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LIAF 2021 Article: Figures in Focus – Up Yours! by Abigail Addison 

LIAF 2021, LIAF, London International Animation Festival Figures in FocusThis selection is inspired by the seminal work Oh Bondage Up Yours! written by British, feminist, punk pioneer Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and its message to break free from the bondage of a patriarchal and consumerist society. (For anyone in doubt, the expression ‘up yours!’ is a very British retort of defiance.)

Martha Colburn, Join the Freedom Force, LIAF, London International Animation FestivalThis rallying cry is embodied in the opening film, Martha Colburn’s Join the Freedom Force, a rapid-fire representation of a legion of protestors and a myriad of issues they are challenging – climate catastrophe, voter oppression, the abuse of animals. With its combination of drawings, found objects and photographs, placard wielding activists from across the globe face off with the police and military. It’s colourful, surreal, violent, and jubilant; a rousing encapsulation of all the people out there advocating for change.

OV’s Scum Mutation similarly deals with collective protest and trauma. Feminist texts are incorporated into the work – Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism by Audre Lorde, and Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto – alongside audio of protesting crowds, and the transcription of the misogynistic words spoken by male police officers to detained female protestors. As viewers the soundscape places us within the protest, as impotent witnesses to the trauma of the dehumanised characters on screen. A manifestation of a collective scream, the film incites us to resist our oppressors.

Erasure, Birgitta Hosea, LIAF, London International Animation FestivalErasure by Birgitta Hosea is an acknowledgement of the labour performed by generations of women in the domestic sphere. Combining drawing, animation, video and performance, the artist scrubs, scours and brushes the surface with bleach and cleaning products. When the paper finally tears from the repeated action, it is as though the artist’s frustration with the continued disregard for this invisible workforce breaks through, resisting the tidying away of this essential matter.

Flying While Fat, Stacy Bias, LLIAF, London International Animation FestivalWith Flying While Fat, Stacy Bias brings to light the testimonies of people who have suffered shaming and aggression from other airplane passengers. The documentary was made in collaboration with Dr Bethan Evans at University of Liverpool, as part of a research project into the embodied experience of people trying to utilise a transport space that is not designed to accommodate their bodies. The animation went viral on its release, and was featured in press articles in People, Cosmopolitan and the Daily Mail amongst others, helping to raise awareness and eliciting empathy from viewers internationally to the impact societal fatphobia has on real lives.

Lily Ash Sakula’s Eyes was made in collaboration with users of Hackney’s LGBTQI+ youth project, Project Indigo, and features the song ‘Eyes’ by Black feminist, punk trio Big Joanie. Combining stop motion and 2D, the film presents the anxiety amplified by feeling constantly scrutinized for your gender expression and feeling that you cannot appear as your true self. With an encouraging ending, the main character finds community and with it the confidence to be able to present their gender identity, to be seen for who they are.

With Happy and Gay, Lorelei Pepi emulates 1930s cartoon musicals in order to critique the stereotype and prejudice often presented, and as a revisionist history places joyful queer characters at the centre of the narrative. In the 1930s, Hollywood films had to adhere to The Hays Code, and avoid condemnation by the Catholic Church’s National Legion of Decency, both of which measures led to the erasure of positive representations of homosexuality on screen for decades to follow. Alongside the representation of the ‘Pansy’ character found in cartoons and Hollywood movies, the film also contains several distressing characters that demonstrate how different ethnicities and races were portrayed on screen, appearing like ghosts from the past on the periphery of the action, to serve as a reminder of how common these stereotypes once were.

Comfort Arthur reflects on her own internalised colourism in Black Barbie. Presented with humour and poetry, Comfort explores the powerful messages she received as a child from a society that promotes European beauty standards. The account moves from her rejection of the gift of a black barbie as a child, to skin bleaching in her twenties, to self-empowerment through learning to love her dark skin. In 2020, Comfort created a picture book based on Black Barbie to serve as a conversation starter and to help children from different backgrounds around the world to value themselves.

In Tiger and Ox, Seunghee Kim talks with her mother, who at 35 (the age of the filmmaker) gave birth to her. The conversation focuses on the mother’s show of strength in the face of society’s judgement – not only for being a woman, but also a divorced and single mother. The mother even now continues to uphold societal values, demanding her daughter refrain from telling people she’s from a single parent family. With the ferocity of a tiger (the Korean Zodiac sign of the year she was born) the mother speaks of how she ran a successful catering business, managing sleazy male customers and the hostile male staff who challenged her authority. Through the conversation, the filmmaker discovers empathy and a newfound respect for her mother.

For Betti, Zsuzsanna Ács interviews forthright taxi driver and punk Betti Forgó. Betti discusses the independence that taxi driving brought her in the 1980s and cheerily recounts starting the protest about the rise in the cost of petrol on the streets of Budapest in 1990. More recently, she has been involved in the protests over the rise of Uber and the lack of regulation of its drivers, noting the lack of support from drivers, the public, and the media this time round. Betti remains an activist, unafraid to battle for what she believes in to protect the rights of those working in her industry.

Chloé Mazlo, Asmahan the Diva, LIAF, London International Animation FestivalChloé Mazlo introduces us to the life of Syrian rising star Amal el-Atrash, also known as Asmahan, in Asmahan the Diva. Rejecting the life expected of her as a mother and a wife, Asmahan followed her desire for freedom, gaining fame as a singer and actor. Whilst allegedly working as a spy for the British in World War II, she was murdered at the height of her fame at just 31. This entertaining, pixilated short presents us with the abridged life story of a remarkable, strong-willed, and thrill-seeking woman, who was ahead of her time and deserves to be remembered.

In Anna, Cat-and-Mouse, Varya Yakovleva tackles the threat of sexual violence that women face. Anna is pursued by a man who forces his way into her house, and she has to pacify him, diminishing his power and making him vulnerable, so that she can escape his advances and protect herself. She literally shrinks him, and the threat he represents, down to the point where she can place him in a matchbox and put him with all the other little men that she has dealt with in the past. This representation of the emotional baggage that women carry from unwanted advances, sexual violence, and objectification, is beautifully visualised through the device of the matchboxes in this delicate cut out animation.

Service, Yang Yu Jung, Lee Mi Sun, Jeong Sun Ha, LIAF, London International Animation FestivalIn Service, Yang Yu Jung, Lee Mi Sun, and Jeong Sun Ha have created a revenge fantasy of a customer service worker. The woman is shown to be abused and harassed by customers, whilst she can only nod politely and smile with her eerie painted-on smile. In the silence of her servitude, her mental health declines, and in private she abuses sleeping pills and has violent nightmares. In this darkly funny film, at the end she gives a genuine smile of relief that her dreams of inflicting violence and torture on customers may actually have come to pass in this wicked and cathartic tale.

Thea Hollatz, Hot Flask, LIAF, London International Animation FestivalWith Hot Flash, Thea Hollatz similarly uses humour to deal with a perspective that is often undervalued – that of an older woman negotiating the menopause and an ageing physique. Whilst a snowstorm rages and everyone else is feeling the chill, weather reporter Ace Naismith is attempting to manage her body’s erratic thermostat. By the point she accidentally exposes her naked body to a group of younger men, she shows that she is beyond caring what people think about her figure in a joyful scene where she saves the day. Ace, like many of the people presented in this programme, embodies the ‘up yours!’ spirit in the face of society’s judgements and demands.

Figures in Focus, (previously called Female Figures) was devised in 2017 by Abigail Addison in recognition of the under-representation of female and non-binary animators and their stories within the independent animation sector. The programme spotlights some of the incredible work crafted by contemporary animators, both in the UK and internationally.

With thanks to  Comfort ArthurStacy BiasBirgitta Hosea and Lily Ash Sakula, Waltraud Grausgruber, Jayne Pilling, Nag Vladermersky, Gary Thomas, Kate Anderson, Elizabeth Hobbs, Samantha Moore, Ellie Land, and all the featured filmmakers, their producers, and distributors.

Content warning: violence, blood, abuse, death, mental illness, drug abuse, masturbation, nudity, implied child abuse, hateful language, rape threat, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, racist representation.

Contains flashing imagery.