Lucid dreaming: animated documentary at Thessaloniki

THESSALONIKI / Three films from the 2020 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival prove the multi-dimensional power of animation in non-fiction storytelling.

If fumbling for a definition of documentary, the «observation of reality» might initially spring to one’s mind. But the idea of simply pointing a camera at the world around us and recording it, as if seen by our own eyes, barely scratches the surface of attempts to represent what is true — and how little of it is rawly visible before us. In the ‘20s, animation was turned to as a way to illustrate abstract concepts in educational films such as the Fleischer brothers’ The Einstein Theory of Relativity. These days, non-fiction exists in an ever-more complicated dance with the acknowledgment of subjectivity and unreliable perception. Animation has proved an effective tool in breathing life into, not only, testimonies of the past, but also the inextricability of imagination, emotion, and the hallucinatory plane of dreams. This year, a tribute programme at 2020 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival explores ways in which animation has enriched the documentary form, creating a hybrid sub-genre. Below, we revisit several selection highlights.


On August 1, 1966, a sniper opened fire indiscriminately from the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower, shooting 16 people in a 96-minute campus siege, before he was shot himself. It was the first mass school shooting in U.S. history and left the nation shaken. Director Keith Maitland does a fine job of tapping the meaning and collective catharsis to be found within a recreation of the day’s events with Tower (2016), filtered through the first-person accounts of seven survivors. Realising they would most likely not be permitted to film a reconstruction on campus, the team used rotoscopic animation, deftly blending it with archival footage of Austin in the ‘60s and the massacre, to create both a textured sense of the lived era and an immediacy that immerses viewers into the dramatic moment alongside its witnesses.

The danger of glorifying the perpetrator that comes with this kind of reconstruction is admirably avoided.

The danger of glorifying the perpetrator that comes with this kind of reconstruction is admirably avoided. We are never taken inside the killer’s point of view, and learn very little about him: a former marine whose violent impulses may have been driven by a brain tumour. As the horror plays out, we are brought back time and again to the scorching concrete in front of the tower, as the first shooting victim, anthropology student Claire Wilson, struggles to survive. Her unborn baby has been killed by the attack, as has her boyfriend Tom Eckman, who lies dead beside her. Fellow students can see she’s alive and injured, but agonisingly, would put themselves in sitting duck range to rescue her. She hears, in earshot, a call to leave her there, in favour of helping «the ones there’s still hope for.» Miraculously, however, a woman, Rita Starpattern, runs to her aid, hunkering down and talking to keep her conscious. The animation is glorious here in bringing us inside the woozy, heightened sensory experience of this near-death situation, from the psychedelic sense of having been «shot by an anti-matter gun, dissolving,» to the flush of bright colour that infuses memories of her and Tom’s courtship. And most of all, the existential hope that comes with this stranger’s hand. «It was beautiful, a selfless act,» she recollects — a signal to hang on so gorgeously realised, it transmits the deep meaning beyond the heroic platitudes that we cling to in the face of such senseless cruelty. Other survivors’ acts, of hesitation or bravery, are animated with equal vividness, showing how such atrocities test communities, and how our responses can define anew our humanity.

Waltz With Bashir

A pack of black, snarling dogs runs through the night streets of Tel Aviv. Their paws splash through puddles; glasses smash off bar-side tables. A yellow-orange sky looms overhead. The opening sequence of Ari Folman’s autobiographical Waltz With Bashir (2008) is a sensory onslaught that is no less menacing when we learn it’s a nightmare.

A friend of Folman tells him he has seen the 26 hounds converge on his apartment regularly in his sleep — the psychic return of dogs he’d been tasked to shoot decades earlier when entering a Lebanese village to search for wanted Palestinians. «I remember every one of them — their faces, the looks in their eyes,» he says as he relates his predicament one night in a bar as rain, almost tactile, streaks the window. Isn’t Folman similarly haunted by his war experience? «That’s not stored in my system,» he replies — but the shared dream triggers repressed trauma of his own.

Folman examines the experience of Israeli troops, himself included, who served in the Lebanon War, and a society marked by cross-generational trauma. The film is almost entirely animation, befitting a work of memory reclamation in which the very status of reality is under negotiation and never taken for granted. Trauma can wreak havoc on our ability to store history, as the mind dissociatively checks out from events it is not resilient enough to bear.

Music, light, and other atmospheric effects are foregrounded. This rich sensory immediacy, which can become too overwhelming and cognitively unassimilable amid atrocity, stands in tension with the unreliability of memory, a dynamic force that can repress or invent entire stretches of time. Animation’s obvious constructedness, every inch of its frame creatively rendered, helps us grasp the mind’s tenuous ability to salvage the past. Perhaps animated documentary can serve as a bridge or gateway to repair glitches in the memory archive?

Trauma can wreak havoc on our ability to store history

In Folman’s hallucinatory flashback, flares emit a golden light, as he wades out of the sea onto a corpse-strewn beach. He can’t place it. Was it during the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, when Israeli forces knowingly oversaw (and lit the way for) the killing by Christian Lebanese allies of multitudes of civilians? Then why is he in the water? To recover his lost memories, he seeks out others who were in Beirut at the same time. Recorded interviews constitute the verbal backbone of the puzzle.

A shift to live-action archival footage eventually jolts us. It’s crucial in acknowledging that beyond the repressions and reinventions of the mind there is an unassailable truth of historical events. We move beyond Folman’s story, as he too comes to terms with the part he played in a wider whole.


Penny Lane interrogates the reliability not of memory but of the documentary form itself in her retelling of the bizarre tale of John R. Brinkley, NUTS! (2016). This colourful figure from early twentieth-century America rose from poor beginnings to fame as a medical innovator, when as a doctor in a Kansas «one-horse town» he pioneered goat gland implants in humans as a means to cure impotence. From early on, he understood the powers of self-promotion and the seductive allure of a good story, launching his own far-reaching radio station and making a fortune from peddling false hope to the ailing.

With a bold curiosity for eccentricity and a commitment to feeling out the boundaries of authenticity, Penny Lane often reminds us through her films how to look, and not be scammed by, our heavily mediated world of smoke and mirrors in which every story is crazier than the next and ulterior motives abound. The Pain of Others (2018) is compiled of YouTube clips posted by women with Morgellons, a disease doctors insist is a delusion, while her most recent film Hail Satan? (2019), charts the fight of The Satanic Temple to be accepted as a religion. But it was with NUTS! that she enlisted animation to prank us with a wildly entertaining yarn of dubious provenance.

The screenplay of NUTS!, by Thom Stylinski, is based on a 1934 biography of Brinkley, Life of a Man, by hack Clement Wood. It’s only in the film’s final stretches that the book’s claims are held up to scrutiny, as Brinkley’s nemesis Morris Fishbein of the American Medical Association#, on a crusade against quackery, exposes him in court.

as a doctor in a Kansas «one-horse town» he pioneered goat gland implants in humans as a means to cure impotence.

NUTS! weaves comically surreal, sepia-toned animation (copulating billy-goats and all) in with carefully labeled archival material, and contemporary talking-head interviews with historical experts. The effect is a warning alarm sounded on our own gullibility and our face-value faith in familiar conventions of documentary «truth». The film presents, at first, as the exact kind of outlandish tale of entrepreneurial chutzpah that confirms the American Dream. We might have been tipped off to its wildly invented nature by the roughly drawn animation — but don’t the authoritative-sounding narrator, and all those meticulously typed stickers, signal a concern for factual signposting we’re meant to trust? Lane, by revealing different levels of veracity and falsehood at play, trains us for healthy skepticism, and a contemporary era in which the media’s snake-oil salesmen are ever-more sophisticated in their hoaxes.

The 2020 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 06-15 March in Thessaloniki, Greece

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Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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