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.

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