Top Picks: Zagreb Animafest 2015 Grand Competition Shorts

Historically, Animafest Zagreb alternated between a year dedicated to animated shorts and a year dedicated to animated features. Starting this year they merged the two into one annual competition. To be frank, I wasn’t impressed with any of the features I saw in this year’s program, although I missed two of them due to scheduling conflicts with other programs. Some of this year’s most anticipated features also chose to have their premiere at Annecy, which began a week after Animafest. However, the competition for shorts in Zagreb was very strong. The Grand Prix went to We Can’t Live Without Cosmos by Russian filmmaker Konstantin Bronzit, who gave a funny acceptance speech via an animated message from space. The film will already get a lot press elsewhere, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to briefly introduce five other shorts that really impressed me in the competition. For me a great animated short is one that embraces and explores the distinct visual qualities of its chosen animation method…it’s not just a film in which the animation seems incidental to the story (or vice versa). All five of the following shorts develop evocative and multilayered images that are absolutely integral, even inseparable from the themes they tackle. All of them left vivid impressions, and I kept thinking about them throughout the festival. In the rough order that I saw them:

Chez Moi/My Home (2014, France) by Phuong Mai Nguyen

This was the standout film of the opening-night program, and I wasn’t alone in mentioning it throughout the festival as a favourite. Chez Moi plays out a sort of Oedipal drama (a familiar theme in independent animation), in which a close bond between a boy and his mother is tested when a dominant new father-figure enters their remote household. From our first glimpses of the boy home alone, waiting for his mother’s return, the film visually establishes his insularity and subtly builds a mood of tense anticipation.

“Chez Moi”, dir. Phuon Mai Nguyen (2014, France)

The warm brown hues of furniture and floors, contrasted with muted decorative patterns (rugs, wallpapers, curtains), create a dynamic space that is both warm and foreboding. The film’s paint-on-paper textures and 2D computer animation are so thoughtfully layered and lit, that space appears to recede into three-dimensional depth. Many of the scenes are illuminated only by a diffuse glow of a table lamp or a ray of light breaking through shutters, adding to the sense of dramatic mystery. Most impressively in terms of spatial composition, every room and its objects seem accurately proportioned, and yet also amplified in comparison to the boy. Is the house really so huge and so isolated in a remote forest? Or is this merely how it appears to the eyes of a small child?
The film’s clever conceit (I’m giving away an early spoiler) is that the mother’s new male companion is animated as a giant bird. Anthropomorphized animals are a foundational animation device, but the intrusion of just one such character into an otherwise humanly-rendered family creates a very surreal and uncanny effect, which is perfect for conveying the mixture of curiosity, confusion, and terror that the new arrival elicits in the boy.

“Chez Moi”, dir. Phuong Mai Nguyen (2014, France)

Who is this creature? Will he hurt us? Doesn’t mother see that he’s not human? Chez Moi is entirely without dialogue, and yet these questions are obvious in the boy’s dismayed reactions as he navigates his unsettled household. The new arrival is alternately amusing and frightening; his friendly overtures appear menacing. His animated gestures, along with the pacing of each scene, balance between these opposing poles with carefully choreographed nuance. Some elements are gradually revealed and others left intentionally hidden, so that each minor domestic encounter takes on the mythical weight of a primal childhood drama.

Eager (2014, USA) by Allison Schulnik

I first saw Eager online a couple of months ago, when it was featured on the popular animation blog Cartoon Brew (you can find the film in its entirety here). Already then I thought that the film is a masterful exercise in clay-animation choreography, but seeing it on a large screen at Animafest was a real gift and a moving experience. Part clay (plasticine?) dance, part sculpture in motion, part pixilated macrophotography, Eager turns the age-old poetic metaphor of the human organism as a plant cycle into a layered series of metamorphoses. One set of sequences is staged as a choreographed trio of clay figures dancing on stage. Here, the movements channel familiar vocabulary of contemporary dance, evoking at times Martha Graham, at times Pina Bausch, or (closer to the history of animation) Kathy Rose.

“Eager”, dir. Allison Schulnik (2014, USA)

 The clay figures come alive with intentional propulsion; their movements begin with a single joint or at the body’s core, and then momentum is followed-through right to their masterfully sculpted hair. Each animated gesture conveys the filmmaker’s attentive and intuitive understanding of dance dynamics. Movements communicate anticipation and action , inhalation and release, tension and extension of limbs, ribcages, appendages. At the same time, their existence as clay (again: plasticine?) allows the animator to push the figures past the physical constraints of the human body, turning them into otherworldly dancers performing with gravitational solidity.

A different series of sequences feature a garden of animated flowers and plants, also coming alive with their own movements of curling and uncurling, expansion and contraction. Most are rendered in clay, but real plants are also included into compositions to make the floral tapestry more dense and textured. The visual and kinetic link between human and plant organisms is quickly established, and the two are gradually intertwined. The line between the body and the natural world becomes as elastic and fluid as the clay medium itself.

“Eager”, dir. Allison Schulnik (2014, USA)

The film’s most successful transitions are composed on a flat surface, like two-dimensional evolving abstract canvases, and here (as elsewhere throughout the film) the filmmaker’s command of the material, her ability to mold it into distinct subtle colour gradations that evoke painterly brushstrokes, is a marvel.

“Eager”, dir. Allison Schulnik (2014, USA)

Echoing Georgia O’Keefe’s erotic plant imagery (and perhaps even Henri Rousseau’s charged fantasy jungle scenes), Eager plays out a scene of hungry desire, an enfolding fleshy seduction.

Beach Flags  (2014, France) by Sarah Saidan

Animation has always offered filmmakers an opportunity to portray socially and politically delicate images that are difficult to capture with a camera. In fact, Animafest Zagreb was historically instrumental in giving Central European and East European filmmakers an international platform to display overtly or subtly political films. Over the past decade a growing number of filmmakers from the Middle East have joined this tradition (Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are probably best known, but the work of Michal and Uri Kranot also comes to mind). This year’s festival featured a program devoted to Israeli student animation that included several politically-minded films, as well as a Syrian film portraying a the story of a female activist. Among all the films, however, Sarah Saidan’s Beach Flags stood out as the most beautifully designed, sparingly plotted, and above all subtle exploration of inter-generational gender dynamics in Iran. I don’t want to imply that the film is only recommended as a “Middle Eastern” film, especially since the Iranian-born filmmaker now lives and works in France. However, one cannot miss the influence of Iranian art cinema’s poetry and humanism on this film, and understanding this context helped me appreciate the filmmaker’s visual choices even more.

Beach Flags takes an almost universally recognized genre (the sports competition film) and uses it as an aperture for a specific cultural experience (coming of age as a young woman in Iran). The central protagonist Vida is a young lifeguard, who trains alongside her team in gender-segregated pools and beaches, hoping to win a local tournament, so that she can fly to Australia to represent Iran at an international competition. There is camaraderie among the girls on the team, but when a new addition threatens Vida’s chances of winning, the stakes become too high. The competition is a chance for only one girl to leave the community, perhaps even her prescribed future. Taking this familiar set-up, the film beautifully uses a restrained layout and careful character placement to convey the physical energy of the training exercises and the symbolic weight of the competition.

“Beach Flags”, dir. Sarah Saidan (2014, France).

The background and colour palettes immediately place the spectator in a seaside Iranian town. Watercolour textures establish the slightly hazy hot air that flattens distances and sometimes blurs sand with sky. Against the relatively sparse lines of the landscape, the young girls run and jump, push and slide, their scalar relationships within the frame working to expand and contract space. A short distance between the first and second place winners of a training exercise turns into an insurmountable gulf. The pacing and composition of each scene establish hierarchies of importance, build tension and suspense.
The film also uses composition and layout design to mark out important shifts in mood, deftly navigating between diegetic reality and Vida’s internal perspective on the events. At several key moments, these switches allow the film to turn diegetic props into meaningful symbols of her struggles with gender expectations that the world around her views as natural.

“Beach Flags”, dir. Sarah Saidan (2014, France)

Most impressively, Beach Flags uses character design and animation as a way to take characters who cannot be put on visual display (young women, whose social codes dictate that they always remain covered up with their hair hidden) and portray them as distinct people with distinct bodies and personalities.

A character design sketch for the film
A character design sketch for the film “Beach Flags”, dir. Sarah Saidan (2014, France).

Sharing the same uniforms, the same long bathing suits and head coverings, the girls nevertheless stand out as different expressive personalities, allowing the animation to make a visual statement about them as a single community made up of unique individuals. Saidan adds some visual insurance in the form of differently coloured hair peeking out from behind hijabs, but this extra detail is not even necessary for a viewer paying attention to her nuanced rendering of the girls’ faces and bodily comportment.

The film manages to fit into its thirteen minutes many scenes that are simple in conceit and yet complex in meaning and emotional tone. For me it offered a more affecting and socially meaningful portrait of the line between competitive ambition and solidarity than the (admittedly great) film about astronauts that took home the festival’s top prize.

World of Tomorrow  (2015, USA) by Don Hertzfeldt

Don Hertzfeldt is a legend in independent animation circles, lauded for his bitingly satirical films that take contemporary animation’s obsession with visual detail and emotional sentimentality, and give it a crudely drawn middle finger. Hertzfeldt’s films, most famously Rejected, embrace the rough and raw minimalism that defined rebellious underground animation of the 1970s-80s and channel it toward comically dark commentary on commercialism and over-mediated human relationships. Like the best dark comedy, Hertzfeldt’s animation owes much more to its timing and ironic juxtapositions, than to any sophisticated dialogue or visual effects. However, the deceptive simplicity of his animation devices should not obscure his films’ unique and recognizable aesthetic, the smart character design, meticulous layout choices, and above all a superb sense of pacing. Hertzfeldt’s understanding of the thin line between tedium and laughter places his films in the best tradition of animation comedy.

World of Tomorrow won the top prize in the short film competition at this year’s Sundance Festival, championing in a competition that places animated films alongside live-action works. At Animafest Zagreb the film deservingly won the special Creative Innovation prize, and I agree with the jury that it represents an interesting turning point in the filmmaker’s career. With World of Tomorrow, the filmmaker explores digital animation, particularly depth and colour, in a manner he deliberately avoided in his previous, more visually restrained films. Yet in keeping with the filmmaker’s style, the film uses this expanded visual vocabulary to craft an ode to low-fi aesthetics and a satire on fantasies of digital immortality.

“World of Tomorrow”, dir. Don Hertzfeldt (2015).

The film’s narrative is framed as a cross-temporal conversation. Little Emily (incidentally, one of the most common and therefore repetitive names in the USA this year) is visited by her future self, an adult Future Emily, who is an umteenth-generation future clone of the original “prime” child. During an extended visit Future Emily introduces Little Emily to her distant future, which is also Future Emily’s recent past. In portraying the world of tomorrow, the film’s simple pixelated shapes, repetitive geometric outlines, and saturated colours that could have only emerged from an html HEX table, turn into an effective way to demonstrate space and time travel, coded data, and the technology-saturated world of the “outernet.” Rigid aliased outlines covered in bright hues create a busy landscape that still seems remote and alienating, which is an apt visual portrait of Future Emily’s world — one with many scientific conveniences, but also many tragic implications for humanity.

The future is sometimes a marvelous place (especially for the wealthy), repeats Future Emily to a thoroughly confused Little Emily. Sometimes it’s also violent and sad…but only a little, because people are no longer able to emotionally process happiness or sadness, only recycled and dulled emotions. If many of the tropes of this semi-dystopian future are familiar, the film’s ability to mine them for bittersweet laughs, to amplify even the simplest of visual forms and gestures into absurd statements, is remarkable.

“World of Tomorrow”, dir. Don Hertzfeldt (2014, USA).

Unlike many of Hertzfeldt’s previous films, World of Tomorrow feels like it has more sympathy for its characters and genuine compassion for the doomed world they inhabit. The irony frequently gives way to poignant moments of beauty, connection, and small attempts to wrestle something meaningful from an ocean of cliches and prefabricated experiences.

幕/Maku/Veil  (2014, Japan) by Yoriko Mizushiri

I’ve gone back and forth on including Veil in this list. I first added it to fill out a nice “Top 5,” but then temporarily removed it, because I don’t feel like I have as strong of a grasp on the film (at least my impressions of it) as the other four. A poetic piece rich with ambiguous images, Veil is difficult to describe, especially after seeing it just once. Additionally, the film played in what I think was the strongest program in the festival, in the same lineup as two other films on the list. By the time the screening ended, I had only hazy impressions left of the film, and my enthusiasm was wholly dedicated to other films from the same night. However, I gradually discovered that the film’s enigmatic and oddly sensual images lodged themselves in my memory. Also, due to a few well-placed promotional cards that the filmmaker (or her supporters) left in the festival hub, I repeatedly ran into it throughout the week. Whether due to its initial impact or its smart marketing, this is the short film I’m most curious to see again, and this earns it a recommendation.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 11.13.49 PM
“Maku”/”Veil”, dir. Yoriko Mizushiri (2014, Japan)

Veil is structured as a series of visual impressions of an encounter between two people (or perhaps several encounters between different couples) in domestic and public spaces. Almost all of the images are framed in extreme close-up or from oblique angles, so that instead of grounding the viewer in a scene, the film offers a series of visual and tactile moments that suggest anticipation, hesitation, tenderness.
The visual style is influenced by contemporary Japanese graphic design, with its clean arcing lines, flat and solid monochromatic fills, and softened, prudently muted candy colours. Images of long, fluid limbs and detached body parts moving at a slow meditative pace against sparse empty backgrounds echo the work of Atushi Wada, as well as other independent animation influenced by modern East Asian design (at this year’s Animafest, one can note graphic affinities with Man on a Chair and Goodbye Utopia). Veil reminded me of those streamlined close-up illustrations in instruction manuals, but animated and transformed into surreal and sensual encounters.
By framing limbs and objects in close-up and allowing them to float without a stable background, the film endows quotidian images with an intriguing ambiguity. Arms and hands might actually become calves and feet, tiny grains of rice might actually be large tapioca balls, a piece of salmon might be a tongue. What most impressed me in watching the film is how its sparse, flat, texturally minimal composition can evoke very sensual, tactile, even erotic elements. The solid outlines of objects give way in contact with one another, ever-so-slightly, enough to maintain their solidity but still convey the pressure of touch: thighs pressing against a chair; two legs slowly inching toward each other in desire; a mouth opening up to accommodate a morsel of food.

Maku”/”Veil”, dir. Yoriko Mizushiri (2014, Japan)

Among Veil’s dreamy series of encounters, there was just one prominent image I found too puzzling and unsettling: a monkey, dressed in what appears to be a hooded track suit. I will admit that it’s the most memorable image of the film, but I’m not sure if it’s for the right reasons. I don’t know if the monkey draws on some kind of intertextual or symbolic reference that eludes me, but its pink face with frozen smile, as well as its slowly turning head throughout the film, was creepy. I am reluctant to bring this up, but in light of the sensual and erotic undertones in Veil, I couldn’t help but think of the copulating taxidermy monkeys in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.

Maku”/”Veil”, dir. Yoriko Mizushiri (2014, Japan)

In this particular scene, which is also the promotional image for the film, the monkey’s placid contentment in the arms (between the legs?) of a person turns the animal into a prospective lover, which creates an unsettling effect. According to one new friend I met at the festival, the fact that I found this unsettling was just my own “hang ups,” so take that for what it’s worth. In writing this description, however, I did notice the connecting thread between Veil and the first film on this list (Chez Moi), as both use animation to render animal/human couplings that are both fascinating and uncomfortable in that way that demands another look.


Well, those are my top five picks from Animafest Zagreb 2015 (Grand Competition Shorts), all of which I am looking forward to seeing again. In the coming week I’ll try dedicating a separate post to my favourite films from the Student Competition, which had many gems.


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