Family and Survival at the Ottawa International Animation Festival

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From September 16-20  I had the opportunity to attend the screenings for the four competing feature length animated films at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. At first glance the films could not have been more different from one another. There was The Magic Mountain, a Romanian/Polish/French film about a Polish refugee fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, Over the Garden Wall, an American film about two brothers lost in an enchanted woods, Adama, a French film about a West African boy who leaves his village in search of his brother, and Pos Eso, a Spanish claymation horror film about a young boy possessed by the devil. After watching them all (in a rather condensed time period) I was pleased to find there was more connecting the different stories than I originally thought.

The Magic Mountain, directed by Anca Damian, was inspired by the true story of Adam Winkler, who left his homeland of Poland to escape the Russians and live as a refugee in Paris in the 1960s. Later, in the 1980s, he finds himself in the Afghani mountainsides, fighting the Soviets alongside Commander Massoud, fulfilling his lifelong desire to change the world.

There is a strong political element to this film, but politics aside the consistent themes of survival and mortality gives it universal appeal. Winkler, is using this film to relate his experiences to his daughter, Ania. She may not have any plans to (literally) follow in her father’s footsteps, but the rules of survival he shares with her arm her for whatever may lie ahead.

Stylistically, The Magic Mountain is raw and unpolished. It uses a The Magic Mountain, Anca Damian, Aparte Film, 2015mixture of animation styles, from watercolours to cardboard cutouts, cobbled together, much like Winkler’s life. He was a refugee, a painter in Paris, a soldier in Afghanistan. But that unpolished style was no accident. They did work with professional animators for a time but found it didn’t fit the style they were aiming for. Instead they took students from the university in Bulgaria, gave them a crash course in animation in three weeks and threw them into it. The style fits the narrative and sets the film apart visually from the other three contenders.

The story moves quickly and covers a lot of ground but there were other parts I wanted to hear more about. Mainly, Winkler’s family. Throughout the film you’re constantly reminded he’s telling the story to his daughter as she asks questions and reacts to his adventures but she seems to play such a minor role in his life. Her mother even less — she is nothing more than a brief cameo. Showing up to smuggle some books, spend some time in jail and deliver a baby in only a few minutes. Though Winkler’s story is a compelling one, his daughter’s lack of presence in it, makes it feel like the film is missing something essential.

Many of the themes in The Magic Mountain were echoed in the second film I attended, Over The Garden Wall, albeit in very different ways. The stars of this film, a young boy name Writ and his even younger brother Greg, find themselves lost in a dangerous environment, trying to survive alongside some unlikely allies. Survival is one of the boys’s primary motivators, a primary objective for them as they struggle to avoid the infamous beast and make it home.

The film, directed by Patrick McHale, originally aired as a mini series on the Cartoon Network and the animation style is similar to other Cartoon Network shows, such as Gravity Falls and Cartoon Hangover’s Bee and Puppycat. The animation is modern and popular in style. It is not particularly unique or groundbreaking, but the characters are adorable and charming and for OTGW, this style is enough.  

Over the Garden Wall, Patrick McHale, Cartoon Network, 2014Greg and Writ compliment each other nicely. Writ is more nervous and anxious. In the beginning he is often unwilling to take chances and easily annoyed. Greg on the other hand is confident and willing to dive right in–sometimes bravely, sometimes naively. He also provides a heavy dose of comedy (and some musical numbers) which will easily make him a favourite of many.

But it’s not all cute characters, oddball jokes ,and catchy songs (seriously, “Potatoes and Molasses” is still stuck in my head). OTGW is also a really touching tale. In less than two hours it chronicles the complex relationship between two brothers, as they struggle alongside one another and inevitably grow closer. By the end they gain a better understanding of one another and themselves. It’s not hard to see why this ultimately took home the top prize at the festival.

Adama, directed by Simon Rouby, starred one of my favourite characters from not only the feature length films but many of the shorts as well. Though I loved Writ’s awkwardness and Greg’s sense of humour in Over the Garden Wall, they never felt like real people instead of just animated figures. But Adama, the titular character of this French film, I felt drawn to from the first few scenes.

On the surface Adama is also the story of two brothers and Adama’s devotion to his brother, Samba, is astounding. When his brother leaves their village, to join the French army, Adama voyages from their village in the cliffs of West Africa to find him. This is no small feat. People do not leave this village and Adama has little to no experience with the rest of the world. But nevertheless he pushes onwards, first to a coastal village in Africa, then to Paris, and eventually to the front lines of World War I.

Even though Adama is doing all of this to get to Samba, this film Adama, Simon Rouby, NAIA Productions, 2015isn’t really about brotherly love. It’s more about Adama’s own personal journey. He’s not doing it for glory, or to prove himself to the people back home. He’s doing it to try and to prove to himself that he can and to reunite his family so that his parents and brother can begin to heal what has been broken between them. His journey is life-changing and eye-opening and forces him to confront questions of his own spiritually, culture, and identity.

Despite my love for Adama, the actual animation was the weakest of the four. The animated characters were place in front of a 2D painted background and at times, if I wasn’t staring straight at the characters, it felt like the film was out of focus. This meant I couldn’t truly take the time to enjoy the background scenery, which was a waste as it was beautifully done.

The final film I watched, Pos Eso, directed by Samuel Ortí Martí, seemed like an unusual addition to the line up. Told through claymation,  it relays the story of nine-year-old Damien, son of Spain’s most beloved flamenco dancer, Trini. When their father and husband is taken from them in a tragic accident Trini quits dancing and Damien begins acting…strange. But don’t let the cute Wallace and Gromit style animation fool you, this film gets pretty dark and twisty. Damien is possessed and at times his actions are deeply disturbing. There are are some scenes that manage to be truly horrific despite being done in plasticine. And when something troubling isn’t happening there is probably some dark comedy being offered up instead. I’m not much of a horror fan but I’m now convinced that claymation horror is the best kind of horror.

There are still some similarities to the other films though. Like Adama and Over the Garden Wall, Pos Eso features family members that would go to any length to save one another. Their bond is stronger than their own fear, the horrors of war, or in this case, the devil himself. Trini, in particular, was remarkable. When her husband died she lost her strength, her spark, her duende, that she has in the beginning. But after struggling with grief, drug addiction, and her possessed son, she is able to become even stronger than the woman she was before. She survives it.

Pos Eso, Samuel Ortí Martí, Basque Films, 2015Nestled amongst the dark comedy and plenty of references to other classic horror films (Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Omen, and Hellraiser to name a few) is some interesting commentary about religion (specifically the Catholic church) and the media. We’re introduced to Father Lenin, the priest who ultimately comes to perform Damien’s exorcism early on in the story. He’s off on an Indiana Jones style adventure, retrieving relics for his corrupt and greedy bishop. He became a priest because he believed and because he wanted to help people, but eventually he becomes disillusioned and worn down by the bishop’s behaviour and quits. A similar thing happens to Trini. When her husband dies she wants to be left alone to grieve and take care of her son–a reasonable request. But the media refuses to let her. Instead they air story after story about her, interview anyone who will talk about her and even hold entire gossip segments to discuss her, her possible drug use, her husband’s sexual orientation and her son. Flamenco, which was once something she loved, is now something she can’t bear to talk about. Neither religion, nor the media are negative on their own, but when exploited for personal gain

The feature films from this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival were a nice mix of thoughtful, encouraging, hilarious and heart-breaking. I enjoyed the various characters and their journeys and appreciate the exposure to different cultures and historical events–from the streets of Spain, to the mountains of Afghanistan to a West African village. However, if I had one complaint it would be the startling lack of female characters. None of the four films is female-led. Pos Eso comes the closest, but Trini really only becomes the centre of attention near the end of the film. Until then Father Lenin, Damien and even her manager are the focus. And the female characters that do exist in the other three films are temporary sidekicks at best, disembodied voices at worst. It seems clear to me, from this year’s entries, that the festival prioritizes unique stories and diverse voices, ones that may not receive the same exposure of more mainstream animated films. Hopefully next year they’ll realize that there a number of women’s voices that deserve to be heard as well.

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