Vienna is pretty much a combination of The Lord of the Rings and a mental asylum. Tolkienian because of its baroque architecture and contained lunacy due to Stadtpark’s affection for institutional design enveloped by white walls. Fair Vienna is where we lay our scene for the 16th installment of the Tricky Women/Tricky Realities Film Festival. This is the only festival in the world that focuses on animated works by women and the trans and gender diverse community. My overarching point of inquiry: what does an animation film festival have to say about gendered ethics, that can’t be articulated in other film forms? If the crux of effective cinema is inviting audiences to see something (or a side of something) that has until now been unseen, a metric we can use to assess the quality of a film festival is the extent to which it expands our vocabulary in discussing what struggles to be reduced to words. Festival co-directress Waltraud Grausgruber, who shares her position with Birgitt Wagner, told me that animation speaks the same language as psychoanalysis. Freed from the bounds of our material world, animation establishes a line of communication between our interior and exterior realms. It’s topical that a certain Sigmund Freud established his first clinical practice in this city in 1886, but the festival doesn’t limit itself to psychoanalytic moving images. Three motifs emerged at the 2019 trickstival that didn’t answer my point of inquiry conclusively, but rather like a scalpel, began to dissect the potential of the question: bodies, borders and broader political realities. It’s a journey from microcosm to macrocosm.
But what’s in a name? At the dawn of the 20th century trick films were short silent films featuring innovative special effects. The most iconic being Georges Méliès Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).
American philosopher Noël Carroll has suggested that the awestruck effect this would have on audiences is derived from “a comedy of metaphysical release that celebrates the possibility of substituting the laws of physics with the laws of the imagination.”1 The Tricky Women of the festival title, as well as having a lineage in film studies, has a double entendre in that it could equally imply complexity and cunning. This is embodied in the figure of the witch, which Marta Pajek (2017 recipient of the Q21 Artist-in-Residence scholarship) alluded to in the 2019 festival trailer.2 The character of the festival is one that has unlimited expressive potential in materialising the unknown. Like a witch. Tricky Realities, on the wide horizon of counter-patriarchal artistic creativity, suggests that the path(s) to self-determination will take many forms. This is not a simple nor a singular truth.
The body politic begins with individual bodies and gendered ethics examines how our bodies bring us into conflict or coexistence with the institutions that govern them. Lei Lei’s Shadow (2017) shows an abuse of power as a primary school teacher molests a young student. Lei’s surrealist use of oil painting and photography reveal memories held in the body, often embedded in the subconscious, that bare their teeth through flashbacks. Here, the personal is political, the corporal is visceral and the visceral needs a release valve. German cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer used the beheading of Medusa as an analogy for the way in which people engage with the horrors of human history. The gorgon’s gaze could not be met directly, so Perseus used his shield as a mirror which enabled him to behead Medusa. The moral of the story is that we do not, and cannot, look at the grotesque reality of human history in the flesh because to do so would paralyse us with blinding fear. The cinema thus acts as our shield, mirror and enabler to decapitate the monster(s).3 While Kracauer’s Medusa is relevant to both live action and animation, each discipline has its own cinematic vernacular which plays to different strengths. Surrealism comes from the French surréalisme (sur = beyond, réalisme = realism), and while abuse is a very real experience, the gut-deep bodily response to it speaks a different language. Lei’s efficacy as a filmmaker is establishing a vector of empathy between the public and the projection, sharing the malaise of the child which removes the guise of panic and imagination. Shadow is redemptive insofar as it removes a powerful taboo by bringing the act forth from invisibility. Therein decapitating the monster.
Martina Scarpelli’s Egg (2018) is a film about anorexia and took home the Sabine & Nicolai Sawczynski Audience Award, worth €1000. Confined to the shapeshifting “cube” (what Scarpelli called her studio apartment in Milan, rendered here as a box) the 2-D animated character sprawls around her room naked, flirting with the idea of eating a boiled egg. It’s a waltz between recovery and relapse, indulgence and punishment. Scarpelli identified the dynamic as, “a sexual tension between the person who is sick and the person who is healing.” 4. Kracauer’s Medusa stipulates that we need varying degrees of separation in order to examine harsh realities under a microscope. For Scarpelli, another degree was time. There were four years between her writing the film’s voiceover narration and making the film, because she needed to be further into her recovery before she could draw an expressionistic frame-by-frame recount of her own relapse. Another degree is separation from the flesh. Using any body to explore disordered eating (or child abuse, to recall Lei) is easily polemical, given that the physical form is the site of conflict. In rendering a two-dimensional version of herself in an abstract representational schema, Scarpelli creates a safe space to explore depths of her mental illness without drowning in it.
While animation facilitated distance for Scarpelli, the materiality of Nienke Deutz’s cut out technique in Bloeistraat 11 (2018) complimented the physicality of her subject. The whole film feels hand made. In a house that acts as their universe, two best friends feel bound to each other at the molecular level. But as summer progresses, puberty brings awkwardness to their previously close friendship. To abridge Deutz’s method: the house is a physical set piece and the characters are two-dimensional images drawn on a tablet. These images are printed on transparent plastic, then cut out and hand painted. Place the character on set, take a photo and that is your (unedited) frame. The film has about 12 frames per second.
Transience is central to the character design. While subtle, their bodies are in metamorphosis and there’s a fragility in line drawing that is absent from puppets or claymation. The relationship dynamic is nebulous as their bodies develop desires that they don’t understand, at different paces. In conversation with Deutz, she mentioned that it’s also a film about the dialectic within ourselves as we navigate moments of maturity and immaturity. The set was made through a bricolage of things you would find in a house; plastic, glitter, boards, paint. Things that kids would use for arts and crafts. The film was, deservedly, awarded the NeoTel Award worth €3000. Animation is thus well-equipped to capture the body, in all of its physical and visceral realities. This is of particular interest to feminists, as our bodies can be the site of transgression, conflict and transformation.
Bodies are similar to borders insofar as they exist in the imagination as well as leaving evidence of themselves in the physical world. Parissa Mohit’s Une Visite (2018) details a child’s visit to an enigmatic yet isolating aunt in her ivory tower. This takes place in a very specific urban context, as the city is a synthesis of Mohit’s memories of Tehran and Montreal. Taking its cues from silent cinema and the director’s background in theatre, sentiment is articulated through corporal communication and there is no dialogue. This exposes a very deep kind of loneliness, when you’re surrounded by people who love and care about you, yet you mutually fail to speak and be heard. The child is captivated by the beauty of her aunt, who is herself very fragile. They are well positioned to watch the outside world (dis-/re-) integrate, as construction and demolition dominates the cityscape. The increasingly phantasmagoric aesthetic cites the space between the child and her aunt as where the process of fragmentation begins. The failure to communicate at the local and well-intentioned level is a precursor for broader social dysfunction, as the interpersonal is where our humanity lies.
Ana Nedeljković and Nikola Majdak Jr’s Untravel (2018) is the story of a young woman in an isolated country, “just a few borders away from you.” Nedeljković’s background is in fine art and the character design draws from the Evil Girl project, a series of drawings and installations that Nedeljković described as “weird looking Eastern European Barbie-dolls” invading galleries and art history.
The world of Untravel was created in claymation; war has fortified border control and in the absence of the opportunity to travel Nedeljković dreamt every night for ten years of leaving for a perfect world called “abroad”. While Serbian audiences will recognise the city depicted as Belgrade, the lack of explicit geo-political signifiers gives the film a universalising component. The dream becomes a nightmare as the leading puppet-lady arrives abroad and realises that the rêve doesn’t match the reality. Dictators and surveillance are rendered here as an omnipresent black sludge, that follows her abroad. Our heroine returns to the border wall with an Evil Girl gang. They hesitate, but eventually break through onto virgin terrain. Here, the political becomes personal as they realise they can create and erase their own boundaries. My reading is that there is something transcendental in the act. That in spite of a repressive regime, you can create your own paradise and self-actualisation doesn’t hinge on an idealised “abroad”. Nedeljković stated in an interview with Zippy Frames: “There’s a tiny border between Utopia and Dystopia. Most of the dystopian places were created because somebody tried to define what is happiness for all its citizens, and tried to apply this to all.”5 These politics of individualism and autonomy are typical of the (global) West, and were in sharp contrast with some of the festival’s Chinese content.
Broader Political Realities
It’s not every day you see propaganda at a film festival. Four series of shorts showcased China’s vibrant animation scene, which makes sense. The prevalence of schools, studios and state support make the country a fertile environment for animation production. While Caoyuan yingxiong xiao jirmri (Little Sisters of Grassland, Cheng Tang and Yunda Qian, 1964) was the only short that was saturated, ideologically and aesthetically, in morals from the Little Red Book (indeed, this was the only film Tricky Women programmed that was made while Mao Zedong was alive) the 40-minute piece was comparatively longer than its counterparts and also one third of the most interesting program: Daughters of the Revolution.
Art and intellectual heritage go hand in hand. Olga Bobrowska, PhD candidate at Jagiellonian University and specialist in classical Chinese animation, curated Daughters of the Revolution and gave an accompanying lecture that provided some context. Crucially, Bobrowska explained that women in communist China tied patriarchy to feudalism. Their logic was that a good Chinese communist would therefore reject the sexism of the past, and consider Chinese women equal stakeholders in the right to work and the right to fight. This falls under the rubric of strategies of concealment, where women will have less radical goals and work within the confines of the dominant culture in order to increase the likelihood of success. Little Sisters of Grassland is based on the allegedly true story of two Mongolian sisters who risked their lives to save a heard of sheep from a snowstorm, thereby saving the livelihood of their commune. They were immediately promoted as national role models for other children to emulate, and the film was released the same year.
Skipping and (literally) singing Mao’s praises, the sisters reveal the prevailing ideology of the time erased individual importance in the interest of the polis. In a world where self-sacrifice for the sake of the majority was the highest virtue, this branch of feminism states that women too can be exemplary self-sacrificing citizens of Maoist China. The programming choice wasn’t so much an endorsement of Mao Zedong as it is an acknowledgement of the reality that women live under all sorts of regimes, and their paths to self-determination will take different forms.
With the death of Mao and the advent of Deng Xiaoping, Chinese culture and cinema have had far-reaching developments. Yet here’s a line of continuity in the modus operandi of Chinese women working against patriarchal power. In The Tall Woman and Her Short Husband (Yihong Hu, 1989), the woman’s scarf flies off and, being quite tall, she can easily grasp it back from the wind. Instead of putting the scarf back on, she hands it to her short husband, and he re-ties it to her neck. This is a minor detail in a short film, but I read it as an unconscious example of the strategies of concealment: the woman’s grandeur is never challenged, as she lets her husband feel tall. Interestingly, while the couple are happy despite their height discrepancies, the broader community keep drawing the husband away with unsolicited advice and remedies for his stature. The focus is not on the woman, but on the man. This could have two implications; either that Chinese women’s bodies are not policed in the same way as they are in the West, or that the broader culture does not deem the woman important enough to address individually. Either way, there is power in invisibility because it means that the state won’t be particularly arduous in the censorship of your work.
Animation can occupy a marginal status in terms of academia and cinephilia due to the idea that it is a children’s medium. The Films from a Forgotten Country program showcased works from the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) studio in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). To recap for anyone rusty with German history, after the Nazi regime collectively committed suicide and surrendered, the allied powers divided German territory amongst themselves. The then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) drew East Germany behind the Iron Curtin and this administrative zone was known as the GDR. At the DEFA animation studio in Dresden, 70% of its creative output was directed at children. This is probably why the majority of filmmakers in this department were women. Given the state-sanctioned status of the studio, the children were supposed to be educated in the spirit of socialism. The medium’s pedagogical potential has meant that, “from its very beginnings, animation has been used as a convenient channel to transmit ideology. Complex artistic works, educational children’s films, simple commercials – all of them have been incorporated into propaganda apparatuses upholding various political systems.”6 However, it doesn’t follow that the women of DEFA studio always did as they were told. Die Musici (The Musicians, Katja Georgi, 1964) shows four gentlemen so absorbed in the music they are playing that they don’t notice when one of them is arrested and their house is destroyed in a military operation. The central tenets of propaganda are articulating an easily understandable and singular truth. Die Musici is transgressive because it invited audiences to ask the question, “What does it mean?” The children who saw Die Musici may have grown up to tear down the Iron Curtin. The common denominator between strategies of concealment and the marginal status of serious critical attention in animation, is that that very marginality can be mobilised while nobody is looking.
So, what does an animation film festival have to say about gendered ethics, that can’t be articulated in other film forms? The echo of women in marginalised mediums is reason enough for feminists to take interest in animated images, because therein lies legacies of transgression against the powers-that-be. It’s no coincidence that scissors, normally a symbol of women’s domesticity, were Deutz’s and Georgi’s weapon of choice in their cut-out technique. My over-arching point of inquiry was a question of vernacular, of the tools of expression this medium creates that we can’t replicate elsewhere. Animation facilitates varying degrees of separation from our physical reality; a useful conceptual framework when trying to understand the inhumane. This, however, is dependent on how one uses the form. Claymation, stop-motion, puppets, cut-out technique, 2-D digital images, ink and wash painting and cell animation were among the mediums variants on display in Middle Earth. This diversity under the umbrella of what we define as “animation” emphasises that this is not a monolithic nor a monolingual discipline. The magic of Tricky Women/Tricky Realities is a collective catharsis in exchanging the laws of physics with the laws of the imagination, opening our minds to new ways of being and understanding our past, present and future. This is grounded in the shared experience of challenging patriarchal power.
Tricky Women/Tricky Realities Film Festival
13 – 17 March 2019
Festival website: https://www.trickywomen.at
- Noël Carroll, Theorizing the Moving Image, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 146. ↩
- “I treat the short film as a complete form of its own,” MQW.at, accessed 26 April, 2019. ↩
- Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1960, p. 305. ↩
- “Martina Scarpelli: Egg (Les P’tit Dej du court: Shorts and breakfast)” by Annecy International Animated Film Festival YouTube.com, 27 June 2, 2018, ↩
- Zippy Frames, “There’s a Tiny Border Between Utopia and Dystopia: Interview with Ana Nedelković and Nikola Majdak Jr”, zippyframes.com, 13 July, 2018. ↩
- Olga Bobrowska, Michał Bobrowski, Bogusław Zmudziński (eds), Propaganda, Ideology, Animation: Twisted Dreams of History, Wydawnictwa AGH, Kraków, 2019, p. 8. ↩