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The Animated World: Solitude and Resilience at Annecy

Five short films shown at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival explore isolation, fragmentation, suffering, and resilience.
Jennifer Lynde Barker
The Animated World is a regular feature spotlighting animation from around the globe.
Above: The World Within
Since the pandemic took shape as a global force a year and a half ago, film festivals everywhere have struggled to adjust and find a way forward while continuing to support film culture and traditions of exhibition. The Annecy International Animation Film Festival is no exception. While the 2020 festival was completely online, the 2021 version was hybrid. This sounded promising at first, but ultimately provided fewer options for those who could not make their way to France. The hybrid experience, with its fracturing of movie publics, is even more fragmented, with feature films unavailable online. This disappointing feeling of one step forward and two steps back accurately reflects the current experience of the pandemic: the ambiguous middle-ground is proving to be more chaotic and confusing. As poet Tanya Davis puts it in the delightful film How to Be at Home: “If you are, at first, really fucking anxious, just wait, it’ll get worse…” On the other hand, ambiguity can be a creative space, and short films are an often-overlooked source of brilliance and insight. Five such films from Annecy this year offer a diverse array of personal and cultural perspectives that are thematically coherent on the subject of isolation, fragmentation, suffering, and resilience. 
These themes are, of course, quite relevant to our pandemic times. I don’t often read my own circumstances into the films I watch, but in this case, the constraints of viewing created by the pandemic have introduced a layer of self-referentiality that feels inevitable. Watching films is often accompanied now by thoughts on how the films are being watched and this in turn generates further reflections on the source of concern itself. So, while the five films selected were not all made during the pandemic, the pandemic has infected them, in a sense, with additional meaning. Two are intricate stop motion animation: Diaspora (2015) and Beast (Bestia), and three are intriguingly drawn and painted: The World Within (Le monde en soi), Peel (Écorce), and How to Be at Home. They are all rooted in real experiences—whether autobiographical or documentary in nature—and all speak eloquently of isolation and despair, social and mental fragmentation, and the struggle to find connections and endure. The necessity of waiting and lack of control—such central pandemic experiences—are likewise shared motifs.
Above: Peel
While I viewed these films, their thematic coherence brought to mind a 1909 story that haunts me with its prescient representation of a dystopic world in which machines control humanity through social media and isolation. E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” tells the story of Kuno, a rebel who hates the Machine and wants to escape to the outside world. He tries to connect with his mother, who is horrified by his desire for direct experience and travel. This story has only become more relevant and believable since its publication, and it speaks directly to the heart of the pandemic. The Machine uses an internet-like form of communication to distract people with an incessant, narcissistic social media chatter that accumulates in each individual’s high-tech cells: “The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately?” Forster foresees the opposing irritation of constant online exposure with the psychological dependence, even addiction, that it simultaneously generates. In this world, things are brought to people rather than people to things and they fear leaving their isolated pods. But confinement leads some to mental turmoil: “Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.” Kuno embodies this anxiety, which accurately sums up the current agitation of confinement—the conflicting need to stay and desire to go. He might be speaking for all humanity about Zoom when he says: “I want to see you not through the Machine… I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.” The answer, as Forster suggests in Howards’ End, is “Only connect! (…) Live in fragments no longer.” 
Above: Bestia
Each of the five Annecy films ruminate on isolation and fragmentation and the desire and ability to connect. Two of them, the stop-motion films Diaspora and Beast, also imbue personal tales with national symbolism, joining an isolated and broken individual life with disturbing political realities. The protagonist of Beast is a woman working for the Chilean secret service in 1975 under the military dictatorship, and director Hugo Covarrubias has recreated that world in miniature as the banality of evil. The film juxtaposes scenes of normality and softness with harshness and violence and the characters—dolls with porcelain heads—reinforce a sense of powerlessness and fragility. Beast begins in an airplane with the woman staring out the window at diaphanous clouds, soon filled with faceless people. That image and the hole in the side of her head give us travel as a metaphor for death—something that immediately resonates with the pandemic. Planes are spaces where we don’t have control, and this one is taking us somewhere we don’t want to go. The camera zooms inside the protagonist’s head to reveal her life as a place of boredom and tyranny, of baking special muffins for her dog before watching him humiliate victims. It is a world filled with rituals, perversion, secrets, and regrets, and when her routine is interrupted, the violence she has witnessed and perpetrated erupts, cracking her psyche apart. Beast speaks through the animosity of everyday objects, surreal and hostile dreams, and silent rebuke. Based on real events, its political machine is quite as relentless as the one in Forster’s story, and it also relies on isolation to warp and fragment human beings. But Beast highlights an act of rebellion as well, one focused on witnessing oppression to others.
Above: Diaspora
Alaeddin Abou Taleb takes solitude a step further in Diaspora (2015) while similarly reflecting on national politics. Screened in Annecy's Tribute to Animation from the African Continent, it clearly references the 2011 Tunisian Revolution, but it resonates heavily with the pandemic lockdown. Like Beast, it features a miniaturized space hiding strange realities behind an ordinary surface and its lonely protagonist is also, literally, fragmented. He exists as a head with other body parts stored in drawers, and he uses a wheelchair with arms to navigate his apartment. Literally cerebral, he engages in an impoverished thinking, reading a French newspaper and imbibing media from the television. He fantasizes too—in drawn cut-out interludes—about an alligator (perhaps a symbol of extinction or of latent power). The media seems to be controlling him, bringing to mind Jiri Trnka’s brilliant Hand (1965)—a film which details the destruction of an isolated artist by political power wielded in part through official media. The silence and solitude of the head is interrupted occasionally by what sounds like a revolution: people shouting, gun shots, helicopters overhead. Twice he receives Arabic news (an alternate media) under the door broadcasting job opportunities, and finally he reassembles his lost limbs and leaves the apartment. Diaspora ends with the words: “Rare are those who have not suffered a thirst for power to some degree” (from Emil Cioran’s History and Utopia). This comment is aimed at the whole dystopian world, and while Diaspora offers hope that re-forming and becoming whole again is possible, its title emphasizes the experience of being separate from others while longing for solidarity.
Above: The World Within
The World Within (Le monde en soi), by French filmmakers Sandrine Stoïanov and Jean-Charles Finck, like the previous two films, focuses on an inner world of isolation. The protagonist is a young woman, an artist who has a nervous breakdown while setting up a show. The film portrays her struggles with the difficulties inherent in painting the female form—her own especially—as she moves between an external world that encompasses both exploitation and traditional ideas about representation and the intimacy of self-exposure in her work. The reality of direct experience, in all its painful immediacy, is central to the film, which follows her mental collapse and the slow rebuilding of her sense of self and purpose. The artist’s breakdown is instigated when she becomes a conduit for the anxiety and expectations of others, and her mind, entirely open to the constant wash of thoughts around her, dis-integrates in despair. In opposition to the beautiful fauvist colors of the external world, her inner journey takes place largely in black and white—a kind of new beginning and minimalist existence. Her solitude is punctuated by an intermittent companionship with a squirrel outside her window, who brings her gifts of nuts, and draws her attention back outside. Nature, as in Forster’s story (and all his work), is contrasted with the overwhelming demands of society, offering a site for contemplation and recovery. The stunning artwork of the film pays homage to art and its legacies and the importance of creativity to living fully. These two combined—an appreciation for nature and the act of creation—form the core of resilience for the artist, who is able, in the end, to enter the world with some equanimity and the ability to move forward in art and life. 
Above: Peel
Peel (Écorce)—which won Annecy’s Cristal for short films—documents the slow progression of time at a Swiss retirement home. Its title, in English, can be a verb or noun, suggesting what is left behind or taken off (a husk or skin), what is stripped away—or the action of doing so. Animators Samuel Patthey and Silvain Monney peel away layers of color and materiality, stretching them out into lines and shapes that suggest the rinds of human lives near their end. This deconstructed line suggests an exteriority that also immerses us in the atmosphere of the present, so that in watching the repetition of a shape or action, we also experience the presence of time—how the same movements recur so often they erase our cognizance of the experience. The film looks like a notebook come to life, and watching drawings move slowly across a piece of paper captures the essence of animation—an image come to life. The materiality and the hand-made, lo-fi quality of the piece is enhanced by its sketchiness, the pieces of tape drawn over, the torn pieces of paper—all of which highlight the ephemeral nature of life. As in The World Within, nature—the forest around the home—is a literal sanctuary and a metaphorical point of departure for the dead. A black cat weaves through the scenes, a spectator to the strange and beautiful human world which devotes such great care to amassing significant objects that never age. And while the film was constructed before lockdowns started, it feels like a tribute to retirement homes, where so many lives were lost.
Peel looks like a project undertaken by artists stranded at home with a few notebooks and a lot of time, which makes it an ideal pandemic film. It also reminds us that animation is actually a perfect activity for lockdown—the meticulous, time-consuming construction of an imagined reality can be a one-person activity. The very aesthetic of sketches meandering across the pages of a journal seems tailor-made for our times. And indeed, Andrea Dorfman’s How to Be at Home, made during and about the pandemic, is structured in much the same way. Drawing across a few old books, with cutouts and pixelation constructing further images, her film could be a model for what to do with excess solitude and time—a resilient recycling of experiences and feelings into a project full of hope that speaks openly of despair. Tanya Davis’s Canadian lilt gives the poetry of the piece a comforting and folksy feel—it is a voice you want to welcome into your home. The film is a follow-up to their 2010 YouTube hit “How to Be Alone,” often riffing on the earlier film and what has changed. Unlike some of the other films, there is no dystopic vibe, and the social media here brings welcome contact. While it is blunt about bleak facts, it also offers ideas on how to handle that reality with whimsy, beauty, and care.
Above: How to Be at Home
When the animator’s hands wipe the tears from painted paper eyes, the film’s ability to combine melancholy with relief is clear. The hands also resonate with a common conceit in early animation—interactions between animators’ hands and their creations. The film invites us to repurpose objects towards enjoyment, and to find a way to celebrate what we love even when alone (I am writing this in my own home café, a reconstruction of the places I can’t go, featuring ambient noise from a Tokyo café—a reminder that there have and will be other voices, other rooms). One technique the film enacts is to take joy in creating things and in (re)constructing the world as a way of dealing with isolation, separation, and ambiguity. Certainly, one of the strongest undercurrents of the pandemic is feeling helpless and powerless—emotions that exist in all the scenarios these five films address. In each case people become isolated—whether it’s due to disease, politics, anxieties, or old age—but finally search out solidarity or connection. In “The Machine Stops,” this culminates in a tearful mother-son reunion that transcends the darkness surrounding them. Or as Davis and Dorfman remind us: let’s savor conversations—and trees—while we’re able.


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