We Are One: A Global Film Festival- Day Two: Annecy Shorts [EXPERIMENTAL]

Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog

One of the premiere animation festivals in the world, the Annecy International Animation Festival is a tremendous showcase of creative art, and quite often a launching pad for future Oscar nominees. Day two of We Are One: A Global Film Festival included some of the more experimental and surreal animated shorts from Annecy.

The Battle of San Romano

Based on the painting by Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano is a very short 150 seconds of confused fury, and that’s precisely the point. The film is little more than a cycle of oil painting images melding into one another: horses, soldiers, wild animals, and torn fields. For the first two minutes, the camera revolves around the scene, focusing ever so briefly on different aspects of the skirmish, before finally zooming out and allowing the image to settle, all while ambient sword clashes and screeching violins dominate the soundtrack.

It’s a very simple concept, and yet it’s instantly powerful, as it perfectly illustrates the fog of war. Unless you’re a student of art, history, or art history, you have no idea who’s fighting who, or why. The multi-colored wooden pikes that serve as something of a wipe between sections is only the hint that there’s any difference between any of the men killing each other. Because there’s no real context, all we have are somewhat haunting images of armored men falling from swords and rolling into a stone-like mass before being trampled. It’s crazy and crowded, and a dead-on representation of pure chaos. Amazing how such a simple idea can convey something so complex. I mean, I’ve spent longer describing the film than the actual runtime of the film itself. That tells you all you need to know.

The Procession

Directed by Pascal Blanchet and Rodolphe Saint-Gelais, this French Canadian entry is one of the most stylish shorts I’ve seen in recent years, and one that cuts to the quick emotionally. Bookended by Shirley Bassey’s “Don’t Take the Lovers From the World,” the film focuses on Catherine, who has just died, speaking to her now grieving husband, Phillip, as an omniscient narrator. Through the course of the film, we see their entire romance from beginning to end, ups and downs, as well as the circumstances that led to Catherine’s demise, all while Phillip goes through the motions of a funeral reception with his family at home.

The art style is tremendous, blending the pop art and classic comic strip forms of the 1930s and 40s (think old school Dick Tracy sharpness) in black and white with pink tones that either highlight or dominate the color palette depending on the needs of the scene. The thin outlines and shadows go just far enough to convey the emotions of the moment without devolving into cliché. It’s striking imagery on par with some of the best that the major studios can offer.

But what really gets you is Catherine’s narration. Phillip basically isn’t allowed to convey an emotion until after his relatives leave, at which point he’s overcome with grief and guilt, clearly wondering if the argument they had just before she left for her fatal car ride is the reason she’s gone. But Catherine’s words are matter-of-fact that she loved him absolutely, and that sometimes, tragedy happens. Their love was passion throughout, and even though they quarrelled over unrealized dreams and potential, she was devoted to him like no one else could be, because she knew that’s how he felt about her.

The presentation makes it feel like this is something of a deathbed confession, only without the bed. But really, it’s a reverse eulogy. When a loved one dies, there’s always someone at the funeral to give voice to the sadness and to celebrate that which was lost. Here, in the most beautiful of terms, it is Catherine who mourns for Phillip, and who vocalizes her love and great loss. It’s pure poetry.

The One-Minute Memoir

The beauty of animation is the limitless possibilities that an artist has to tell a story, unencumbered by the nature of physical reality. The One-Minute Memoir is a perfect example of this beauty, as several acclaimed abstract artists and animators each get a single minute of screentime to tell a wondrous tale.

These ultra-shorts range from the avant-garde to heartfelt to downright surreal. A tortured artist trashes his paintings before trashing himself. A French woman narrates her philosophy of travel — departure is exciting, but the feeling of being apart is sad — while a family of birds representing her own kin stands before a background of floating images associated with family and transport wafting completely independently.

All of these stories have their own bits of greatness, but my two favorites were “A True Story” and “My Art Has A Spiritual Quality: I Must Resist.” The former, created by one of the masters of animation, Bill Plympton (if nothing else you’ve probably seen his bonkers couch gags on The Simpsons over the years), gives us insight into his love of drawing and his twisted sense of humor. As a child he wanted to draw everything, but never had enough paper. So one day his mother gave him a huge sheet from a butcher that still had meat blood on it, so he drew a grotesque war battle. If you know Plympton’s work, the whole story is him in a nutshell.

The latter, by Joan C. Gratz (who also curated the entire reel) uses oil paintings to meld dozens of seemingly contradictory images into one oddly sensible narrative. The sun turns into a car, which becomes the Mona Lisa, then Donald Trump spewing his hate speech, then a greasy cheeseburger, followed by a cat who can haz cheezburger, before restoring itself to Vincent Van Gogh and the Man in the Moon from Georges Méliès’ legendary film, A Trip to the Moon, only to return to our commercial ignorance with the Man’s eye being struck by the Tesla Roadster floating in space.

If you ever wanted to be an artist, but were told not to color outside the lines, watch this 15-minute showcase of miniature opuses. It shows you just how exciting going outside the lines can be.

Black Barbie

This year’s Academy Award winner for Animated Short was Hair Love, a touching tale of a father learning how to style his daughter’s hair, a task normally done by her ailing mother. It struck a blow for diversity, as it was the first winner in the category’s history that showed the beauty, complexity, and most importantly, normalcy, of black style. It was an important step to showing mainstream audiences how others live while not even entertaining a stereotype.

Black Barbie, written and directed by Comfort Arthur, is another important step. As Ama K. Abebrese ( Sinking Sands and Beasts of No Nation) narrates a poem, Arthur floods the screen with surreal, non-conforming images to illustrate her inner conflict with being a young black girl in a white world. Having been given a black Barbie doll, all she felt was fear and shame, because her skin was so dark that she was shunned. It led to decades of insecurities, and eventually to skin bleaching, before she could accept that black was beautiful, that she was beautiful.

In a scant three and a half minutes, Comfort Arthur and Ama Abebrese admirably display the type of societal issues that generations of children have faced, regardless of race. For countless kids, it’s impossible to look in a mirror and see something of value. This short but powerful bit of introspection and self-affirmation is crucial to helping black youth, and really all youth, discover their own self-worth.

Dew Line

Joanna Priestly’s Dew Line is four minutes of abstract gold. The title itself is in essence all you need to know about the actual content of the film. A single drop of dew forms ripples in a dark pool of water, spreading out and illustrating all of life as we know it. The dew drop contrasts with the rigid, static nature of straight lines that form more defined shapes. But both work in tandem despite seeming diametrically opposed.

The dew shape stretches and evolves, forming any number of bright, colorful bits of life, be they plant, insect, or even human (as represented by skull shapes and boats on the water). Sometimes, the traditional boxes can contain the more nebulous shapes. Sometimes they can’t. And even better, sometimes you can see the box foster the expansion, like a parent nurturing a child. It all flows so freely from one image to the next, buffeted by a color scheme so bright that you have to constantly blink to adjust your own vision as you desperately try to absorb all the imagery before you.

Imagine if Pablo Picasso had animated the “Circle of Life” sequence from The Lion King. That’s Dew Line. And by God is it gorgeous.

Shannon Amen

A sheer departure from the other entries, which are uplifting even when telling sad stories, Shannon Amen delivers a stark, gut-wrenching dose of reality through abstract presentation, bringing light to a major social issue and highlighting one of the greatest ongoing tragedies in our world.

Director Chris Dainty uses poetry, artwork, and music from his friend Shannon Jamieson to illustrate the turmoil of her sexual awakening and the shame she felt about being gay in a Christian community. Combining several art styles, including traditional cel shading, stop-motion, ice sculpture, pencil sketch, surrealism, and home movies, Dainty shows us how Shannon tries to be herself and embrace who she is, but she can’t escape the demons of the holy who tell her she’s wicked.

The film is cluttered and disconnected, leaping back and forth through time and animation technique, a note-perfect illustration of such internalized trauma. Rare is the case that a developing youth, full of insecurities and raging hormones even in the most ideal of circumstances, can organize their personality into a linear narrative. This is a girl who realizes what she is and who she loves, but cannot reconcile it with a church where she’s spent her entire life, and who now says she’s unworthy of salvation, that she’s been rejected by God. It’s enough to make anyone feel as if they’ve turned to shattering ice.

It’s beautiful and tragic to see Shannon at her brightest moments, singing, dancing, posing for artistic photos, and expressing her affection with another woman. She’s full of life and love, but every time she tries to break free, we’re reminded of what holds her back, as notes scribbled into a bible reveal her true pain. She participates in Pride, but feels only shame, to the point of contemplating suicide on multiple occasions.

My heart breaks for everyone who goes to that edge and doesn’t make it back. Chris Dainty’s loving tribute to Shannon is achingly beautiful because it is true in every sense of the word, and shows just how nuanced that edge can be.

Originally published at https://behindtherabbitproductions.wordpress.com on June 5, 2020.

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