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LIAF 2021 Article: Being Human by Malcolm Turner

International Competition Programme 4 - Being Human, LIAF, London International Animation Festival

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The ability to use tools, make alcohol and search for meaning are the things that make us human. But – arguably – the meaning of meaning has come to mean less and less as we’ve become more industrialised. Spend too much time in the wrong rest areas of the information superhighway and the meaning of meaning will evaporate into cerebral vapour before your very eyes. There has been a leaderless conspiracy to corral and commodify meaning over the years. Little kids are too smart to be dragged into this miasma until their education really kicks in but once the rot starts to set the disintegration takes on a kind of perpetual motion.

Why Does Meaning Have To Mean So Much? Or at least why does that narrow, all-defining meaning of meaning have to mean so much?

Contemplate for a moment, if you will, the value of stepping back a bit from ‘meaning’. Not all the way back to abstract nor to the crowded waiting room that detains the terminally meaningless but just far back enough from the unrelenting laboratory fluoros that bathe an unrelenting illumination upon the tyranny of definition.

Butterfly Jam – Shih-Yen Huang

Butterfly Jam – Shih-Yen Huang

Meaning and Interpretation, haunt and taunt the often fragile corridors of artistic endeavour like miserable Dickensian ghosts of middle-management past. Certain that they control the agenda but bereft of souls sufficient to imagine anything beyond the horizons they can see, these poseurs enforce a notion that everything must be quantified, explained and – for the good of us all – interpreted. Among their sins is the insistence that the purely visual must be definable through the medium of words. It is an inconceivable concept that anything could be created without meaning. What would be the point?

This is not a take-down of meaning. We’re all for meaning… meaning that meaning appropriately applied, correctly affixed to its designated ‘attachee’ and marshalled into its proper place is a grand thing indeed. It makes us almost as smart as little kids. Conversely, no meaning where meaning was strived for is not a clever plunge into the surreal or the abstract – it’s an archetype of wasted effort and faulty vision.

Vladimir Leschiov's 'Comeback'

Vladimir Leschiov’s ‘Comeback’

The suffocating, ceaseless, unremitting assumptive default-leap to Interpretation is the can sitting on the fence that this rifle sight is trained on. Not everything has to have ‘that’ kind of meaning – not everything needs interpreting. Animators work in a parallel universe that stands eternally willing to leave behind the power of words. The power of words can be puny as tools to evoke an apparently inexplicable idea, feeling or emotional sensation.

Susan Sontag wrote a ground-breaking essay in the acidic perils of interpreting the arts. Published in 1964, ‘Against Interpretation’ arrived at a time when art was splintering into countless fragments across a society that wanted simpler and clearer answers about who and what was provoking, creating and responding to it. She blamed the whole shemozzle on Marx (Karl, not Groucho) and Freud (Sigmund, not Lucian).

“The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation” she wrote. No idea what that means but it doesn’t sound good.

“Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there.” A-ha, now we’re starting to get somewhere. “Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.” OK!

Just in case there’s any doubt left: “In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone.”

Have a Nice Dog! – Jalal Maghout,

Have a Nice Dog! – Jalal Maghout,

This is pretty strident stuff and on any given day we’re with ya sister but this is not a manifesto to exalt animators to use their powers of animation for nothing but uninterpretable art that only Susan and us want to watch (and Susan died back in 2004 in any case so it’d be just us). This is an encouraging shouty little wave from the sidelines to not forget there is always the potential for real art inherent in the very DNA of animation.

And animators… where you can, and where you want to embrace that and express something that can only be expressed with animation and something that perhaps even you can’t adequately interpret…. GO THERE! You will feel the glow and the rest of us will feel our own individual iteration of the burn.

KKUM – Kangmin Kim

KKUM – Kangmin Kim

Kangmin Kim went there – big time! His film KKUM channels some kind of barely controlled furniture factory eruption as much as a story about mothers, dreams and high energy reactions. The luminous raw ingredient used to construct every part of the film is the first thing you notice. Foam padding manically hacked into the elemental pieces of every character and every piece of scenery, ingeniously glued and slotted together to make a unique world that can bend to anything and sustain almost any attempt at destruction (other than what the characters bring upon themselves). Shot in a pearlish silver-satin black and white, the whole is manifestly way more than the sum of its parts.

Joan C. Gratz's 'No Leaders Please'

Joan C. Gratz’s ‘No Leaders Please’

By any measure there is, Joan C. Gratz is a true master of animation. Her 1992 Oscar winning film Mona Lisa Descending A Staircase defined a style of coloured clay animation that is practiced by Gratz alone. Images flow (apparently) effortlessly one to the next to the next, a flowing, almost breathing, visual encyclopaedia of great artworks and artists. It is almost as if the clay is plugged into the power supply with the dimmer turned down to ‘smooth’ – it just seems to have a life of its own. Portland, Oregon, based – Gratz goes from strength to strength. Her latest film No Leaders Please is a superb example of what she does best. The ability to move and morph images simply by applying her hands to a slab of coloured clay is just a wonder to behold. Extracting these images singularly out of this inert bulk would elude most of us but bringing them to life, making them move and cajoling them to transform without turning the whole into something akin to a coagulated psychedelic Rorschach test is something else altogether. Set to – or drawing from – a Bukowski poem of the same name, Gratz even manages to bring a beauty to that piece of creative granite.

Nothing defines, refines or confines the human experience like the family. A one-size-fits-nobody product of chance, circumstance and the fiendish humour of the Gods, most families sit on a scale somewhere between springboard and excess baggage. If they didn’t excess, the world of the arts would have to invent them. A heady, slightly volatile brew of inspiration and exasperation that doesn’t blend without excessive shaking and stirring, it is no surprise that they are pressed into service as inspiration for any number of animated films. No surprise either that a bunch of those films are bolted into this programme.

Where to begin? We can start soft and build in intensity perhaps.

Sisters by Andrea Szelesová taps into the concept of family more as a metaphor than as a platform for messaging or emotional exorcism. Created at FAMU in the Czech Republic, the film draws directly from Hungarian folklore, reconnecting Szelesová with her background. It’s a clever and stylishly elegant exploration of not just the bonds between siblings but the more jagged edges of where those bonds find their limits and the inevitable tumble of loss, renewal, regret, relief and indecision when those bonds snap or have to be cut so that life may continue beyond them.

Migrating means leaving a family behind. When you are younger it can also entail having to blend into a new one in a different place. In a world on the move, it’s a common enough story. But every experience is different and even when it works out well, by definition it changes the person in the middle of the story. A piece of them is always somewhere else. Pieces of them in the ‘new here’ have to transform (or mutate) to fit in. For most, the first – the ‘real’ – home is never fully left behind, the disconnect from family never fully assuaged. We Hope You Won’t Need To Come Back by Polish animator Anastazja Naumenko steps deep into the rich potentiality of animation to depict so many different nuances of this experience. It’s one of the most unusual looking films in the festival this year but every picture tells a story, every movement ordains a message and every motion of the character unwraps a different part of a broad inner journey experienced by so many as an endless stream of passing micro-moments missed by everybody around them.

The Gods aren’t entirely cruel however. Certainly on Day One they may parachute us into our family at their random benevolent whims but once we’ve had a few years to settle in with the family that that lottery draw gifted us, we generally get given a crack at creating one of our own. Some run in horror at the prospect, some stumble into it relying on good luck and a hope there aren’t too many tripwires strewn before us in the dark and some embrace it with wide open arms and a song in the heart. These are all great inspirations for an animated film but with Postpartum Henriette Rietz and Charlotte Roche have nailed the latter in all its gooey, liquidy, beautifully roiling wonder. It is a glorious ode to the soft underbelly of family-making writ large with eye-popping artwork and a no-regrets commentary pushing it along. How you receive it might depend on which direction you ran when your moment of decision arrived.

Perhaps – no, actually, definitely – the most visceral portrait of a family experience has to go to A Bite Of Bone by Japanese animator Honami Yano. It turned heads at the Ottawa festival earlier this year, taking out the ‘Grand Prize for Short Animation’ but also prompting a slightly bemused Ottawa Director Chris Robinson to ask Honami if it is based in fact.

Yep! Turns out that in some parts of Japan, when a deceased is cremated relatives are invited (if not expected) to eat fragments of the bones that were not turned completely to ash. Robinson decided to leave it at that during the ‘Meet The Filmmakers’ zoom-in but the fibres that connect the disparate inspirations of A Bite Of The Bone together are complex. Her first experience with death was when her father died.

“I was encouraged to eat one of his bones, but could not bring myself to do it,” she writes. “Still very young, I could not come to terms with and accept my father’s death. My memory of that experience is traumatic.

“The bone I did not eat stayed with me, as if stuck in my throat, and I found myself unable to express the experience in words nor forget it.”

Luckily, we have animation for that!

And the programme ends with the latest from British animation royalty – Paul Bush. Looking back on it, it would be fair to say that Bush is something of an animation polymath. His is a career marked by the persistent mastering of a very specific technique…..and then moving on to something completely different and doing it again.

These days he is turning out more and more complex films created by introducing and manipulating hundreds, if not thousands of objects. It started out innocently enough with him shuffling around chairs and fruit but as the obsession grew we’ve been treated to films featuring rare museum antiquities and a veritable garrison of antique motorcycles. There is a LOT more to this than meets the eye. Just gathering and organising the army of objects would be daunting enough. Studying them to the point where their similarities and differences become apparent to you takes the type of imagination most of us simply don’t possess. And then going out and shooting this stuff is a herculean undertaking, all the more so if you want this colossal micro barn-dance to move to your rhythm.

If Bush’s latest film Orgiastic Hyper-Plastic had been made by pretty much anybody else, it would be tempting to say that this represents the furthest point to which this technique might be able to be stretched. With Bush though, we ain’t so sure.

Malcolm Turner – LIAF Co-Director