Director and Writer: Ann Marie Fleming
Starring: Sandra Oh, Nancy Kwan, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Camyar Chaichian, Navid Negahban, Omid Abtahi, Ellen Page, Don McKellar, Kristen Thomson, Jun (James) Zhu, Panta Mosleh, Eddy Ko
This review contains some minor spoilers.
Window Horses is a new feature length cartoon from Ann Marie Fleming. The Canadian writer, visual artist, and animator previously released the biographical film The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam in 2003, which she later adapted as a graphic novel. Fleming has been working steadily as an animator through her animation company Sleepy Dog Films and has produced and directed a number of shorts in the interim. But Window Horses is her first feature in over a decade, and it was more than worth the wait.
Rosie Ming is a poet and fast food clerk who, after self-publishing a volume of poems called Eyeful Poems: A Collection of Poems by a Girl Who Has Never Been to France, is invited to an Iranian poetry festival in the city of Shiraz. Rosie’s adoration of France, and Paris in particular, is a shared passion with her grandmother. Her grandparents, who raised Rosie since the death of her mother at age seven, are overjoyed by the news that Rosie is a published poet and has been invited to a festival. They celebrate her newfound success in a sweet scene where her grandfather breaks out champagne, and her grandmother waxes poetic about, well poetry.
What they’re less enthusiastic about is their only grandchild traveling alone to Iran, a country that they and Rosie perceive only as a series of stereotypes and vague dangers. Her grandmother gives her a black chadar to wear. Her grandfather gives her cash and a man’s watch. They are both worried for Rosie’s physical well-being, and at first, this plays as ignorance and xenophobia–maybe they, like Rosie, aren’t well traveled? But their almost overbearing concern is later revealed to have a much more personal motive. What’s refreshing is that they’re powerfully loving, supportive, but also flawed characters–occupying the kind of complex territory that Asian characters rarely get to explore in Western cinema or TV.
Rosie begins her trip to Iran knowing nothing about the country or the culture and with readers knowing very little about Rosie. Indeed, we don’t know until well into the second act that Rosie is bi-racial–half Chinese and half Persian. The festival director and local participating poets are excited to learn that Rosie is half Persian and that her father, whom she hasn’t seen since he abandoned Rosie and her mother when she was seven, is a local. The festival director takes up the quest of finding Rosie’s father for her, while the local poets fulfill the role of mentor and guide, showing Rosie around her never-seen homeland, teaching her about Persian culture and poetry, and most importantly, about herself. Window Horses‘ dual plot of artistic self-discovery through travel and learning and of reconnecting with a lost family and culture are skillfully woven together, such that for minutes at a time, it feels like an effortlessly sweet bildungsroman, and then for another stretch, a deeply philosophical examination of war, diaspora, and even the meaning of life. Well, it’s both.
Okay, that may sound a bit like some “terrible young man learns about himself on the backs of others” type thing, but it simply isn’t. Rosie isn’t that self-absorbed or that lacking in true interest in others. Rosie, a young, biracial girl, so aware of her lack of life experience and her vulnerability, quickly embraces the opportunity presented to her: cultural, artistic, and personal exchange, not a leveraging of the exotic. And she is also so interested in connecting with the Persian woman poets at the festival and learning about their lives, so genuinely interested too, in connecting with Dietmar, a pretentious young German poet (who might have been the protagonist of a very different, more tiresome film), with Di Di, a Chinese poet in exile, and everyone else she encounters, that Window Horses never stumbles in this fashion.
Although the film is dedicated to Fleming’s father, with whom she hasn’t had an entirely smooth relationship with and who has recently been diagnosed with late stage Alzheimer’s, it’s not about her relationship with her dad. He long disapproved of her work in poetry and visual arts, and he didn’t abandon her like Rosie’s father did. Nor does Fleming have an absent mother. But still, Window Horses strikes me as a personal film, not so much mirroring Fleming’s own life and perspective, but exploring ideas around identity, family, and diaspora that she has long pondered.
Diasporic literature, art, and history is an interest of Fleming, who is of mixed Chinese and white Australian heritage (she now lives in Vancouver, much like Rosie). The story of Window Horses was a long time coming, built on her own experiences of being mixed race–that particular search for cultural and personal place–and travel she undertook earlier in her career as an artist. In Germany, she was introduced to German poetry and philosophy–Rilke in particular–but it’s through Rumi that Fleming’s interest in Persian art, poetry, and culture was truly sparked.
This is all reflected in the film through poetry readings, personal, political, and cultural history, and its visual landscape, which is ever-changing and evolving as Rosie and we move through the plot. Rosie’s character design is little more than a clothed stick figure, whereas every other character, including her family, are much more detailed cartoons. This isn’t just because Rosie isn’t quite fully formed yet, as I assumed–both personally and artistically–but because Rosie is an old character, Stick Girl, the subject of comics and an app by Fleming, who started drawing the character after surviving an accident that left her temporarily unable to draw much more than stick figures. But it does work, having a Rosie so simple. It makes her stand out and it works, thematically, for a character who’s on a journey of discovery.
The film was made by multiple Canadian animators, mostly working from home. Fleming story-boarded the whole film and had notes for every animator, some just suggestions. Since this is a film driven by point of view and discovery, it was important to her that each of these sequences feel like some unique and special. It’s another clever artistic decision, since Rosie’s journey becomes a tapestry of different styles, approaches, and feelings–or maybe a quilt would be more apt! A gorgeous sequence where Rosie hears the call to prayer in Shiraz for the first time, represented by colours coming out of the mosque and transforming the land, is a favourite of Sandra Oh, who said during the post screening Q&A that she’d love to have some of that work to keep, perhaps framed in her home. As Rosie listens, watches, and experiences the call to prayer, she (and we) are carried by it. It draws her out of her reticence, into exploring Shiraz and seeing its beauty.
The voice work here is strong, from Sandra Oh and the rest of the cast, which is both diverse and international. Fleming’s decision to include so much untranslated poetry, in both Persian and Mandarin, adds to that sense of genuine cultural exchange, but it also bolsters one of her artistic arguments: That one doesn’t need an intellectual understanding of art to be moved by it, and that poetry, particularly when performed, can move us, whether it is in its native language or in translation, whether we understand the words (and get all the references) or not.
Check out the trailer below for a taste of it.