"You're Overreacting?" Animation and Censorship 

Still from Money and Happiness animation short

We've already noted that the current winner of Palme D'Or, the 2D animation '27' by Flóra Anna Buda wasn't deemed worthy enough to get a single cent from the Hungarian Film Institute (will the Palme D'or change that?). A fresh and lively panel from the always soul-searching StopTrik Festival (Maribor, Slovenia 27 Sep - 1 Oct 2023), attempted to detect and define forms of censorship in our 21st century.

Moderated by feminist philosopher and cultural theorist Maia Pan,  the panel 'The Ways of Silencing - the Means of Resistance' featured a number of both acclaimed and emerging animation directors, and a large spectrum of the European geographical area. From Russia (Nadya Svirska & Sasha Svirsky - now both in Germany), to Serbia (Ana Nedeljković & Nikola Majdak Jr.) to Poland (Karina Paciorkowska), Hungary (Géza M. Tóth) and Israel (Tal Kantor), it was not surprising -but still sad- to learn that state power needs to exercise its means to independent art, even if just to justify its power status.

Not even in Putin's Russia (in which no LGBT+ content is now allowed to propagate itself) is there a general-purpose censorship law to prohibit 'unwanted content'. None of the countries represented, with various stances on human rights, has ever implemented such a law.  Why do we talk about censorship in the first place?

Well, unwanted content can imply consequences of all kinds. Animation artistic shorts are of a fragile and money-sensitive bird (and need state support). So, guess what happens when the state suspects of 'unwanted content'? 'It kills your ideas', a very outspoken Nikola Majdak ('Rabbitland', 'Money and Happiness') will describe. The decision-makers do not have to make their wishes explicit; they only need to make it felt what they want and what they want to avoid -and, everyone else can live with a constant fear of state funds being denied to them if they make a wrong move.

Karina Paciorkowska, whose feminist film 'You're Overreacting' has faced a direct Polish Ministry of Culture -and seems to be the reason behind the cancellation of a whole festival (HErstories for Women's Day) by the Deputy Ministry of Culture, Jarosław Sellin. But this is one of the battles that make you feel good about it, and be ready to fight back -as Ana Nedeljković ('Rabbitland', 'Money and Happiness') has done in her process as an active artist and citizen. What would have happened if your film 'didn't fit' in the 'promoted narratives'?

Well, if you live in Putin's Russia, and you decide to work as an artist on the new, post-Ukrainian war 'Degradation of Europe' animation theme (as Nadya Svirska & Sasha Svirsky informed the panel), then your position is clear (let's hope we won't see too much of these shortly).  Alternatively, you can shield your own independence and deny any such funding -as the Oscar-nominated Geza M. Toth has been doing with his Kedd Studio. Having John Halas and Ladislas Starevich as his mentors, he brings artistic films to the international festival circuit, simply bypassing the unwanted decision-makers.

Even if that's feasible, is that desirable? State funding doesn't come from officials' pockets, but from taxpayers, who (in the case of even small animation companies) still need to contribute to the state. 'We simply need to get our money back', Ana Nedeljković will declare. Of course, that brings intricacies of its own (logos of states that have no excellent behavior in human rights, to put it mildly). But the alternative of socially active animation filmmakers withdrawing from state funding is not rosy either:  films sanctioned by less-than-scrupulous decision-makers will only become another instance of state propaganda. 

Fight or fleeing are equally justified means of response in a cinematic space that still presents instances of political authorities slamming their artists). Just check the current Agnieszka Holland backlash in the recently Venice-awarded film about the treatment of immigrants in the Belarussian-Polish borders). But could animation filmmakers skip the net? After all, animation is for kids; we all know that.

Yes and No. In Putin's Russia, it has become increasingly difficult for all filmmakers to share their worries (as Nadya Svirska & Sasha Svirsky will report). The history of animation is full of subversive stories that went right behind the nose of the censors. But there are exceptions. A feature film, like Ari Folman's 'Waltz with Bashir', a personal reconstruction of an at least problematic Israeli war (as Tal Kantor will remind) caused a sensation in its native country. The 'New Rabbitland', the upcoming animation feature film by Ana Nedeljković & Nikola Majdak Jr., which capitalizes on the urban Belgrade boom before and after COVID would be a welcome experiment to see how a 'proper' (meaning feature) film, will fare on the political and social Serbian arena.

You Are Overreacting

Not all European cinematic power players are ipso facto censorship makers; animation art can still engage with the sociopolitical realities of our era. Yet there is a question of why all these individual voices from different corners of Europe and beyond have recently started accumulating. The post-1989 European world feeling was one of breaking free from state-sanctioned censorship. It now seems that animation filmmakers (and other artists) may be at freedom to express themselves artistically -provided they box their ideas in a certain way. To be continued.

(central image: 'Money and Happiness' by Ana Nedelkovic & Nikola Majdak Jr.)

Vassilis Kroustallis

StopTrik Festival takes place 27 Sep -1 Oct 2023 in Maribor, Slovenia & 8-10 December, in Lodz, Poland.

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