Defiance in AnimationAuthor: Tristian Goik | Date: 1/1/19, 8:22 PM
I attended one protest rally in New York City this year, and I will never forget the people’s signs. Whether they used markers or printed out memes, everyone held posters just above their heads. They used only their hands; we had heard that any sort of pole would be viewed as aggressive. Surrounded by the crowd in downtown Manhattan, I saw a concrete representation of what I had been bombarded with everyday on my Facebook feed, except here were actual breathing faces, with actual comments written above them. Soon my entire field of view was filled with people, text, and images, and the depressing content of the people’s outcry was alleviated only by the creativity of the medium.
Defiance in animation can be a refreshing jolt in a film festival. Chris Robinson, Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, recently described their 2017 competition programming as having a “definite air of defiance, not just in terms of content, but also through stylistic choices and a rejection of conventional narrative storytelling. All in all, a refreshing, timely and much needed blast of fresh air from the international animation community.” Even if you are not in a theatre watching a series of short films, an unconventional and unrepentant animation can stick out (on your news-feed, for example).
What if a film’s own animation techniques were used to reclaim a narrative? The Story of O.J. (The Mill, Jay-Z, USA 2017) is a music video created in the ‘rubber-hose’ style of 1930’s and ’40-s animation studios. Its characters specifically reference racist depictions of African-Americans. Jay-Z strolls through the streets of DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), in his new avatar “Jaybo” (based on “Little Black Sambo”). By designing characters now considered blatantly racist, the content of Jay-Z’s lyrics become all the more defiant. A caricature of a Brooklyn cabaret with Nina Simone and Josephine Baker is followed by Jaybo on his therapist’s couch rapping: “Wish I could take it back to the beginnin’. I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo / For like two million / That same building today is worth twenty-five million / Guess how I'm feelin'? Dumbo.” The song is a call to action for African-Americans to put money back into their own communities. Jaybo morphs into a version of Disney’s Dumbo, triggering thoughts of that film’s infamous jive-talking crows. Jay Z is flexing his power, and can afford to be animated anyway he wants.
Some animation is also defiantly…not animated. Riot (Frank Ternier, France 2017) mixes live action actors watching a video on their phone with graphic animation of a vigilante street shooting. In an ugly mess of anger and resentment, the drawings of nameless people in dark French suburbs switch to footage of an elderly black woman crying. Before the inevitable riot, we move through abandoned apartment complexes. A dreadlocked man rages in the squalor, Krumping in the hip-hop dance style. His violent movements are accentuated by double shadows drawn onto the footage, and thick white scrawls vibrating out from his limbs. A white woman dances into frame; at first it appears as though they will be partners, but then he crushes her, and she writhes (dancing) away from him across the floor. The man’s defiance is animated outwards in waves shooting away from his body, and inwards with lines that snag his movements. Live action and animation, blaring music and spoken word, create an atmosphere of unrest.
Even a children’s story can be defiant. Hedgehog’s Home (Eva Cvijanović, Canada/Croatia 2017) was written in 1962 by Branko Ćopić. A newly united Yugoslavia was “in need of establishing its identity” Cvijanović says, and so “the hedgehog probably represents a modest, courageous and principled Yugoslavia that needs to assert itself” in front of Fascism and other world powers. In this walking/talking animal tale, a stalwart Hedgehog defends the dignity of his home. His three (rather two dimensional) adversaries are evil forest predators, who mock him and would gladly give up their own homes for a scrap of meat. They meet their deserved dooms, while the Hedgehog’s friend Mrs. Fox learns a valuable lesson. In this animation, Cvijanović uses felt and stop motion to adapt the story, transforming and paying homage to the book’s iconic illustrations. She uses these intense textures to add a new sensual element to Hedgehog’s and Fox’s relationship, which was presented ambiguously in the original story. While the country in which the book was written has “left the political stage,” Cvijanović’s message of “love of one’s home and hospitality” lives on.
Love is defiant, especially when it involves queer identity. Maacher-Jhol/Fish-Curry (Abhishek Verma, India 2017) began when Verma’s friend came out to him. The friend was prepared to lose a friendship, but Verma was touched, and had a history of making films for a cause (Chasni - Stop Acid Attacks). So he created a story out of elements he knew: the love of Indian radio and the careful preparation of fish curry. Lalit, a 30-something year old man, comes out to his father the only way he knows how: by cooking delicious maacher-jhol. The sexuality of Lalit is revealed slowly. As he stares at the fish sizzling in the pan, they transform into mermen, sharing a kiss in an ocean of oil. (Refreshingly, these mermen are not stereotypical Ken dolls, but cuddly cubs that look like they enjoy cooking). Lalit’s father chokes when he hears the news, and we are left wondering why. “The parent in Indian generation is still somehow conservative,” Verma says, “change takes time… the open ended to the story was intentional but much closer towards the positivity.” Verma wanted to keep his drawings raw, “Like actor[s] act, we animators sketch and act to bring emotions… I can be surreal, magical and human at a same time.” When he crowdfunded the film, he clearly identified supporting the cause with supporting the Kickstarter. Verma’s previous work added to his success and he used this “important content” to “experiment to changing India and very slowly growing animation storytelling in Country. [sic]”
Manivald (Chintis Lundgren, Estonia/Canada/Croatia, 2017) also came out of digital space, from the Manivald and the Absinthe Rabbits web series. In this animation, 30-something Manivald the Fox lives in a candy-pink home with his mother, trapped by repetition and comfort. His world is turned upside down by a beefy Plumber wolf. He experiences sexual awakening and gay heartbreak, which frees him to move out and start his own musical career. With thin pencil lines and muted red pink color palette, Manivald’s wide white eyes are no more than circles with tiny dots. When I asked Lundgren how these eyes could emote so effectively, she said limited animation demands more. “It's much more engaging, because you might not be totally sure at first what the character is feeling and it makes you think harder. I really don't like the right-in-your-face from one extreme emotion to another type of animating, it makes me feel almost insulted. But I guess it's also because I'm Estonian and I don't like emotions displayed so openly”. Manivald is a special tribute to the current generation of Estonians, whom Lundgren describes as an introverted people, liable only to express themselves after much drinking and music. Lundgren is not a queer animator, but the story is dedicated to them, and the many adults who still live at home, afraid to strike out on their own. A message I find not just for Estonians, but all Millennials.
These days in New York City it seems like every breath is an act of defiance. I recently contributed a film to The Dumbest Sht I’ve Ever Saw, an “animation anti-festival, encouraging animators to make a dumb short film just for fun.” That night in Williamsburg, we inevitably saw a few anti-Trump films, but one stood out in particular. Punch Everyone (Patrick Smith, USA 2017) is set to heavy metal and animated in Smith’s sketchy cartoonish style. A simple caricature of President Trump getting punched in the face: one second, a few rippling frames of the man in profile, and then BAM, a bloody mess, with barely any in-betweens. The series of punches covers almost everyone, from Hillary to Pikachu. The website, Cartoon Brew decided to post the film the next day, the same weekend as the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. I started combing through internet comments to see which punch people found most offensive. It was the “Black Lives Matter” protestor getting walloped. (When I was paying attention for those few days, I didn’t see anyone complain about the Presidential punch. Today the video has been removed from Youtube.) Eventually, the 24-hour news cycle turned over. The general consensus was that Patrick Smith should have animated himself getting punched.
What is it that makes these films so attractive? “Maybe it is not the destructiveness of the volcano that pleases most,” Susan Sontag says, “though everyone loves a conflagration, but its defiance of the law of gravity to which every inorganic mass is subject.” By defying conventional narratives in the animated films we make, we can not only break out of the pack and stand in the spotlight, but revolutionize and upgrade the way we tell stories.
Tristian Goik is an independent New York animator and social media coordinator for ASIFA-East; he currently assists in curation at Animation Nights NY and works in graphics at Page Six TV.