if craft-wise contributions here and there. And awarded in the ‘commissioned’ category – as music videos are often-habitually considered – Ten Degrees of Strange (Lynn Tomlinson, United States & United Kingdom), regardless and besides the merits of the song (by Johnny Flynn and Robert Macfarlane), can be viewed in fact as an almost canonical example of personal art-meditation through trademark for this artist-director technique/style of ‘clay (life) painting’. (And, to add in passing, as a revealing case study in the limits and nature of ‘total animation’, against different technical-stylistic implications. Here, in particular, to trust the director’s note: “As a medium, clay holds a lot of power — its malleability allows me to transition fluidly from scene to scene, much as the natural world shifts and evolves over time”).

In the kids department, not quite expectedly, two Russian productions stood out to me. The Alarm Clock (Будильник, by Natalia Ryss, Russia & Belarus) – a stylishly confident step onto a shaky ground of ‘visual music’; a classic François Couperin’s piece, strangely or not, rendered in the imaging flow at the very edge of figurative and abstract, akin early Kandinsky, if you will – and it feels refreshing and right. (To comment on the context: it’s one of the latest installments of a long-running serial project, under scriptwriter-producer Irina Margolina, with different directors and approaches, and of overall different merits; for Natalia Ryss, who lives actually in Israel while working across borders at times, it’s rather yet another attempt along the line of personal experimentations, if in disguise.) It’s not exactly clear, though, why in the world this film should be assigned necessarily to pre-school age… but on second thoughts, that might enlighten somewhat this particular section here, by sheer good example. (On the other hand, we also find here In Nature (Dans la Nature, by Marcel Barelli, Switzerland), a gently frivolous treatise on no less than ambiguity of gender/sex roles in animal kingdom – that might be easily considered too ambiguous for all the age groups in certain human kingdoms or else nowadays.)

Another one, also musically-themed in a fashion, is Orchestra Rehearsal (Репетиция оркестра, by Tatiana Okruzhnova, Russia) – а genially playful run on and off parenthood/work hurdles, almost a showpiece cheerly drawn narrative, even if a bit old-schoolish in that, still rather healthy so (and maybe more age-appropriately placed this time, for the 6-12 year olds). Also in the same category we find Only a Child (Simone Giampaolo, Switzerland – a special mention here at OIAF and other awards elsewhere by now), serious in passionate messaging, timely environmental, and pretty complex in oscillating techniques-styles. Agreeing with ZF colleagues who had already praised it, I would add that it’s a rather rare example of a collective project (Giampaolo was apparently coordinating the work of some 20 directors) of quality and sincerity; maybe it could’ve stood under the commissioned rubric, or animadoc as well, for that matter.

Another piece of (almost) directly politicized appeal – in Canadian panorama: Bad Seeds (Mauvaises herbes) from veteran artist Claude Cloutier, a reincarnation of sketchy visual parabola genre of sorts; sadly timelessly valid, albeit a bit obvious, exploration of seeds of aggression and hostility, rooted not only in weeded soil but pretty much in human nature – presented through transformations of malleolus buds or faces in clear good-school graphics. But exactly in terms of graphics I was really impressed in this section by the seemingly abstract-formal exercise Fraktura (Judith Poirier) – subtitled as a ‘typographic horror’, with references to German expressionism, it indeed works as such; and more – a continuation of this artist-director’s relentless experimenting with type-prints as animation device and just as visual-artistic matter, it conveys, to me, at least, perhaps also far fledging associations, of gothic letter-types in particular, restoring the rich train of motives-meanings; and with that introducing a really unconventional means of expression in the animated film realm.

And then there were special programs – rich and diverse, they could’ve comprised an event on their own, and actually did so in a way; almost all were accompanied by full-blown essays on the festival site and recorded talks. Customary retrospectives of jury members’ works can be in fact of various nature and effect. For one, Jodie Mack gives the whole lecture-manifesto of her total-collage film-comp-art-making; and screen is ready to testify that, indeed, “Some of my films are little eulogies for materials”. Of the rest, the program of Mariusz Wilczynski’s shorts, in turn, manifestly shows that what has captivated so many in his first-late stunning feature had been in fact dissolved in earlier works - just not that concentrated, and surely not under the spotlight for general or even professional public. Out of those, I was personally most taken by his humbly heartfelt, gently sad Christmas carol variation, In the Stillness of the Night (2000).

An enormous, as if meant to be representative to the core, 3-part retrospective of Rhode Island School of Design, along with group talk featuring its major figures, deserved special attention. Upon scrolling through as many films as one can, I’ve discovered for myself one in particular, missed before, regrettably, just a masterpiece of a kind: Sub (Jesse Schmal, 2000), brilliantly hilarious, not to say arrogant, mix of themes and stylistic nods in a farcical absurdist sketch: Italian piazza populated by footballers, fans, nuns – and Russian submarine. It illuminates with gusto, to me, some distinctive RISD traits discussed here along the way, and first of all – encouragement of broad curiosity and sharp experimentation.

And finally, added at the last minute, upon receiving the sad news, a fittingly titled “The Many Imprints of Jacques Drouin” program – the needed tribute to the late master, exactly through memory of contribution and traces left. There was surely more on the margins, especially of industry events-talks; I had to skip much and anyway that’s for another occasion or reviewer.

There was surely more on the margins, especially of industry events-talks; I had to skip much and anyway that’s for another occasion or reviewer.

All in all, the next or the last – a rhetorical point by far, or for the time being. Viruses mutate; formats and habits-attitudes likewise, as it were. To leave aside broader conditions and circumstances. Maybe we’ve dived deep into the hybrid mode across the board, from A to Z, in wars, politics, industries – cultural industries included. And as with climate changes, the task at hand, they say, is to mitigate and adapt. OIAF21 tried its best in that too. Even though I would’ve loved to share the director’s mantra, of course; but for now just hope to catch up in a year from/in any place or screen possible.

 

Contributed by: Mikhail Gurevich

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