A Conversation with Joško Marušić: Sending Messages to Unknown Friends

By Sanja Bahun

© Sanja Bahun, 2011

Long before I discovered Kafka, I had admired Joško Marušić’s short animated film Fisheye (Riblje oko, 1980). Multiple-awarded (Special Jury Award, Ottawa; Grand Prize, Belgrade; Special Award, Rotterdam; International Jury Award, Madrid; First Award in Category, Brussels), the film captures the terrifying prospect of fish taking over a small coastal town—a result of a vaguely intimated disturbance of the natural order of things, or of revenge for fateful neglect, or a previous violation. Clutching my father’s hand (he was an admirer of the Zagreb School of Animation), I indulged in Marušić’s frightening phantasmagoria. I recognize in retrospect that the horrifying content did not move me as much as the expression—different from anything I had experienced before—an expression that connected the everyday with its (possibly fatal) extension and breathed life into the representation of a species with which we share our habitat. For long time afterwards, I could not eat fish.

marusicJoško Marušić has been actively working in a variety of art media (cartoon, caricature, illustration, literature, film production and television), but his primary interest has always been animation. He has also been an enthusiastic administrator of various regional ventures focused on animation. He was art director of Zagreb Film, the major regional animated film production house, on two occasions, and long-standing art director, and council member of the Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films. He founded the Department of Animated Film in 1999  at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, Croatia, the first of its kind in the region. His filmography includes the short animated films Inside and Out (Iznutra i izvana, 1978), Perpetuo (1978), Fisheye, Skyscraper (Neboder, 1981), Over There (Tamo, 1985), The Face of Fear (Lice straha, 1986), Home is the Best (Kod kuće je najbolje, 1988), I love you, too (1991), Miss Link (1999), In the Vicinity of a City (U susjedstvu grada, 2006) and others. After a remarkable career in short animation, Marušić has recently authored his first animated feature film, The Rainbow (Duga, 2010), a movie based on two stories by the Croatian turn-of the-century writer Dinko Šimunović, which he scripted, directed, designed, and produced.Marušić’s animated films subtly defamiliarize the world, expose us to both the positive potentials and terrors of a world gone awry, always premised on a deeply humanistic vision. His distinctive animation blends the abstract, the grotesque, and the realistic, and his direction, while always maintaining a basic arc structure, privileges the accumulation of affective content over the laws of probability and verisimilitude. I started by asking him why he chose animation as his mode of expression in the first place.

— Why have you chosen animation? What is it in the nature of animation that attracts you to this mode of cinematic expression?

— When my interest in animation was first stirred, the charisma of the Zagreb School of Animation was so strong that it was impossible for any Croatian artist to ignore it. I was finishing my BA studies in architecture at the time, and my work in comics and caricature was already professional and published widely enough to secure a more-than-stable living for myself. An intrinsic connection between animation and caricature was an important aspect of the Zagreb-School tradition of animated film (in terms of graphic art, the Zagreb-School aesthetic was based on drawing). During the year of mandatory military service that followed my graduation, I had some time to “reflect.” It is in this period that I decided to make what might have been a passing love affair into a lifelong profession.

In contrast to the job prospects in architecture, working in animation offered the possibility of swift career progress (to the ambitious young man that I was at the time, this promise was not negligible). More importantly, perhaps, animation appeared to me to be a perfect medium for the kind of messages I was intent on conveying. It is interesting, I reflect now, that my early fascination with animation did not stem from an interest in either drawing or animating but from a belief in the potential of this medium to “relay” my messages to unknown friends throughout the world. Although, over the course of the years, I have developed a distinctive style of graphic drawing and animating, animated film is still primarily the “message in the bottle” for me.

— You are also a well-recognized cartoonist and caricaturist, with multiple awards to your credit. How do these forms, cartoon, caricature and animation, relate in your work? Do they inform each other, and, if so, how?

fisheye— Whatever media I am working in—comics, caricature, or animated film— I relay the same kind of messages. These are messages of encouragement aimed at the fearful and the intimidated. Through my art I tell those afraid of grand manipulations (political, economic, emotional…) that they should not be scared, that they should live their own life, that the world is where they themselves are and not contained in utopias and mystifications.
Animated film is an expensive endeavour and the production takes a long time, so the medium of caricature allows me to send these messages on an everyday basis; I publish about 500 caricatures a year, and produce an animated film every four-five years. But I do not analyze my artistic style any more. It’s like handwriting. I sit and work. Every day. People say I sometimes send messages that will reach no one, or that the addressees may reject them, for various reasons. But I know many of them will be greeted with a smile by that distant, unknown friend, and this promise keeps me going.

— As a visual-art form, animation extends reality, commenting on it or offering alternatives, social, political, or, simply, universally human. Eastern European animation tends to position itself as an active agent in a political semio-sphere, and animation in the countries of the former Yugoslavia is no exception. What are your thoughts on the political role and operation of Croatian animation in its various stages, and your own animation practice?

— As you probably know (you have seen it in a film at least!), prisons tend to have—in addition to cells—a space where prisoners meet their relatives and friends. Those prisoners who behave well are even allowed to use a room where they can have intimate intercourse with their partner who lives outside, free. This prison story is, of course, symbolic. Many years after the fall of the Berlin Wall I realized that Yugoslavia had operated as one such “room” for intimate encounters. We were a space of osmosis where the East and West met. At the time I myself was not aware how much this factor was part of my genome, but today I understand that political ideas dominate everything I have ever done. My first animation (I call it a “student work”), a two-minute film called Inside and Out (1978), recounts the story of a man who spends his life creating wings and one day succeeds in getting off the ground. The numerous inquisitives assembled around him do not follow his example but build a gigantic cage where they confine both him and themselves; but the cage is so huge that he continues to fly in it…

I have sought and held out this space of freedom in every [socio-political] context. But I am really not a revolutionary; nor have I ever been one. Revolution is like war, a tragic fact, and when the smoke has cleared, when the dead have been buried and the tears have dried, we realize that the actual advancement is minute.

— Your work spans decades of the development of animation, and culture in general, in the region. You belonged to the younger cohort of the famed Zagreb School of Animation (roughly 1970-1990), a group of auteurs of otherwise divergent styles assembled around postulates such as rejection of rigid mimetic forms, the enthronement of creativity and authorial autonomy, but also an intrinsic and inviolable relation between animation and human life. Could you comment on this legacy and its role in your own work? 

— The Zagreb School of Animation had its specific technological and “worldview” coordinates. The technological characteristic of the School was the so-called “limited animation,” which, in digest, means a complete commitment to stylization. It is customarily contrasted with the Disney-style “full animation”, where all characters are animated according to the strictly delineated canons of [“realistic”] animation. [On “limited” and “full” animation, and the Zagreb School’s preference for the former, see Bahun’s article in this issue.] In terms of the worldview, the School introduced the genre of animated films for adults, films pregnant with cynicism, auto-irony, and the relativization of divisions between people. [They focused on the fact that], in all great conflicts, our sympathy is with the “small man” who is most frequently subject to manipulation. This “small person” exists in all classes and all societies, and verily constitutes the most numerous sector of society, but remains powerless because he or she is not “networked.”

fisheyeThis thematic and technological framework allowed people who previously did not even conceive of working in animation to engage with animated film; but it was a particularly propitious ground for those who believed visual art sophistication was at the heart of their work. Thus, irrespective of the (mis)nomer “school,” we can say that Zagreb School animation was created by a rather diverse group of distinct individuals. And this is an important feature, since the School precisely encouraged artists around the globe to use animation to conceptualize their own, rather distinct, messages. My own work in animation is a case in point. Although Nedeljko Dragić had been my “model” at the very beginning, I embarked on my own artistic path rather early. While my films are different in expression (due to my effort to avoid a style which might lead to film industry “confection”), all of them actually tell the same story. The story of one’s own life. As I grow old and mature, my films change, too; but the messages remain the same. 

— You have also been actively involved in the Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films – Animafest Zagreb, one of the most important international animation festivals, as its Art Director of from 1992 to 1998 and the President of the Festival Council from 2000 to 2006. Tell us something about the nature and history of the festival.

— The World Festival of Animated Films is an extraordinarily significant institution in the history and development of animation. The first international festival exclusively dedicated to animated films was established in Annecy in 1960, and the Zagreb festival of animated film was the first international festival to follow, twelve years after [founded in 1972]. The importance of the Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films lay in the fact that it resolutely drew aside the “iron curtain,” opening the door to animators working both in the East and in the West. The strict criteria regularly upheld by the jury of the Zagreb festival promote artistic exploration, and they have therefore also contributed to the most significant development in animation art: artistic animation ceased to be an asylum for lonesome artists and instead started influencing the market and the film industry itself. Thanks to the Zagreb film festival, the mass-market tastes and artistic achievements have become closer than ever before.   

To tell you the truth, I had never thought that I myself would be in the position to be the art director of a film festival—and that I would be presiding over it for no less than a decade. I took it on myself as a kind of “war task” in 1992, and, as the festival further developed, this “task” became dear to me. It was also a welcome break in my own career.

— What is the situation in Croatian animation now? How much does the new generation live up to this legacy?

rainbow— I have to admit that a form of crisis in Zagreb-School animation started already in the mid-1980s. There are two reasons for this development. First, the school continued to insist on political messages while global animation shifted focus to graphic experimentation and technological innovation. Second, for ideological reasons, the famed Zagreb Film, devastatingly, did not actually produce anything for the mass market, except the television series Professor Balthazar. The crisis deepened during the war. Yet one could say that the foundation of the Department of Animated Film at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb in 1999 positively reinvigorated interest in animation, now also supported by the education system. The results are visible: Croatian animation—and, in particular, student-produced animation—is present again at international festivals. For a more decisive step towards market viability, however, we need a stronger economy in general. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that, as heirs to an important legacy, the young show great interest in media art; and there have always been great talents in this region.

— This leads me to my next question. Your most recent film (and your first feature film), The Rainbow, pleads for the dialogue between generations, between parents and children. Why is this issue so important for you to make it into the crux of your film?

— When I decided to dedicate three precious years of my life to a single project, I asked myself: what is a message worthy of that commitment? And my response to myself was as follows. Of all the problems our world faces every day there is one we speak about least, and it is precisely that one that will cost us much. The problem concerns a complete discrepancy of opinion between different generations when it comes to the conceptualization of the future of our world. This problem stems from a lack of dialogue. The contemporary world has been constructed by the hedonistic and conformist measures of an old generation. The old are ashamed to admit this fact to their own children, and so they have created a whole set of mechanisms whereby children will be led to seek the causes of their frustration somewhere else. Here, that is the actual theme of The Rainbow, however much the film may be based on an archaic legend and rooted in a specific historical context.

rainbowThe Rainbow is also a film that argues for a dialogue at the level of form. Its dialogic structure becomes visible as an exchange between 2D and 3D animation, and pastel on paper. In effect, the film becomes a polyphonic structure, a loving historical compendium of animation styles, modes, and technical possibilities. How did you make a choice for such a structure? More important still: how do you see your own position as a teacher and a practitioner today in the context of the interplay between heritage and new possibilities, technological and creative?

— I have to admit something: the great challenge I posed to myself was to make a “commercial film.” Yet, even though The Rainbow is the first Croatian film that was on a regular Cineplex repertoire, I have not really achieved this goal. I was restless and had to give in to my exploratory instincts. The film ended up having too many “risky features” at all levels (narrative, design, and animation) for the taste of a conservative mass market. Thus happened what I hadn’t actually wished for (because I am also the producer of this film): The Rainbow became primarily—and exceedingly—interesting to the juries of international film festivals. It is now a film that everyone would like to see but no one wants to buy!

But I am satisfied. At this moment, to produce, uncompromisingly, a high-budget animated art film is an epoch-making statement, a move whose positive effects will only be assessed in the future.

The Rainbow, like all your other films, distinguishes itself by its emphasis on a humanistic message. You recently became involved in the international Human Rights Animation project. Could you comment on this component of your work?

— Indeed I am a philanthrope; I help wherever I can. There were times when I would have gone “to the end of the world” if only there were people who would be interested in my encouragement to the young to break the cycle of prejudices. Now, as a middle-aged gentleman who has his own hedonistic and conformist pleasures, I allot the same importance to my career as to, say, having a portion of nicely grilled sea bream; and, beyond good animation, I do love soccer. I would like to demystify my profession. I’ve had the luck to work in a field where my talent could flourish, and thus to reach the hearts and minds of many. But the same could be done in other ways, and every person has the ability to do it. Truly everyone.

Translated by Sanja Bahun


Updated: 17 Apr 11