At the 53rd International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Films, the artistic and narrative diversity on display in the animation program was truly remarkable. The International Competition consisted of four themed programs: the International Panorama showcased 27 films; there were two Animadok programs exhibiting 16 films; 22 films of Neue Deutsche Animation; 19 films in the Anima Für Kinder program; and, Pink Elephants, the best of the young international animation scene.

Time works differently in the animated world. In just five minutes we can travel through wide swaths of space, live many lifetimes, extract the essence of a complicated emotion or event, or unravel a deep human mystery. These stories are mostly told nonverbally with sound effects, music and glorious image replacing traditional narrative styles. With abstract images, absurdist plots, and a very liberal sense of time and space, a distinctive universality emerges that transcends culture.

Signe Baumane

In addition, there were three curated programs by Latvian-born animator, Signe Baumane, also one of the competition jurors, along with Olaf Encke from Germany and Andy Glynne from the UK. Finally, in a special encore, there was “Battle of the Sexes – Animated!” a show that Baumane and Bill Plympton débuted at the IFC Center in New York City this past spring. Plympton, “the king of indie animation,” was also at the fest to lead one of the master classes. It all amounted to a boatload of cartoons.

Much has been written of late about the power of animation in documentary film, specifically its ability to deal with difficult subject matter, or the ability to re-create historical events in which no recorded film footage is known to exist. Yet, in the daily AnimaTalks held in the café next to the animation theater, all the visiting filmmakers, whether making fiction or nonfiction, talked about the elasticity, the freedom, to create whole worlds in accelerated time. Animals act like humans; humans act like animals; an identifiable creature turns into something we’ve never quite seen before; a person can tell his or her story just using voice and other aural elements accompanied by illustrated abstraction.

Or the image is quite literal, drawn in a clearly delineated style – we recognize what we are seeing because it is “life-like.” But perhaps it is the soundtrack that is shattered into abstraction, using non-realistic interpretations of what the event sounded like as it was happening.

Real life can be intensely surreal, and there is no better cinematic tool to explore surrealism than animation. Not all, but most of the pieces in the programs, whether they were fiction or nonfiction, were pretty brutal, exploring dark themes and difficult material. Viewers were taken on a multitude of journeys into the subconscious minds of the creators of these stories, stories told in brooding – or outright violent – palettes, creating emotional dislocation, a waking dream – or nightmare. In this vein, the films in the international competition reflected these dislocations in a myriad of ways.

In a program entitled Kein Kinderspiel (No Child’s Play), seven filmmakers explore the relationship between parents and children, and the role of children in the family from the child’s perspective. Ann Marie Fleming in her film, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (Canada, 2010), adapts a memoir that explores the influence that a parent’s very dark past can have on his or her child. These films dealt with divorce, the death of a parent, abuse. In Daniel Greaves’ Speechless (UK, 2009) a family only communicates via technology when they’re sitting around the dinner table together – a story for the modernage, to be sure.
yet in the program called Reiseaussichten (Chances of Traveling), other filmmakers turn to whimsy, using extremely bizarre humor to explore journeys to different worlds – from the ones taken right in our backyards to trippy travels in alternate universes.

No Child’s Play: Street in Theresienstadt

Some of the creatures making those journeys cannot even be seen by the human eye, as in Matray’s hilarious Babioles, which won the Silver Dove in the competition and clocked in at a cool 4 minutes 40 seconds. The coveted audience award went to another traveling animated piece, a documentary of one man’s travel diary, Bastien Dubois’ Madagascar, carnet de voyage, an absolutely exquisite piece of storytelling at a more satisfying 11 minutes 30 seconds. The illustrations, the color palette, the music, the sound design of Dubois’ film, were all so thrilling; I would gladly have sat through a feature-length piece.

This brings us to the more practical aspects of making animation – the costs and the inordinate amounts of time it takes to put together a piece of animated cinema. Bill Plympton talked a lot about this in his master class. Even though he speaks of making animation as being “god-like, creating all these characters and creatures by hand,” he also talked a lot about the practicality of the work itself in terms of the marketplace – he’s a fan of the short, cheap and funny variety. This is the case for Signe Baumane, as well, an artist who worked for Plympton when she moved to New York from her hometown of Riga in the mid-90s: “I like to eat and I like to fuck, so my films always are about food and sex,” she told a delighted audience at one of her late-night shows.

Ironically, both are currently working on feature-length animation films. Baumane shared a few minutes of her work-in-progress with me called Rocks In My Pockets, an autobiographical account told in her own voice of the time she spent in a mental institution in her native Latvia. Like a lot of the best animation, it is both riotously funny and profoundly sad.

«giving Palestinians video cameras to document life under occupation»

Leipzig has a special program for animated documentaries where they screen the best new films of the genre, and explore the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction as the best doc
programs these days do. In Vom Menschlichen Wert (Stories of Personal Value), curator and new head of the animation program at Leipzig, Annegret Richter, showcased films “with a very personal perspective that raise fundamental political questions.” Standouts, for me, in this program were A Kosovo Fairytale, a student film by Anna-Sofia Nylund, Mark Middlewick and Samantha Nell, which tells the story of a family torn apart by war – one parent Serbian, the other Albanian.

The filmmakers animate their escape from their war-torn homeland minus the youngest son, who stays back in Kosovo with his grandparents because he is too young to make the days-long journey in a dark, cold truck that carries the rest of them to a better life in Finland. White Tape, a painterly film that only lasts for two minutes, is based on five seconds of video footage from the project “shooting back,” initiated by the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem.

The organization gives Palestinians video cameras to document life under occupation. The extraordinarily moving and inventive film, Shall We Take a Walk?, tells the story of a blind Korean boy who takes his hospitalized older sister on an imaginary walk through a world that he’s created in miniature with his own two hands the other anima-doc program called Nobody Is Perfect was “a smorgasbord of bizarre stories.”

The great Swedish animator, Jonas Odell, opened the program with his latest, Tussilago, a beautifully drawn film accompanied by a narrated story from a terrorist’s girlfriend, who explains in a ravaged voice how she got caught up in some bad business in 1977 which ruined the rest of her life. Netherlands filmmaker, Rogier Klomp, creates an eerie atmosphere with drawings, graphics and voiceover to explain the amalgamation of the world’s media companies in his 4-minute film, This Is Propaganda: Part A – The Masters of the Media.

And Daniela Sherer from the USA interviews her 83-year-old grandmother who tells her about one night when she was a frightened 17-year-old in 1941 Krakow, Poland, and her memory of a small kindness from a stranger when she was in hiding from the Nazis. At this juncture in our cinematic evolution, we see that animated films can go beyond stories showing things that can’t be filmed. That’s no longer the point, really, although animation can be a creative refuge for difficult to relate stories, whether it is because there is, indeed, no visual record, or because of the personal trauma the subjects have experienced.

Collectively, we are discovering that even though documentaries capture what appear to be spontaneous happenings, animated true stories rely solely on the artistry of a singular human creation. The quantifiable aspects of time and space are loosed from their moorings “in reality,” allowing filmmakers the ability to re-chart the course of those elements so that they can be experienced in a more malleable way. Hopefully, the debate will never stop raging about what can call itself documentary, and what cannot. But seeing so many diverse and creative pieces of animated fiction and nonfiction only makes me believe that much more strongly in personal vision – its freshness, its immediacy, its originality, its artistry.