The Ottawa International Animation Festival, which ran this year from Sept. 24-29, is the Western Hemisphere’s oldest and largest festival of animation.
In fact, it is now so large that you can no longer physically see all the competition screenings, international panoramas of works by professionals and students not in competition, retrospectives of individual animators or countries (or themes — one program was devoted to a historical look at cars in cartoons). Then there are the panels with animators talking about their films, behind-the-scenes sessions with studios promoting their new releases, workshops on specific animation techniques and virtual reality demonstrations/competitions. Whew!
This year, the OIAF received 2,424 entries from 93 countries, and the initial selection process winnowed that down to 89 short films (including Virtual Reality environments and Animated Series) and seven feature films for competition, with 36 countries represented. Twenty-one additional films screened in the Canadian Student Competition, and 66 other films appeared in panorama (that is, non-competition) presentations representing Canadian, international and student artists.
The OIAF programming team, headed by the festival’s artistic director, Chris Robinson, emphasizes edgy and independent work, picking the most interesting and original animated features for competition screenings. Eventually, about half of the OIAF feature competitors become accessible to American viewers through art house theatrical releases, DVD issues, various streaming services or — as in the case of Nina Paley’s “Seder Masochism” entry in last year’s OIAF — through proprietary websites.
Ironically, this year, almost every feature either is already available in one form or another or is scheduled for U.S. release — with the notable exception of the Best Feature winner, “On-Gaku: Our Sound.” That’s perhaps not so surprising — the film was making its world premiere at the festival. It’s so enjoyable and accessible to a broad audience, though, that I’m certain it will be able to be seen here within a year.
The OIAF catalogue states that “On-Gaku: Our Sound,” directed by Kenji Iwaisawa, is based on a manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi. I can’t begin to imagine what that adaptation process must have been like. The film deals with three teenagers who start their own band, even though they’ve never played any instruments before: Two of them “play” bass, and one pounds on a two-drum set. So music — or noise — constitutes a major element of the story and comedy here. The three are considered their high school’s “tough guys,” but they seem to come by that title by default, because no one else claims it. Before they get their instruments, they just sit around, watch TV and play video games.
Aside from what amounts to musical slapstick, the comedy arises both from nothing happening and from surprise developments, including a last-minute revelation of the lead character’s true motivation for the whole musical enterprise. Similarly, the animation style is simple and straightforward until one character in a wimpy group who have the same band name as the “tough guys” group starts rocking out and becomes more dynamically depicted.
The other feature in competition from Japan, “Children of the Sea” by Ayumu Watanabe, based on a manga by Daisuke Igarashi, provides the most dazzling, rich animation of the lot and will soon be released in theaters here. Ruka once saw something strange at the aquarium where her father works and now feels a call from the sea. Then she meets two brothers who were raised in the sea by — wait for it! — dugongs and have similar impulses toward the sea but also to the stars as well. Beautiful images of water, star fields and sea creatures abound here, but the mystical significance of it all — basically, we’re all connected — becomes opaque the more intense it gets.
The only other film not yet scheduled for U.S. distribution is Gints Zilbalodis’ “Away” from Latvia. A boy we first see hanging by his parachute from a tree limb and a small bird he befriends make their way across a mysterious island by motorcycle pursued by an inexorable giant spectre seemingly intent on absorbing their life energy. There’s no dialogue, and the filmmaker chose a retro-looking CGI format that produces three-dimensional images without a lot of detail. But there are nonetheless some breathtakingly beautiful scenes here — in particular, a shallow reflective lake that our hero crosses while flocks of birds fly above (and below!) him.
The symbolism here will take some thought to work out, but the film can be appreciated as well quite simply as an adventure. The film has won awards at animation festivals around the world and will surely find an outlet in this country. Not having any dialogue to translate or dub should also make U.S. distribution easier to navigate.
“Marona’s Fantastic Tale” by Anca Damian, a France/Romania/Belgium co-production with French dialogue, is already scheduled for a 2020 limited theatrical release in the states. It’s a dog’s life story and should appeal to fans of the live action “A Dog’s Journey” and similar films. Marona goes through a series of owners, all of whom she loves unconditionally; in each case, the human figures are drawn in different styles or colors to reflect their personalities or their attitudes toward Marona.
The French film “I Lost My Body” by Jérémy Clapin opens with a hand escaping from a laboratory and trying to make its way across Paris. It seems to have a full complement of senses, though, which helps in its confrontations with ants and rats. Its story alternates with flashbacks of its owner Naoufel’s life as he loses his parents, grows up poor in Paris, works as an incompetent pizza delivery man, falls for one of his customers and then tries to involve himself in her life. Though it shares some elements with horror classics, it is not a horror film itself but rather an often gripping drama with an unexpected positive ending.
“I Lost My Body” is the first feature-length animated film to win the Critics’ Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It will screen Oct. 19 at the Chicago International Film Festival and has already been acquired by Netflix for a November release.
France, Luxemburg, and Switzerland were represented by the most serious and politically/socially aware of the features — “The Swallows of Kabul” by Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec based on Yasmina Khadra’s 2002 bestselling novel. A look at life in Kabul under the Taliban in 1998, it follows two married couples as their paths intertwine and religious oppression dooms them.
Atiq is a jailer in a prison for women, whose wife is dying of cancer. Zunaira is a young artist who first comes to the Taliban’s attention for wearing white shoes under her burqa. Her husband, Mohsen, a teacher, finds himself momentarily overcome by peer pressure to participate in a stoning and subsequently wracked with guilt and anguish. By the time other events lead Zunaira to Atiq’s jail, he can no longer accept what ultimately (and quickly) happens to the women in his charge. Unexpected violence and sacrifice permeate the final reel.
“The Swallows of Kabul” recalls somewhat the 2018 OIAF feature entry “The Breadwinner,” which went on to an Oscar nomination in terms of setting, tone and themes. “Swallows” has a more textured, watercolor look to its drawings, though, and deals with more adult characters and issues.
Finally, “Tux and Fanny” by Albert Birney has already appeared in 79 Instagram videos and can be seen now in its full feature-length on Vimeo. It’s intrinsically episodic (I assume 79 episodes, though I wasn’t counting). Despite being an American production, its dialogue is synthesized Russian with English subtitles. It also has the deliberate look of being made with 25-year-old (or more) software except where it turns into clay animation or people dressed in Tux and Fanny costumes.
The world Tux and Fanny inhabit is simple yet surreal. When ants consume his flesh and a chicken takes up residence in his ribcage, Fanny knits Tux a new skin but leaves a hole in the chest so they can collect the chicken’s eggs to keep from starving. It’s a great example of how less can be more and obsolete can be avant-garde. And like Nina Paley’s films, it can be downloaded for free.