KinoKultura: Issue 26 (2009)

A Return to Folklore?—Suzdal 2009

By Birgit Beumers (Bristol)

This year’s animation festival in Suzdal took place later than in previous years, in mid-March and a cat parade in animation served as the motto for the “March Serenade”—with reference to the Serenade of the March Cats. The festival program was squeezed into two days and the opening evening. The schedule was tight, very tight, but the program contained a number of lovely films that made it all worth while.

Student films and debuts

smexovorot The number of very promising student films and debuts was amazingly high. Among the best were two films by the twins Maria and Tatiana Moshkova from St Petersburg (in the catalogue they are both listed as Tatiana Moshkova!). In Scale (V masshtabe), by Maria Moshkova, is a black-and white pencil-drawn computer animation that shows how a bird tries to build nest and wreaks havoc, ending up on a heap of rubble of its own destruction—before this entire disaster is erased and the pencil lines, as well as the bird, disappear from the paper. The Laughterfall (Smekhovorot) by Tatiana Moshkova is also a drawn computer animation, showing a snowman compete in a beauty contest. Several snowmen throw snow at another snowman to make it fat and round, but when the sun emerges the contest ends… Both films touch upon the transience and fragility of life. Similarly, Anastasia Sokolova’s debut film Snegur, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, pictures a wintry landscape where a snowman befriends a dog and sees life in the warm and fire-lit hut, only to dream of such a life. Again, when the sun comes out in spring the snowman melts away: the dream is not there to be lived out.

A technically ingenious cartoon is Money (Den’gi) by Anastasia Zhuravleva, and it is her professional debut. Zhuravleva studied at the studio SHAR; her first cartoon, Caution, the Doors are Opening (published on KinoKultura), was shown at a number of festivals. In her new film, banknotes inspect their “image” in front of the mirror while the coins—the children—play around. On television there is a program about the faces on banknotes, continuing the concern with the face and image begun in the mirror scene. Soon the coins next travel on a train, where the old Soviet currency mingles with foreign currencies: the ruble travels abroad—it becomes convertible—and enjoys a visit to the casino—Russia is playing with capitalism. Although the plot and the technical key of animating coins and notes is original and full of contemporary references, ultimately the story is too long drawn-out at its 13 minutes.

waitingA nice student film with fine drawings is O Sole Mio by Olga and Tatiana Poliektova, showing an unhappy opera singer, who remembers the days when he sang in Italy as a young man. A suggestion is made that happiness can be found at home rather than through a career, but ultimately the story remains weak. Vera Miakisheva’s Expecting (Ozhidaia) is also a student film and it demonstrates mastery both in terms of the story and of its technical solution. This is drawn animation with fine pencil work for darker shadows. A little elephant plays alone at home with his toys, while his elephant-mother goes to work; in the evenings the elephant mum returns and puts the elephant baby to bed; in the morning she leaves before the baby wakes up; and on a Sunday the mother is asleep all day. The film then switches to the aged mother, now a grandmother-elephant, who sits at home and waits for her grandchild to come and play with the same top as her baby. A touching story told through animals is always appealing, and Miakisheva also alludes here to the issue of the “babushka” traditionally raising the children.

devochkaThe Law of Life (Zakon zhizni) is a debut film by Rishat Gilmetdinov from St Petersburg, a drawn animation about the fate of an old man left to die. As he is out in the open wilderness, he recollects his strength as a young man when he fought with a wolf. In the present, the wolves devour him once the fire goes out. The drawings in this tale are simple and almost naïve, matching the primitivism of the ritual that informs the plot. Another fine debut is that of The Childhood Tree (Derevo detsva) by Natalia Mirzoian from St Petersburg. The film tells about the process of maturation through a series of associations: a toy bear is taken away, and as the child howls, the walls and the ceiling open up onto the sky, where the search for the bear continues. The child finds himself in a tree and wakes twice from his dreams: there is a resistance to grow up and leave childhood behind, but ultimately the world of childhood has to disappear and be destroyed for adulthood to arrive. Yet the boy will not leave the bear behind and takes it wit him into his new, adult life as a token of childhood. The pastel drawings on paper underline the beauty of that childhood world of the past.

The Girl who Stepped on the Bread (Devochka, nastupivshaia na khleb) by Elena Lapshina is also a debut, although this film was scripted by the professional animator Sergei Ainutdinov from Ekaterinburg, where Lapshina studied. The story of a nasty and arrogant girl, whose bad deeds towards her peers are returned to her as punishment is drawn in the sharp geometrical forms and bright colors typical of Ainutdinov’s own work.

Master-films

budovsky Apart from student and debut films there were, of course, films by established animators, or masters of animation. Thus, Aleksei Budovskii, whose Clerkenwell stirred Suzdal’s program last year and subsequently screened at a number of international festivals, presented The Royal Nightmare (Korolevskii koshmar), working with the same black and white paper cut-out technique for a story paced to the rhythm of his own tunes and relying on repetition to parody court procedures.

Iuliia Aronova’s Kamilla deploys mixed techniques for a story of a puppet man, who falls in love with the image (picture) of a film star in a newspaper. In his imagination he saves Kamilla during a robbery, but ends up with real black eye and lipstick on his cheeks. Then follows a second version of the events, where he is the robber. Finally, in a third version, he saves Kamilla from being shot by a shadowy man from the screen. After all, the versions are nothing but visions of a lonely man longing for love. As he is about to commit suicide, a girl appears at his door to deliver the newspaper—and this is yet again Kamilla. Aronova skillfully uses techniques of silent cinema for this well-composed story.

kamilla
ochumelov
pudya

Two animated films were based on classical literature, and both extracted elements from stories: Tarantella by Aleksei Karaev is based on Gorkii’s Italian tales, juxtaposing youth and old age and relying on watercolors to render the transience and fragility of life. Ochumelov by Aleksei Demin is based on Chekhov’s early prose and brings together a range, or conglomerate, of characters from Chekhov’s oeuvre: thus, characters are assembled on patches of paper as they appear. Demin’s finely drawn characters capture the essential Chekhov, so that the viewer soon forgets to look for the exact source.

soldiers songWorking, like Demin, at Animos studio, Pudya by Sofia Kravtsova is another literature-based cartoon drawing for the subject matter on the children’s writer Boris Zhidkov. A little boy is taken in by a baker; bit by bit he tells the reason why he ran away from home: a man came to their house with a coat from leopard skin and children ripped off the tails from the fur coat while arguing. The boy fears punishment. Pudya is a classical educational tale, which will no doubt enjoy success among small audiences, which is clearly Kravtsova’s forte.

Last but not least we must mention the winner of the 2009 festival, Soldiers’ Song (Soldatskaia pesnia) by Elena Chernova—the very last film to be screened in a program including over eighty titles. Chernova, who works at Pilot Studio (see below), never refrains from experimenting with new styles and themes. Last year she presented Hare-Servant (Zaiats-sluga), her first experiment with puppet animation; this time round she surprised audiences with a very touching and profound story of soldiers and their guardian angles, who never sleep to protect the soldiers—men who are always in danger, veering between the living and the dead—for a tale with a deeply humanist message. 

PILOT

sun and moon The studio Pilot, founded by Aleksandr Tatarskii in 1988, is one of the oldest independent studios in the new Russia. After Tatarskii’s untimely death in July 2007, the studio has moved to new premises (chosen by Tatarskii) and continues to produce a series of animated films in a variety of styles based on the folk tales of Russia and its peoples, entitled “Mountain of Gems” (Gora samotsvetov). In this series, several new films have appeared. How the Sun and Moon Made Peace (Kak pomirilis’ solntse i luna) is based on a tale from Taimyr region and made by Sergei Oliferenko. The moon and sun argue over their place on the sky, and it takes the help of a hunter to find moon and sun in order to separate them; his task is hampered by a Cyclops who steals both boat and sledge… but as all fairy tales, this one too has a good ending. The computer-animated figures are realized in the style of wooden sculptures typical for the area. The Horned Khan (Rogatyi khan) by Sergei Gordeev is rooted in Bashkiria, where the Khan calls a youth to shave his head, only to then dump him into a cave. Yet the youth is saved by the snake and wolf, whom he charms with his trumpet; later, Baba Yaga lends him a magic coat that makes him older so he can take revenge on the Khan, whom he locks in a trunk. This cartoon is drawn in a manner as to expose the Asian features of the negative characters in the story (as is typical of Russian fairy tales). Stepan the Smithy (Pro Stepana-kuznetsa) by Natalia Chernysheva is a variation of Gogol’s story “Christmas Eve”: all women who eat from a certain fish get pregnant, including the mistress of an estate. Once grown-up, her daughter steals the moon, the sun and the stars, but the blacksmith returns them and marries the girl. This is another example of drawn animation where the typical features are adapted from illustrations of Russian fairy tales. St Basil (Pro Vasiliia Blazhennogo) by Natalia Berezovaia is also drawn; it tells of the life of the holy fool who perished, and the church built with the money he was given. The Goats’ Hut (Koz’ia khatka) is a witty and amusing tale from the Briansk region directed by Marina Karpova. A hut—made of pancakes—is inhabited by three “working-class” goats; it attracts the attention of a lazy boy, Vasilii, who starts eating it away. The goats have to fix the house all the time, and eventually they catch the evil-doer and re-educate him. Another tale with clear educational content, it is realized in a manner reminiscent of the minimalist approach of Konstantin Bronzit, with flat, two-dimensional landscapes where the decorative element prevails. From the Altai region comes the tale of The Frog and the Ants (Liagushka i murav’i) by Sergei Ainutdinov. A lazy frog steals his breakfast from the busy ants, promising to feed them when they need help. Having consumed all of the ants’ supplies, the frog can, of course, never keep his promise to return the hospitality when the ants visit the next day. Ainutdinov creates a more abstract landscape that does not rely exclusively on the decorative component. 

goats hut
frog
roska

Pilot produced a whole host of films this year, all of highest professional standard and appealing to children—but also to festivals. We should mention a few more, such as Nikita Kozhemiaka by Zoia Trofimova, based on the bylina that involves Nikita in retrieving a princess from the dragon Zmei Gorynych. Nikita is funny in his clumsiness, which makes him less heroic. In an amusing and contemporary turn of the story, Nikita wins over the dragon not by power but by playing cards. Here Trofimova makes the same attempt at creating a more contemporary version of the legend as in the trilogy on Alesha Popovich, Il’ia Muromets and Dobrynia Nikitich. Sergei Merinov completed Egor the Brave (Egor khrabryi), using old Russian folk songs as the film’s structuring principle. And finally, Andrei Sokolov’s About Rozka the Dog (Pro sobaku Roz’ku), is based on a Kholmogory tale, where a little drawn dog—all head, teeth and voice with hardly any body—terrorizes all the other creatures in town. Yet when the inhabitants are threatened by the arrival of a nasty official, Rozka terrifies him too and he leaves prematurely. The drawn animation in this film relies on voice and face, as well as the speed with which Rozka scares everybody around.

Serials

Pilot again takes a lead in serial production with a new cycle of films entitled “Multi-Russia”, showing different Russian towns in their historical context. These one-minute films largely use plasticine animation. The studio Metronom presented more lullabies by Liza Skvortsova, this year from the Evenkiysk and Nenets peoples, as well as an Irish lullaby with a lovely and energizing dance on a bridge to entertain the baby, and a Polish lullaby. Metronom also launched a new series devoted to the old calendar: Listoboi and Orion by Veronika Fedorova mark its beginning.

kjfgOne of the most enchanting cartoons came from Oleg Uzhinov, whose Zhikharka has captivated audiences at festivals and on YouTube alike. He presented One, Two, Three, the Christmas Tree’s Alight (Raz dva tri – elochka gori!), a lovely tale of the girl Masha and the Bear getting ready for Christmas. Like Zhikharka, Uzhinov’s 3D figures are endowed with a slyness and wittiness that makes them charmingly mischievous, and situates their behavior somewhere between devious (which implies intelligent) and dumb.

And an absolute hit that will make any audience laugh is Aleksei Alekseev’s series of the bear, the hare and the wolf, who form a musical band in the forest and encounter sometimes a hunter with a dog (KJFG#5); sometimes a piece of log (Brevno/The Log); sometimes the moon (Luna/The Moon). Google it.

It is a stunning conclusion that most of these films rely on Russian folklore rather than original scripts, with exceptions mainly in the student and debut works. This is certainly due to the fact that a series can be sold to television and on DVD, where audiences are children. 

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol


Awards
Grand Prix: Soldier’s Song, Elena Chernova
Best Director: Aleksei Demin, Ochumelov
Best Dramaturgy: Right to be Alone (Smeshariki), script by Aleksei Lebedev
Best Children’s Film: Pudya (dir. Sofia Kravtsova)
Best Visuals: Tatiana Kublitskaia for Story of Years Past, dir Igor Volchek
Best Animation: Masha and the Bear, One Two, Three and the Christmas Tree’s Alight!, dir. Oleg Uzhinov
Best Sound: KJFG #5, composer Aleksei Alekseev
Best advertising: series A and B, dir. Dmitrii Vysotskii
Best Student Film: Law of Life by Rishat Gilmetdinov
Best Animated Series: KJFG#5, dir. Aleksei Alekseev

 

Birgit Beumers© 2009

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