If Hayao Miyazaki is the most respected, then Oscar nominee Mamoru Hosoda with his Chizu studio is certainly the most popular feature anime director. The themes of youth and coming-of-age in difficult conditions and unusual situations are constantly central to his work and also appear in Hosoda’s latest film Belle, which earned 14 minutes of standing ovations in Cannes, and premieres in Croatia in the Animafest 2022 Grand Competition Feature Film. Aloof and sad, the freckled 17-year-old is a big singing star in the virtual world thanks to the help of a school friend – she attracts in the ‘U’ network with a biometric talent extracted from her ‘record’ and a digital patch of songs and looks. With thought-out and not condemning portrayal of the subject matter (although a particularly striking edge is directed at ‘comments’) of social media and the internet, i.e. life at the crossroads of two realities, it delights equally with the realism of set design and playful scenes of fantasy with the author’s favourite elements of futurism and surrealism. Disney animator Jin Kim was involved in shaping the main character while the famous Irish studio Cartoon Saloon worked the backgrounds, so it’s no surprise that the overall result is a truly spectacular sight for eyes and ears, both in the hyperrealist ‘real’ and impossibly manifold virtual world. Halfway between pop musical, SF and the updated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (original as well as the Disney version) and with characteristic anime humour Belle is the realisation of Hosoda’s thirty-year dream of adapting a favourite fairy tale.
Oscar-nominated Golden Bear and Annecy Crystal winner, Czech director Michaela Pavlátová presents My Sunny Maad, a freer adaptation of Petra Procházkova’s novel Frišta based on the female experience of living in Afghanistan. A bittersweet film about devotion, freedom of choice and balancing personal and collective morality follows a Prague student who marries to Kabul and joins her husband Nazir’s family under the new name of Herra. A couple who cannot have children take care of a boy Muhammad who suffers from hydrocephalus, but in the new family he becomes a link, a witness and a companion. It is a complex presentation of Afghan society in 2011 with special reference to the situation of women and girls that occasionally slides from Pavlatova’s characteristic ‘observation’ into engagement, but which does not insist so much on individual evil as on systemic oppression and inability to get out of it, regardless of individual good intentions and outbursts of progressivity. Such circumstances must have tragic consequences, but the end of the film leaves an open window to the affirmation of love despite the enormous cultural differences. Individual characters are subtly characterised and their human motivations, for good and for evil, are authentic and strong. Thus, despite the faithful portrayal of systemic misogyny reflected in family life, this is not an activist film, but a realistic and individualised work. My Sunny Maad was made for seven years in the Czech Republic, Afghanistan and on the island of Réunion in the 2D animation technique dominated by warm, bright and airy colours, with short stylised music and dance inserts.
The use of demanding and special techniques, especially those that do not allow a lot of detail in the design of the characters, is often an outstanding choice in a short animated film, but can pose a great risk in feature animation. Not only because of the effort, time and cost, but also because ‘technique as an attraction’ is quickly depleted. Fortunately, Crossing by director Florence Miailhe and screenwriter Marie Desplechin does not fall into this trap because it captivates not only with the attractive appearance of oil painting on glass, especially suitable for depicting memories, past and fluid space-time transitions in a film that presents itself as an imaginary autobiography, but also with a story. The brother and sister in this fictional but evocative migrant allegory flee the pogrom and after losing their own family fall into a series of surrogate communities such as young street people, grotesque Pygmalion adoptive parents, circus, forest ‘witch’ hut and political prison. In the warring liminal world of armies and people trafficking ruled by opportunists and compromises, the heroes try to ‘cross the border’ and reach ‘new shores’. Inspired by the persecution of Jews in Russia, and immersed in the free rendition of Balkan refugee routes, Crossing sometimes passes into the territory of fairy tales in which children’s tears are very common, but also presents itself as a film about maturing through a series of self-defining events in which the heroine, following the animation technique often shown in profile, persistently refuses to forget her past and artistically testifies to her experience with drawing. Children’s imagination and old age memory, realism and archetypal structure of a heroic journey and conductive symbols of freedom meet in this eye, soul and mind candy.
Winner of the 2004 Animafest Grand Prix for Mt. Head (also nominated for an Oscar), Koji Yamamura is sending his feature debut Dozens of Norths to Zagreb this year, a poetic existentialist film which dynamizes the structure, captivates attention and immerses us in incredible scenes accessible only to cinematic experience with a unique drawing, the author’s trademark irony contained in philosophical inscriptions and a potpourri of jazz, tango, waltz and Brechtian songs. In other words, if you want to watch just one non-narrative film this year, let it be Dozens of Norths. Dominantly dimmed in tones of black, white, grey, green and brown, Yamamura’s surrealist, never completely abstract drawing thematizes suspension in time through the tension of stopped, flickering movement – the entanglement between desire/idea and realisation symbolically embodied in a creative blockade. Antiquely woody, wrinkled and retro, but atmospheric, metacinematic and metatheatrical, the visual design of this work has that real film texture made up of the author’s illustrations published over three years in thirty issues of Bungaku-Kai magazine.
From Greece comes The Timekeepers of Eternity (dir. Aristotelis Maragkos), an unusual but fascinating genre recombination that looks like a paper version of Twilight Zone. Unsurprising, as the film uses a picture of the television mini-series The Lagoliers (1995), an adaptation of Stephen King’s work (1988), which is in the beginning reminiscent of one of Rod Serling’s most famous episodes before evolving into a typical King-like situation of an isolated group of people under external (and internal) threat. But The Timekeepers of Eternity uses black-and-white collage to compress and transform its manifold template, that is, as Andrew Robertson shrewdly observed, they are not only metatextual, but also metatextural. Maragkos first printed this unquestionably bad but entertaining TV movie from the 90s on paper frame by frame, then photographed and animated it again, but also made it more suspenseful, shorter, more interesting and psychologically much more convincing than ever. By scratching, crumpling and general manipulation of paper, he recontextualised this SF thriller by ‘layering scenes’ and added a physical manifestation to the fantastic elements of the plot – tearing paper reflects the tearing of time threads, as well as the psyche of the main character in Bronson Pinchot’s interpretation. Original both on a technical and narrative level, this suspenseful and literally ‘layered’ film in a refreshed animated version retains, however, the good from the TV production of the 90s – trash time paradoxes, entertaining twist and the cameo role of the famous writer that also makes this a film for his admirers.
The prolific Polish documentary filmmaker Tomasz Wolski has presented his works several times at film festivals in Zagreb. As his last film 1970 about the prospect of communist office apparatchiks on bloody stifling of strikes in Polish cities uses puppet film (the work of Robert Sowa) to dynamize archival audio and video, it arrived at Animafest as part of the now regular animated documentary production. The puppets are based on real models, so they do not go into the grotesque, although some have compared them to the influences of the Quay brothers. Due to the smaller budget, however, they move a little, which is compensated by the set design, light and camera work, the ratio of 4:3 and the addition of small glitches and impurities that bring the image closer to the ‘fogginess’ of 16-millimeter archive film. 1970 is a real film for fans of historical and political film, following in the distant footsteps of Rithy Panh and Sergei Loznitsa, and a kind of spiritual sequel to the author’s An Ordinary Country.
Italian master Alessandro Rak is competing for the third time in the Animafest Grand Competition Feature Film with Yaya and Lennie – The Walking Liberty, ecological fiction or biopunk set in post-apocalyptic Naples and based on Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men. The title characters, a strong young man with disabilities and a resourceful girl, led by fortuity in which they see freedom wandering the surrounding rainforest, refuse to grow up and flee from the soldiers of the Orwellian government that wants to forcibly civilise them. Their path is intertwined with a carnivalesque group of loud freaks, self-proclaimed ‘revolutionaries’ led by a grotesque Castro-like figure who has a tattooed Maradona on his arm. Although this turns revolutionary impulses into a comic relief, both the anarchic enthusiasm of tribes that reject acculturation (but not medicine and pharmacy) and the techno-optimistic ideology of Yaya’s lover from the ranks of government soldiers are also relativised. The trump cards of this direct and somewhat rough film are the beautiful flying scenes of the rainforests, the frequent use of backlight and unusual perspectives, as well as the music composed by the director, Dario Sansone and Enzo Foniciello.