KinoKultura: Issue 45 (2014)

Prize-less Suzdal

By Birgit Beumers (Aberystwyth U)

logo The 19th Open Russian Animation Festival was held in Suzdal from 19-24 March 2014. The festival followed its traditional program structure: screenings of student, debut and professional short films, as well as social advertising and serials, plus five feature-length animation films; a congress on production covering legal issues, discussions of the form of comics, master classes on dramaturgy and puppet animation; and a pitching session, moderated by the inimitable Anna Gudkova. Moreover, the program included films of children’s studios from across Russia and a somewhat shrunk Forum for CIS and Baltic animation with only one program—of Kazakh animation. A guest program showcased the Brussels ANIMA festival.

The pitching session presented 14 titles selected from 112 project submissions and included animation director Tat’iana Il’ina’s proposal for a short film about a group of passengers on a minibus (Marshrutka); producer Natal’ia Mokritskaia’s  Deep, a 3D project which already has international backers; and Marina Potanina’s serial Alisa about a wheelchair-bound girl who loves horror stories. The winner, determined by a producers’ jury, was Deep, followed by an award for the visual solution to What Children are Afraid Of (Chego boiatsia deti), a serial about children’s fears; to Il’ina’s proposal for the action; and to the project Alisa for the character development.

Student films

igraThe 23 student films included in the competition this year were significantly weaker than in previous years. The students from the State Film Institute VGIK clearly produce some very good work, even if it often lacks the spirit of experimentation. An exception is maybe Valentina Urm, a whose first course-work exercise Toro Danza is very impressive, even if (or maybe because) unpolished, presenting some Picasso-inspired watercolor sketches that are animated to create beautifully light movements that perfectly capture the rhythm of the music. After her fine course-work puppet animation The Doll (Kukla 2012), Evgeniia Shlegel’ presented her diploma film, Long and Happy (Dolgo i schastlivo), where she uses computer graphics. The prince of a small kingdom cannot wait to succeed his father. But somehow the king does not die, so one day the prince asks him for this favour. The king goes to the canteen—a space set up in McDonald’s style—to drink poison, but even that does not kill him; instead, the prince dies immediately, leaving the country without an heir. Therefore the king marries one of the canteen servants, and they have twelve daughters and seven sons. This parody on longevity and royal traditions is rendered poignantly through a voice-over narrative. Parody is also at the heart of Konstantin Murav’ev The Game (Igra), which sees a young boy in front of a monitor in a dark room, playing game (of life) after game with a character modeled on himself. At the end of the game (game over) an old man is sitting in front of the screen. Life has unfolded only on screen, while the old man remains alone with his childhood toy rabbit kept in the desk drawer. Stylistically the cartoon imitates the simplistic geometric shapes of computer games.

vnutriAlena Kulikova’s Inside (Vnutri) also addresses the issue of technology and its grip on humankind. Here, a clock mechanism is broken after lightning strikes the town’s belfry, but a part is missing and the clock cannot be repaired. However, the local clockmaker obtains the missing part in exchange for fixing a girl’s broken robot. The clock once again works, the girl happily plays with her robot. From St Petersburg State University of Film and Television (GUKiT) Liudmila Leiblus impressed with her film Breath of Stone (Dykhanie kamnia), which consists of black-and-white drawings that show how a pack of wolves hunt a cat that considers itself protected by a lion when hiding under a lion’s statue. Then the building behind the statue is being torn down, but the cat remains at the lion’s feet, with the belief of complete protection. The visual reference here to Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin (1925) cannot be missed. Yet the story’s ending is somewhat surprising, leaving the cat gaze at the stars and spotting a constellation that shows a lion with a cat.

bankaIn her film Focus Maria Matusevich uses exquisite felt puppets. A hare keeps order in the home, but in its dreams is transported into a circus arena, only to wake up in the wrecked apartment again. With a classical storyline, this fine piece of puppet animation from the student of Elena Petkevich and Mikhail Tumelia gained the prize for best student film, suggesting—like Breath of Stone—an escape into a dream world. Equally, if not more impressive in my view, however, was Anna Romanova’s One Turtle (Nesuraz’), a work produced at the school of the studio Shar, which consists of simple ink drawings with patches of blue-grey watercolor. The animal language is translated into Russian by a voice-over, creating a funny mix of voices. A turtle runs away from everybody, along a path and past all the other animals who comment on the turtle’s life; they represent different characters of world literature, uttering lines such as Hamlet’s “to be or not to be, that is the question” or Chekhov’s Irina and her continuous “we must to work, work…” The turtle runs, faster and faster, through the rain and past more animals. Finally the turtle arrives in a closed space which produces only an echo of its own voice. Almost scared of the loneliness it has reached at last, the turtle sees three snails that have followed and caught up with it in the empty space. They walk back together, as the turtle carries one snail on its back. The flat, drawn animation renders perfectly the simplicity and pragmatism of the turtle’s decisions.

Debuts

nana nani naoAmong the 18 debuts there were several fine pieces, largely from the studios Pchela, Shar and Animos. The studio Shar presented a new film by Konstantin Brilliantov, titled Nana, Nani, Nao. This is a simple story of a fish that tries to avoid a fishing-net. The piece is drawn on brown paper, creating the underwater world with a buoy that sends signals and a few leaves that surround the red fish. When the net disturbs the underwater world, there is a growling like that of a wolf. Eventually, the red fish finds itself with several other fish probably in an aquarium, and their reunion is accompanied by a Georgian lullaby. Elena Nesterova’s drawn animation Pinguinium Mobile also ventured into the animal world with a story about two penguins: the male loves planes and the female loves ships… They forget about food, and in order to draw attention to each other they transform themselves into a ship and a plane respectively, both made from scrap metal objects. Tat’iana Kiseleva’s The Tin (Banka) also uses a simple technique of drawings on brown paper, telling a story about a professor who plays with tin that seems to have dropped on earth from space—a tin of condensed milk of the Soviet era. The tin is kicked along by different people, with different relations to its history, making its own “history.”

vorobei kliuevThe studio Pchela presented Natal’ia Fatikh’s Sparrow Beaker (Vorobei Kliuev), a piece of drawn animation about a sparrow that finds half a loaf of bread. The sparrow hides the loaf as best as it can, but a magpie spots it and the two argue over the bread. In the end the sparrow shares the bread with the other sparrows and even gives a bit to the crow—but only when an old lady and her grandson appear on the bench with another loaf. Aleksandra Lukina’s Brave Mum (Smelaia mama) uses computer-generated animation to create a simplistic and crude style that is in line with the film’s exaggerated plot: a rat scares a young mother. The rat demands that the mother should fulfill three wishes if it is to leave: first, she has to go and buy a smoked sausage from the Lyalinsk Factory—a rare product which the mother acquires once she shares her story with the saleswoman. The second purchase is that of milk with 146 per cent fat, which is accomplished in a similar manner. Third, the rat wants the baby. Here the mother unexpectedly grabs the animal—and throws it out of the window. The tale impresses through its original idea and the pace of the action.

Shorts

Among the 33 professionally produced shorts there were a number of quite outstanding works with fine animation and a beautiful storyline that could, in my view, have taken the Grand Prix—which the jury decided not to award.

zolotye yaitsaLet us begin with the “funny films.” Following his parody on Chapaev (Mal’chik-Chapaichik, 2012) in the series “Funny Biographies” (“Veselye biografii”), Aleksei Turkus offers another take on a key figure of Soviet culture: Ivan Michurin. In the Grove or in the Garden (Vo sadu li, v ogorode) takes its title from a Russian folk song and tells the shortened biography of Michurin, with a voiceover narrative and plain illustrations. A parodic tone also informs Anna Shepilova’s Golden Eggs (Zolotye iaitsa, Studio Guberniia), which traces the journey of the legendary golden eggs through post-Revolutionary Russian history. The drawings for thus cut-out animation are inspired by Marc Chagall (the lopsided houses and characters suspended in mid-air) and the Blue Rider (a blue horse also makes its appearance). At the beginning there is a peasant women with a hen in their natural habitat. Suddenly the eggs turn into stone eggs; the hen leaves the farm for the city. For the urban scenes, Shepilova uses a collage technique, combining cut-outs from newspaper images and photos with her characters, capturing thus the constructivist architecture of the capital in the 1920s and populating the space with zeppelins and pioneers. When the hen sees a display of Faberge eggs, she figures out how to make money: she steals paint from the workers gilding the Kremlin stars and paints her eggs. For the sale of eggs she is arrested and sentenced to laying eggs, which are industrially gilded (the first five-year plan with its industrialization). Exhausted, the hen picks up her last egg, when a chicken hatches; the same happens to all the other golden eggs. The chicken help the hen escape and they are duly reunited with the peasant woman. This short course of Soviet history through the golden egg offers an amusing and parodic visual take.

pinguiniumA more self-reflexive note is struck in Svetlana Andrianova’s A Little about Myself (Nemnogo o sebe, Pchela Studio), which begins with a simple pencil drawing on a sheet of white paper; this figure (called seb’, from “sebia,” which means self) is then colored. As the pages of the notepad turn, the figure is set in motion as if in a flip book. The animator uses different techniques to illustrate various phrases about the self, rendering the meaning literally and parodying it; for example the Russian phrase “derzhat’ sebia v ruki” (to control oneself) literally means “to hold a grip on oneself”, which she illustrates; and so on. It is a fine exercise, but one that also lacks scope. Natalia Ryss made a fine film titled Catfish and Moon (Som i luna, Animos), created with paper cut-outs to tell the love story of the white moon and the black fish.

den medvediaSeveral films for children were also in the competition program: Oksana Kholodova’s The Day of the Bear (Den’ medvedia, Animos) follows the girl Lisa, who arrives in the forest with her parents. The city girl does not recognize bears as beasts, so she makes friends with them and invites them home—to the horror of her parents who play along the game. A nice story is beautifully rendered in this drawn animation of a plump girl who befriends the enemy and teaches adults a lesson. Sergei Strusovskii’s Pernickety Mouse (Priveredlivaia myshka, Soiuzmultfilm) is a hilarious parody on our obsession with glamour. Whilst watching a magpie in a tree doing its manicure a little mouse that is carrying supplies falls over in fear. But she takes an example from the magpie and the dresses up, paying more and more attention to her looks—until she has no friends any more. Only when in danger the mouse appreciates true friendship.

man meets womanThree films truly excelled, and they stand legitimately at the top of the list of ratings—although they remain curiously “prize-less.” Leonid Shmel’kov’s drawn animation My Own Personal Moose (Moi lichnyi los’, Metronome Film) is about a boy’s dream of seeing a real moose when he goes on weekend trips with his dad. The film was shown in the Generation Program of the Berlinale, but went without awards in Suzdal. Dmitrii Geller, who is probably one of the most talented artists in animation, also went “prize-less.” His drawn animation with paper cut-outs Man Meets Woman (Muzhchina vstrechaet zhenshchinu, Shar) is a poetic story of repulsion and attraction, of hate and love between a woman who has lost a leg and whose husband only gradually discovers her story. Finally, Svetlana Filippova’s Brutus (Brut, Shar) consists of charcoal drawings. The story, rendered by a voiceover narrative, is set against the political background of anti-Semitism: Brutus is a dog trained to guard Jewish prisoners for the Nazis. When the dog discovers his former, kind owner in a prison camp, the animal wants to help. The film is framed with documentary footage from the Krasnogorsk State Archive for Film and Photo Documentation.

kolobokThe films of the Studio Pilot should be highlighted separately, as they largely belong with Mountain of Gems, a series based on fairy tales from Russia and its peoples. Sergei Merinov’s The Fly’s Terem (Terem-mukhi) uses plasticine animation for the Russian fairy tale “Teremok.” The musical film shows how animals build a home from a fallen flower pot. Andrei Kuznetsov’s Mergen is a computer-animation based on a Nanai story about a child raised by animals after the parents are captured by a black monster. One day, Mergen saves a girl who knows the monster and on his own, Mergen conquers the beast and frees the taiga and its inhabitants. Aleksei Pochivalov’s Shepherd’s Horn (Pastushii rozhok) is made in plasticine and set as a musical film. It tells the tale of a poor family, who send their son Ivan out to find work. Ivan works as shepherd for a miserly family, yet he manages to guard the sheep, keeping the flock together with his music: he plays the horn. The landlord tries to cheat on the boy and get out of paying a wage, but Ivan gets his money—and the flock follows him as he leaves. Marina Karpova’s Kolobok is a fine rendering of the Russian folk tale, where a fox mother tells the tale to her three baby foxes as the narrative becomes animated. And Valentin Telegin’s computer-animated Soldier and Bird (Soldat i ptitsa) is based on a soldier’s tale about the theft of a magic bird.

brutusAt the end of the day, the jury’s verdict reveals strong divide with the professional rating. Among the six top-rated films there is none that also received a jury award, and no Grand Prix was awarded. One might assume that this speaks of a mediocre program, but it could also signal the lack of a leading contester. Nevertheless, the top-rated films are certainly festival competitors: My Own Personal Moose has already been to Berlin, and Brutus was selected for Annecy’s competition; other films have followed and will follow suit at other festivals. So why could the jury—under chairman Vadim Abdrashitov, joined by production designer Arkadii Melik-Sarkisian, composer Aleksei Rybnikov, alongside animators Aleksei Alekseev and Irina Kodiukova—not find a single film suitable for the Grand Prix? It would appear to send the wrong signal about Russian animation, and it leaves the festival without a “president”: that is usually the person who directed the winning film. Prize-less also means head-less.

Birgit Beumers
Aberystwyth University


Prizes:
Grand Prix: not awarded
Best Visual Solution: TORO DANZA by Valentina Urm
Best Dramaturgy: RETURN OF BURATINO by Ekaterina Mikhailova
Best Debut: OTHER SHORES by Vasilii Chirkov
Best Student Film: FOKUS by Maria Matusevich
Best Animation: THE TIN (Banka) by Tatiana Kiseleva
Best Direction: OTHER SHORES by Vasilii Chirkov
Best Sound: HAT THEORY by Asia Strel’bitskaia
Best Children’s Film: THE DAY OF THE BEAR by Oksana Kholodova
Best Feature: Ku! Kin-Dza-Dza! By Georgii Daneliia and Tat’iana Il’ina
Best Serial: PLASTICINE ALPHABET by Sergei Merinov
Best Animation in Advertising: CONGRATULATORY TRAILER TO THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FESTIVAL KROK, by Svetlana Andrianova

Professional Rating
1. MY PERSONAL MOOSE by Leonid Shmel’kov (191 votes)
2/3. MAN MEETS WOMAN by Dmitrii Geller (140 votes)
2/3. BRUTUS by Svetlana Filippova (140 votes)
4. A BRAVE MUM by Aleksandra Lukina (125)
5. ONE TURTLE by Anna Romanova (90)
6. HOW I SLIMMED TO 21 GRAMS by Khikhus and Konstantin Komardin (55)
7. THE TIN by Tat’iana Kiseleva (44)
8. GUEST ON HORSEBACK by Aleksandr Svirskii (43)
9. NANA, NANI, NAO by Konstantin Brilliantov (40)
10. THE DAY OF THE BEAR by Oksana Kholodova (37)

Birgit Beumers © 2014

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Updated: 09 Jul 14