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LIAF 2020 Article: International Competition Programme 2 – From Absurd to Zany

LIAF-2020-International-Competition-Programme-2-From-Absurd-to-Zany

“A meta-story about two twins fighting evil forces taking over the universe that seamlessly blends 4chan-aesthetics, Monty Pythonesque-photo collages and vapourware YouTube videos.”

That is how the Berlinale 2020 tried to explain the latest film to have emerged fully formed from the frantic imagination of rising Russian master animator Sasha Svirsky. My Galactic Twin Galaction premiered there earlier this year and with it we see Svirsky veering towards a more narratively structured space than much of his earlier frenzied explosions.

‘Narrative’, though, is a distinctly fissioned and relative term when applied to Svirsky. It’s not that My Galactic Twin Galaction doesn’t make any sense per se, it’s more that it churns and foams with a kind of elasticated reality that can only possibly exist in but one of the limitless universes that are supposed to be out there…this one! A narrative from Svirsky’s universe it may well be, but it rocks the same hyper-montage aesthetic that is uniquely and instantly recognisably his; something akin to the scrambled imagination of a Timothy Leary mixed with the collage animations of Terry Gilliam.

By contrast, Gabriel Böhmer’s Push This Button If You Begin To Panic takes us surely and steadily into an increasingly calmer, increasingly more controlled and controlling inner space. This is the slow-burn illumination of the world inside the mind of a patient embarking on the journey through a world of medical advice and opinions that so often masquerade as a cloak of care rather than the building web of control that they often are. Beautifully written, the pitch-perfect narration reaches us as a smooth, almost poetic treatise on the lingual patina that licenses this world, bringing to the fore a specific dimension that is hiding in plain view.

Also hiding in plain view is the creative virtuosity of the technique Böhmer deploys in constructing and navigating the realm of the film. Beyond it being – surely – a Herculean amount of work and beyond it – most definitely – being an absolutely perfect example of the micro-universe he needed to create, is the simple fact that this is a stunning example of an ‘animated imagination’ at work. Almost any artform could – and has – tackled this subject. ONLY animation could present it in all these facets and with this slow-breaking tsunami of nuance.

The erratic, often insoluble plasma that fills the space between Zany and Absurd that this programme tries to straddle is a fundamental fuel empowering the imagineering that comes as a sort of second nature to so many Estonian animators. It is probably no coincidence that there are two Estonian films included in the line-up.

Leonid Shmelkov’s latest film Room With A Sea View has been popping up in festivals large and small all over Europe in recent months like a kind of animated whack-a-mole. Shmelkov’s previous films will be familiar to regular LIAF attendees and, as vessels for ample demonstrations of his laconic wit, interlacing emotionality and classic, old-school drawn visual style, they prepare us well for Room With A Sea View.

There’s a sometimes delicious, sometimes off-balance absurdist lo-fi dystopianism woven through the film that gently channels many of the self doubts and social fears we often construct facsimile lives to try and buttress against. Dreams meld interchangeably with loose and floating fragments of real life that our curious, confused and careworn protagonist finds himself tangoing with. Divining meaning isn’t really the point and, in any case, is probably a fool’s errand. Instead, turn 180 degrees and head in the opposite direction from the search for extracted meaning and in doing so you may just absorb some of that erratic plasma.

The world of Kaspar Jancis’ film Cosmonaut is all too easy to divine on the other hand. Jancis, crafting a classical drawn Estonian animation style that threads all the way back to the earliest films of Priit Parn, takes all the time he needs to force us to slow down and absorb the humble minutiae of the world an aged Cosmonaut has become confined to and relegated within.

The sense of ‘place’ and a compulsion to interrogate what might lie beyond the fringes of the ‘known place’ regularly reverberates through many Estonian films down through the ages. Juxtaposing the incredible, wide open reality with the outer space environment our Cosmonaut lived his greatest glories in against the defined and confined apartment into which he has been consigned to live out his last days is jaggedly confronting and thought-provoking. As the film softly crescendos, we get an opportunity to re-contemplate how space can be occupied with not just our mortal flesh but – more fully – by our hopes, memories and our immortal spirits.

This isn’t particularly unusual emotional terrain for Jancis, but this degree of linear narrative hasn’t typically been his modus operandum in the past. In fact it can be a difficult thing to make work within the realm of creative or ‘auteur’ animation but with Cosmonaut Jancis has well and truly breached that frontier with flying colours and gifts us a film with a genuine pathos, cementing his position as a rising master.

Linear narrative is not a descriptor that springs to mind when taking the ride offered by Eva Darabos’ film Bye Little Block. It opens with a woman on a small balcony amidst a cluster of identical apartment blocks shedding a single, small tear at the news that she will soon be moving. When that single, glistening tear hits the ground beneath her balcony, it transforms into a human-sized concrete rendition of its genesis. In moments, that edifice is knocked over by a long-nosed dog being ridden by an elderly woman as they squeeze out the front door just before all of the apartment blocks  miraculously uproot themselves and transform into a twirling mandala of spinning dihedrals. Then things start getting strange.

This is the synopsising challenge of all who approach animation as if the limits of ‘animation’ were actually defined by what turns up smeared across cinema screens in perfect synchronisation with the school holidays.

Films such as Bye Little Block are certainly not abstract, they aren’t even really ‘non-narrative’ if you’ve been around the block a few times and are prepared to overlook the short-comings of your high school English teachers. There is definitely a constructed flow of absolutely recognisable events and actions going on here; each informing or informed by the others.

This flow or the synopsis for this can – if one is so inclined – be described or defined in words and the resulting document would, in the micro, make a kind of scene-by-scene sense. And it’s not even that the totality of it all wouldn’t add up to something offering a certain sagacity, it is just that our brains have been trained to not allow that construction of sense (nor the logic that underpins it) to register as such. It is a bit like encountering the morning newspaper being written up as poetic verse.

Bye Little Block is all the more remarkable for being a student film, emerging from the MOME school in Hungary, a country with an increasingly fascinating independent animation output and one to which we are continuing to shift our gaze towards. More anon.

It was actually inspired by Darabos’ internalised reflection on her reactions to moving after having lived sixteen years in an apartment cluster akin to the one depicted in her film. There the similarity ends. The characters populating the myriad nooks and crannies of her multi-apartmentalised world are accumulations of people she knew well, people she knows only via recurring glimpses and those fabricated via pure imagination.

“My aim was to recreate a kind of memory postcard,” she recalled when taking part in an on-line panel chat at the recent Ottawa International Animation Festival. “I didn’t really care too much about real life perspectives.”

Somewhere in that meandering evolution from ‘a’ version of the real to ‘this’ version of the recollection is at least one example of what sits between the Absurd and the Zany.

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Malcolm Turner, LIAF Co-Director