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LIAF 2020 Article: International Competition Programme 3 – Playing with Emotion

LIAF-2020-International-Competition-Programme-3-Playing-with-EmotionIt would be fair to say that 2020 – among whatever other accolades that can be attached to it – will go down as a year that played with our emotions. Reflection is perhaps a healthier waypoint between anger and denial than – say – surrender. But it’s more complex too, requiring more of us than the raft of more singularly dimensioned options offered on the menu.

Art is a good partner to have riding shotgun on that journey. Not because it’s more academic than the news  but because it’s smarter and more honest.

“It isn’t academic, art. It’s about emergency exits and impromptu arrivals, things coming and going through the ghastly space where a person once was.”

That is the brilliant essayist and art critic Olivia Laing contemplating the intangible yet indispensable value of art in times of emotional crisis. It is drawn from her book ‘Funny Weather: Art In An Emergency’ written well before the advent of the times we find ourselves in but as relevant as if it were about to be written tomorrow. There is a lot packed into those two little sentences…. if you think about it.

Likewise, all of the films in our ‘Playing with Emotion’ programme this year were made in that simpler, freer time but could it be that some of the animators behind these works saw something coming over the horizon? A wander through the line-up hints at this kind of artistic clairvoyance. More likely though, as artists, they simply skew to exploring the power and the outcomes of honest reflections large and small; personal and societal; creative and real-school. They understand emergency exits and impromptu arrivals.

The essence of Laing’s quote seems an especially apposite touchstone with which to be contemplating these films. This is a stop-and-look-more-closely programme. Inevitably, there is a story behind the story of so many of them.

Thandoula by Canadian documentarian Robin McKenna and Mother Didn’t Know by Norwegian animator Anita Killi stand as two exceptional examples.

When McKenna accepted an invitation to attend a Women’s Retreat outside her native Montreal more than five years ago, little did she know that she was about to embark on a journey that would see her making a film in a technique well outside her comfort zone.

Accepting a ride to the Retreat with a woman she had never met called Natalie, McKenna was introduced to the world of dying. Natalie’s job – her vocation – was to sit with people as they died. This is more mainstream than many of you might think and over the course of that drive Natalie gave McKenna much to reflect upon in relation to the subject of death, dying and the transition between these states. And it stayed with her – McKenna couldn’t get the conversation out of her mind and she knew she had found the subject of her next film.

But McKenna is a documentarian and used to recording the real and the physical; things that the camera can capture. And that is when the idea to utilise animation came to her. She realised that she could use animation to blur the gap between these two worlds and, in turn, that led her to experiment with mixing or blurring live action, photography and animation. But the challenges went deeper than that.

“Documentary filmmaking is really more about working with what is there already,” McKenna said in a recent filmmaker panel. “But the idea of an entirely blank page was a lot to think about. “What would a character look like? Even, what would they wear? At the beginning it was pretty crazy, especially having to create the animatic. Huge learning curve.”

Although McKenna began the project with another animator it was when Elise Simard came on board that the complex, layered innermost heart and soul of the film was released and began to be realised. This is the kind of film – and a process – that the National Film Board of Canada was created to produce. It is the kind of film that takes time and much thought to properly unlock. It finds and connects the right people to realise a vision that was not necessarily obvious to any of them at its inception. And it takes the creative village working less visibly in the background to burnish it to just the right lustre.

And Natalie? Does she realise what she inspired?

“Oh yes, we’ve become great friends and she followed the process all the way along,” says McKenna. “Some of the shaping of the narration comes from her words but she’s a very down to earth person and she didn’t want the film to make her out to be some kind of mystical super hero.”

Equally layered and equally interpretable is Anita Killi’s Mother Didn’t Know. Perhaps best known for her viscerally confronting 2013 film Angry Man, Killi had a less specific inspirational stepping off point than McKenna when she started making Mother Didn’t Know.

“I didn’t want it to be just about one thing,” she declares. “I wanted to make a film that lots of young people could relate their own individual difficulties to and hopefully draw something from that. I make films about difficult topics. These days so many young people are depressed and we don’t always know what causes it. And one of the ways to deal with your own depression is to focus on something else – to develop some compassion for someone else. But that is only one of the messages in the film.”

This multifaceted approach to the structural spirit contained in her film applies equally to the way she went about making it and the characters she created to populate it with.

The film’s central character, the Girl, has a backstory that can be as simple or as complicated as the viewer needs it to be. The Old Man – loosely based on a mythical Scandinavian legend who creates trouble for farmers who mistreat their animals – provides similar service. Even the puppet design and animation reflects Killi’s preference for and fascination with slow, methodical and – most importantly – deeply thoughtful ways of working.

“Computers are not friendly to me so I am not friendly back,” is her quietly succinct way of summing up her preference for the “older techniques”.

Even the title was carefully crafted to offer as wide a range of interpretive possibilities as possible for any viewer who wants to use the film to reflect upon and interpret through their own life experiences.

Any day a new Riho Unt film arrives at LIAF HQ is a good day. The first thing to say – and we know we’re preaching to the converted  – but, wow-wee, the people at Nukufilm sure do know how to make puppets and puppet animation sets! Unt’s latest film The Wings is a stunning masterclass on the art of making stuff for a puppet film. The detail, the design of props and scenery pieces, the depth of field of all the sets…..dazzling.

Jaan, the lead character in The Wings is loosely based on an accumulation of characters from the ‘romantic-historical’ novels of Estonian Eduard Bornhohe in the late 1800’s until the Russian Empire censors turned up and ran a red pen through his stories of Estonia’s quest for freedom.

Unt has his leading man so entranced with his impossibly naive pursuit of achieving flight that he neglects the emotional needs of his wife. Before long the impacts start adding up and a curious, impossibly miraculous triangle emerges. As you watch this improbable tale unfold, think about the sheer mastery of infusing the raw ingredients of The Wings circular triumvirate of characters with the interconnected emotional power that drips, pours and rolls off the screen.

It is a soul-song that increasingly reverberates off all of the main characters in his puppet films: LIAF regulars might recall the quixotic chaos of Mary And The Seven Dwarves (2018) or the more quietly menacing vibration often playing out just beneath the hearing range of humans in The Master (2013) and, of course, the sustained eccentric charm of the recent feature Captain Morten and the Spider Queen (2015).

This ability to transplant an emotional call and response into clay, foam padding, plastic, wood and paint is the one part of the process that can’t be taught. It’s a magical power and Unt has it in spades. The Wings had to go into this programme.

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Malcolm Turner, LIAF Co-Director