Host of the oldest regular program for animated documentaries since the mid-90s, DOK Leipzig celebrated the genre with a strong selection this year. The Animadocs program, a term coined by the Festival itself, strives to open up new discussions on all aspects of what animation can do for documentary storytelling.
Annegret Richter, the Head of the Animation Program, finds the ever-growing intersections between animation, fiction and documentary very exciting. “Filmmakers increasingly incorporate interdisciplinary elements of animation to make documentaries worthwhile,” she says. In the past couple of years, the use of animation has expanded from mere illustration to include more creative techniques like comics, drawings, puppet animation, photographs, graphic novels and paintings, indicating that there is a growing recognition of animation as an art form.
The increase in animated documentary submissions this year, around 150 applications, led DOK Leipzig to expand their Animadoc program to incorporate two curated programs: About Life and Destiny, featuring 19 films from 13 countries. Some of the countries represented were the UK, Canada and France, where the tradition of animated film is quite established, as well as Poland and the Czech Republic, which stand out with their innovative contributions to the genre.
Personal stories, often told via interviews with friends and/or family members, lie at the heart of many of the animated documentaries that were a part of this year’s Animadoc program. In Nurse Gretel #2 – Escape by Barbara Hlali, for example, the titular protagonist, now an elderly woman, tells the story of her escape from Silesia to West Germany at the end of World War II. Herstory by Kim Jun-ki is another poignant memoir that revisits some of the darker pages of the World War II era. Chung Seo-woon, a victim of sex slavery, tells the traumatic story of her survival after she was captured and brought to the island of Java by the Japanese military to be used as a ‘comfort woman’. For this agonizing account, the director chose to use 3D, an unusual method for animated documentaries, yet one that greatly enhances the visual impact of reenactments depicting the fearful life comfort women had to endure.
In certain instances, the use of animation helps audiences maintain a certain distance to images and themes that would otherwise be too emotional, controversial or shocking to readily confront. Centrefold,by British director Ellie Land, for example, explores the reasons behind a woman’s choice to have labia surgery. Through brave black and white illustrations, Land presents the stories of three women who decide to undergo labiaplasty to make their genitals look better.
Disability is another delicate topic for onscreen portrayal. Employing first person narration, Petra’s Poem by Shira Avni, a 2009 DOK Leipzig Golden Dove winner, approaches this complex issue with great sensibility and respect. The film, a poetic and gracious portrayal of people with Down syndrome, centers on Petra Tolley, a Down’s sufferer, as she candidly talks about what it feels like to be in the middle.
While animated documentary continues to garner more recognition and popularity as a genre, questions regarding its definition and limits have also gained prominence. How do we know that the animation we’re watching is a documentary? What convinces us that the film is not scripted? Annegret Richter explains:
“When I watch an animated documentary I should be able to relate to that person’s experience. I should be able to believe what I see. The film doesn’t always need archive material; an authentic element like audio recordings or pictures might serve the purpose.”
She gives the example of The Night of the Bear by Swiss directors Fred and Sam Guillaume, in which displaced animals seek shelter in the house of the Bear, creating a momentary communityuntil daybreak. The Night of the Bear is an attempt to give voice to the day-to-day struggles of homeless men and women. Annegret Richter says that, even if it doesn’t necessarily look like a documentary, it was “this very real and moving experience once you watch the film” which made her decide to include it in the Animadocprogram.
As in the case of The Night of the Bear, open-minded filmmakers don’t shy away from experimenting with new ways and techniques that best fit their storytelling. Polish director Zbigniew Czapla, for example, structures his inspiring Paper Box around fading photographs. Following a heavy flood in 2011 near his hometown in Poland that deprived thousands of people of their possessions, Czapla finds a box of old photographs in his family house containing the only surviving family mementos, which have now been destroyed by water, mud and mold. Desperate to keep these personal memories from disappearing completely, Czapla builds a universe of fragments and silhouettes from what’s left in his photo album in an attempt to reclaim his family history.
While DOK Leipzig’s annual Animadocprogram emerges as a unique platform for the genre, there are a number of international film festivals, such as London International Animation Festival (LIAF) and Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF), which showcase animated documentaries as part of their lineup. Yet, despite their growing popularity, opportunities for screening and promoting animated documentaries remain rather limited. Distribution through the internet and the educational market has helped the genre reach out to a bigger audience, while an increasing number of filmmakers turn to cross-media projects for larger outreach and support.
What does the future hold for animated documentaries? “I think that we will see a lot more animated documentaries in cinema,” Richter says. As filmmakers prepare to venture into new ways of storytelling, genre and techniques, she feels that animated documentary, even though it has a long history, is now seeing “a revival as a new film form.”
No doubt we will watch more and more feature films that use animation, yet Richter has one concern about the future of the genre: “I just hope that filmmakers will not forget that animation is also an art and that animation should be done well in order to catch people’s attention. There have been many good film ideas with bad animation lately, and I think that is quite sad because animation can actually add so much more to a film.”