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2017 Ottawa International Animation Festival

21 countries, 67 shorts, 3 features, 48 hours.

I’ve just returned from my ninth Ottawa International Animation Festival since 1998, and my first since 2010. I only got a weekend pass this time, rather than doing the full five days, but I still managed to cram in 10 screenings. This is also the first time I’ve attended the fest by myself, which enabled me to document it in greater detail than I have in the past. What follows are my notes on nearly all of the films in this year’s competition, with links to trailers (or full films) whenever possible, and embedded videos of my favorites.

Short Film Competition 1

Hi Stranger

Kirsten Lepore (Narrative, USA)

A creepy little naked figure serenely expresses its affection for you. Transcends the assumed irony to become a somewhat touching, universal affirmation.

Spring Time: Old Man

Hoji Tsuchiya (Commissioned, Germany, Japan)

The song is great. The handmade visual accompaniment—kind of a naive psychedelia—is busy to a fault. One gets the sense there’s a fairly uncomplicated meaning intended in all this, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what it is.

Negative Space

Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata (Narrative, France)

A young man’s story of bonding with his father over efficiently packing luggage. My strong identification with this film was almost certainly heightened by seeing it the day after the anniversary of my own father’s death, but regardless, this is the kind of film I come to Ottawa hoping to see. Magnificent character design and set design, beautifully expressive stop-motion animation, and a simple, open-hearted concept executed flawlessly. I think they could have taken it a bit further, but this is basically perfect.

El Jimador: ID

Rob Shaw (Commissioned, USA)

A cute, quick ad for tequila with a simple joke that works. Decent stop-motion with a Day of the Dead-themed visual basis that can’t go wrong.

Any Road

Boris Labbé (Non-Narrative, France)

A game of pong undergoes a transformation into a series of controlled visual glitches. Its dynamic, postmodern classical score is fantastic, and the non-objective images and transformations generated are a visual feast, though not consistently so.

In One Drag

Alireza Hashempour (Student, Germany)

Cigarette butts band together for revenge, making the smoker the smokee. A fun mix of pixillation, stop-motion, and digital trickery, but as someone who is eternally and intensely irked by smokers’ cavalier litter, I kind of wanted the film to make a little more of a statement.

Boogie Stomp Pink

Stuart Pound (Non-Narrative, UK)

The screen is split in 24 segments, each displaying the same dance routine, slowly phasing out of sync with one another, Steve Reich-style. After employing a few different visual ideas early on, it settles into a groove that gets repetitive, but its rhythms are never boring, and there’s plenty to look at.

Ugly

Nikita Diakur (Narrative, Germany)

A misshapen cat at the bottom of the food chain befriends a kindly Native American man. I can’t say enough good things about the 3D visuals, defined by creative use of a low polygon count and a gorgeous palette of magic-hour pastels.

Mimi

Jeffrey Hsueh (Student, USA)

A mother’s amusing tales of how much harder her generation had it as kids in China. As an illustration of her recorded dialogue, the animation is cute but mostly superfluous.

Mind Frame

Jake Fried (Non-Narrative, USA)

Like a non-rectilinear sliding puzzle made up of dozens of eyes, ears, mouths, noses, and hands. Feels like an obsessive notebook doodle come to life.

Tesla: Lumiére Mondiale (The Tesla World Light)

Matthew Rankin (Narrative, Canada)

Nicola Tesla begs J.P. Morgan for money and somehow manages to fall in love with a pigeon. Viscerally overwhelming, synthesizing Tesla’s obsession and the terrifying essence of electricity.

Lo

Ted Wiggin (Narrative, USA)

Lo-fi digital renderings of conflicts between snakes, cats, and other animals. Highly saturated colors on black, reminiscent of something that might have been created on the Amiga or Commodore 64. Not much to hold onto though.

Yokoso Bokudesu 4

Manabu Himeda (Narrative, Japan)

A song and dance bursting with joy about the virtues of self-induced isolation, followed by more songs about… I don’t know. This is an Eastern flavor of cute I just don’t understand. I eventually gave up trying to parse it.

Naked Island: We Drink Too Much

Chris Lavis, Maciek Szczerbowski (Commissioned, Canada)

A dignified pair of pigeons discovers they are no good with money and they have a drinking problem. A quick hit good for a chuckle and not much more.

Beautiful Like Elsewhere

Elise Simard (Narrative, Canada)

Alas, less than a day later, I don’t remember enough about this one to comment on it.

Wednesday with Goddard

Nicolas Ménard (Narrative, UK)

A quest to find God. Lots to love here: the tone that balances a kind of whimsy with existential gravitas, and wow, the look of it. A winning contrast between geometric character design, richly toned graphite drawings, and flat, alternating background colors drawing from a distinctive palette.

Short Film Competition 2

Casino

Steven Woloshen (Non-Narrative, Canada)

Colorful, gestural casino imagery moving in time with an energetic jazz trio. I’m always impressed when a piece that requires this much planning and time-consuming production can come off looking spontaneous. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Lotus Lantern

Xingpei Shen (Student, China, USA)

A nicely arranged assortment of Chinese cultural signifiers that don’t mean anything to me. Apparently I know even less about China than I thought.

E001 Kotkin

Claudia Röthlin, Yves Gutjahr (Commissioned, Switzerland)

A commercial for a Freitag bag, highlighting its compostability with a time lapse of its decay. It gets the point across just fine, but neither its concept nor its execution is very inspiring.

The Full Story

Daisy Jacobs, Chris Wilder (Narrative, UK)

Visiting his recently-emptied childhood home triggers a man’s memories of his parents’ divorce. Nice combination of cut-out, stop-motion, and live-action techniques. I’m not sure if there was a system governing the hows and whys of which of those forms the characters took in different situations, but I like the idea of that.

Airport

Michaela Müller (Non-Narrative, Switzerland, Croatia)

The sights and sounds of air travel, in all its hair-pulling glory. It captures the experience, but I’m not sure I see the value in having that experience absent the need to.

Naked Island: Simulated Life

Malcolm Sutherland (Commissioned, Canada)

The best of the Naked Island series in competition, and, not coincidentally, the only one that doesn’t feature pigeons. Its message of getting away from your devices and experiencing the real world is a more cheerful, bite-size take on Black Mirror’s Luddite cynicism. Trite, but creative in its depiction of our devices’ escalating demands for our attention.

Mark Lotterman: Happy

Alice Saey (Commissioned, Netherlands, France)

Prismatic geese dance to a song about the mistakes we make trying to escape modern ennui. Apart from their synchronicity, there’s no ostensible thematic link between the images and the music, but they dovetail so well it’s hard to imagine one without the other. I couldn’t look away.

Maacher Jhol (The Fish Curry)

Abhishek Verma (Narrative, India)

A young man comes out to his father over some homemade fish curry. Based on the attention paid to the details of the recipe, there’s subtext I’m missing. I’m not desperate for films to neatly resolve, but I wish more filmmakers employing open endings were better at making them actual endings. I also found it interesting that the opening titles took pains to make it clear that this film is not autobiographical.

Power

Dana Sink (Non-Narrative, USA)

A collection of Rube Goldberg machines slowly reveal they’re not operating as independently as it first appears. Magnificent.

Sog

Jonatan Schwenk (Student, Germany)

The cries of fish stuck in trees attract the attention of a nearby community of cave dwellers, who do not respond charitably. In the current political climate, it’s hard not to see these literal fish out of water terrorized by natives as a metaphor for refugee aid.

Min Börda (The Burden)

Niki Lindroth von Bahr (Narrative, Sweden)

Four stop-motion musical numbers about existential dread and naive optimism. Wonderfully executed in all respects. This was the last film in my last screening, and it was a great way to wrap up the festival.

Short Film Competition 3

Persistence of Vision III

Ismael Sanz-Pena (Non-Narrative, Norway, USA)

Effectively turns a cathedral facade into a zoetrope and sets it to music, with the statuary providing the percussion. Jaw-droppingly inventive.

A Photo of Me

Dennis Tupicoff (Narrative, Australia)

A boy watches the old film noir D.O.A. with his family. That’s pretty much it. Half or more of the runtime is literally just badly-cropped footage from D.O.A., a movie I like a lot more than this one.

The Luyas: Says You

Amanda Bonaiuto (Commissioned, USA)

A music video in which a woman wanders through the desert amid rhythmically pulsating succulents, with dehydration-fueled halucinations soon setting in. Enjoyable enough, but not very memorable.

The Adventure of Liangliang

Xiaotao Zhang, Wulian Zhang (Narrative, China)

Its skeumorphic pop-up book and paper sculpture conceits caught my attention early on, but they couldn’t overcome the generally impenetrable thematic and narrative murk, which far outlasted my patience.

Honda: Utility

Joshua Cox (Commissioned, USA)

A Russian doll effect of the camera swooping into Honda hatchbacks to reveal an array of different environments in which said hatchbacks might be enjoyed. It’s a smart concept and well-executed, but not enough to get me excited about a car commercial.

The Battle of San Romano

Georges Schwizgebel (Non-Narrative, Switzerland)

Briefly brings the Paolo Uccello paintings to cartoonish life. It kind of reminds me of The Mill and the Cross, which essentially did the same thing, except with Bruegel, Rutger Hauer, and a feature length.

Decorado

Alberto Vazquez (Narrative, Spain, France)

A bear becomes convinced his life and surroundings are a fabrication, á la The Truman Show. It effectively emulates the pitch and logic of a fever dream, something about its look and tone recall Tony Millionaire, and some of its vignettes are funny, but its surrealism was too disjointed for me.

Naked Island: We Eat Shit

Chris Lavis, Maciek Szczerbowski (Commissioned, Canada)

In which our hapless pigeon heroes lower their dietary standards. Easily the least of the Naked Island series in competition.

Lovestreams

Sean Buckelew (Narrative, USA)

Two people fall in love via instant message in the early aughts and discover they don’t know how to proceed or what to expect from each other. It’s a clever visualization of fantasy’s fragility in the face of reality, but it’s a touch too hokey for me.

El Tryptophan: Insect Express

Emily Pelstring (Commissioned, Canada)

Fractals and fuzzy geometric shapes contort and melt atop instrumental drone rock. Basically an old-school laser light show, probably best viewed with the aid of perception-altering substances.

Grid Corrections

Gerco de Ruijter (Non-Narrative, Netherlands, USA)

Animated intersections from hundreds (thousands?) of satellite photos, presumably sourced from Google Maps via a clever algorithm. Stunning.

Riot

Frank Ternier (Narrative, France)

It’s hard to make an assessment of this one because no subtitles were provided for its French narration. It seems to be drawing parallels between dance and social unrest provoked by racism.

BIFAN 2017: Leader Film

Kangmin Kim (Commissioned, South Korea)

A bumper for a fantasy film festival consisting of silhouetted men and wolves running through a parking lot and up a building wall before exploding into a bubbling mass of competing colors. Its multiplanar cutouts look nice, but it tries to do too much, and it seems like it would be wearying to have to watch it in front of every screening at the fest.

End of Recording

Lukas Conway, Stefan Jaroszonek, Olivier Sommelet (Student, Canada)

This is another one that didn’t stay with me long enough to be able to comment. Something about LSD.

More

Ben Meinhardt (Narrative, Canada, USA)

The kids are having the best day ever as the donkey farts out balloon after balloon. A quick slab of deliriously morbid humour for fans of Don Hertzfeldt and Nicholas Gurewitch.

Short Film Competition 4

Pheromone

Helmut Breineder (Non-Narrative, Germany)

Giant worms converge in writhing, orgiastic masses. Saturated, slick, mesmerizing.

Cloacinae

Serge Onnen, Sverre Fredriksen (Narrative, Netherlands, China)

A series of puppets with pennies for heads navigate a sewer and observe an assortment of muck congealing and separating. Clearly made by devotees of the Brothers Quay, and I enjoyed it as I would one of the Quays’ films—that is, quite a bit, and from an intellectual distance. For adventurous audiences only.

Koto no Shidai (The State of Things)

Ryo Orikasa (Commissioned, Japan)

A video for a Japanese hip-hop song about language, comprised of wriggling, wormy forms that occasionally coalesce into letterforms. I like the song, and I suspect the imagery is effective for people who can read Japanese, but I can’t, and the subtitles couldn’t make up the difference.

My Father’s Room

Nari Jang (Student, South Korea)

An examination of a girl’s distance from her alcoholic father and her fantasies of being rid of him. Propelled by a cardboard box motif that serves multiple symbolic functions and a consumingly somber tone that stops short of maudlin.

Spank Shot

Gina Kamentsky (Non-Narrative, USA)

Impressionistic rotoscoping of various sports. Looks nice, but it’s mostly empty calories, and the soundtrack feels compulsory.

Garden Party

Théophile Dufresne, Florian Babikian, Gabriel Grapperon, Lucas Navarro, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire (Student, France)

As several species of frog explore an opulent, abandoned home, the fate of its owner comes into focus. Exquisite CGI and perfect pacing. I do think it missed some more interesting narrative opportunities, but this is still top shelf stuff. I’m amazed it’s a student film.

Nos Faltan (Missing)

Emilio Ramos, Lucia Gaja (Narrative, Mexico)

A tribute to the dozens of students who disappered from Iguala, Mexico in 2014. It’s an effective political statement, and I feel bad calling it corny, but….

My Momma Is Bossies (My Mum’s Bonkers)

Naomi van Niekerk (Narrative, South Africa)

A lyrical ode to the filmmaker’s passionate mother. The sentiment is nice, and I get that it’s aimed at capturing the woman’s essence, but as a tribute, it feels a bit perfunctory.

Spectacle of the Real

Orion Tait, Thomas Schmid, Daniel Oeffinger (Commissioned, USA)

Perhaps the most visually stunning film in competition (I gasped audibly at its opening frames), diminished a bit by its narrator’s iffy musings on human potential. As pure eye candy, though, its synthesis of form, fluidity, and eye-popping color are extraordinary. I kind of wonder if this is the sort of thing Alex Steinweiss would be doing if he were born a couple generations later.

Rabbit’s Blood

Sarina Nihei (Narrative, UK, Japan)

A girl is clued into the motivation for her friend’s suicide by a strange rabbit. Reminiscent of the spare visual style and allegorical absurdism of Estonian animation, but no allegory is evident, and the bit of coherence it teases is abandoned in an unsatisfyingly abrupt ending.

Big Surf

Brian Smee (Student, USA)

A chronicle of the poor planning that led to a catastrophic dam failure in California in the 1920s. I’d like to learn more about the event, but I didn’t find this telling of the story engaging.

Robert Löbel (Narrative, Germany)

Two people are linked at the head by their hair, and they have different ideas about how to spend their time. A novel take on a 101 conflict, and its flat, sketchy colors are nice, but its resolution is underwhelming.

Short Film Competition 5

Jay-Z: The Story of O.J.

Mark Romanek, Jay-Z (Commissioned, USA)

This Jay-Z video appropriates the visuals of old racist cartoons, much as African Americans have done with the N word. A fitting accompaniment to the song’s haunting refrain, “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga / Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga / Still nigga, still nigga.”

Manivald

Chintis Lundgren (Narrative, Canada, Croatia, Estonia)

An adult fox, his domineering mother, and a plumber form an amusing and slightly poignant love triangle. Solidly executed throughout, though the look—Bojack Horseman by way of Eastern Europe—isn’t entirely for me.

Kötü Kiz (Wicked Girl)

Ayce Kartal (Narrative, Turkey)

A little girl introduces us to the various elements of her fanciful world, including her abusive grandfather. Does an okay job of subverting the “child’s cutesy view of the adult world” trope; its oft-moving camera and the colorful lines of its hand-drawn frames make for a good evocation of a child’s point of view.

Toer (Tour)

Jasmijn Cedee (Non-Narrative, Belgium, Netherlands)

Ink wash rotoscopes of bicycle races. Mercifully brief.

Life Cycles

Ross Hogg (Narrative, UK)

Rotoscoped, first-person perspective of the filmmaker’s repetitive and banal daily routine, made up entirely of jump cuts, peppered with glimpses of the escalating 2016 crisis in Syria. I guess the idea is something about wealthy nations’ comfortable ruts and our complicity in the suffering happening elsewhere in the world, which is fine, but it doesn’t quite espouse the mundane dread that seems to be intended.

Kakera (Fragments)

Naoyuki Tsuji (Narrative, Japan)

A pair of imps have a mirror that turns the observers’ reflections into various grotesqueries. Interesting idea, and I like the spare guitar score, but the fuzzy pencil-test aesthetic (in lieu of something more polished) is pretty unappealing.

HAFF 2017: Leader Film

Shiwei Ding, Chen Lu (Commissioned, Netherlands, China)

Having a bumper film for an animation festival in competition at another animation festival reinforces how insular and overtly self-referential the animation world can be. This one has some textural circles quivering along with nondescript buzzy frequencies. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, but I probably wouldn’t have invited it in the first place. This review is now longer than the film.

Only Lovers Leave to Die

Vladimir Kanic (Narrative, Canada, Croatia)

Various conversations in various languages are heard over chaotic and colorful cycles of Jackson Pollock-style splatters. The textures are nice, but they get old fast, and the whole thing goes on way too long for something lacking any remotely discernible goal.

Six God Alphabet Peter

Peter Millard (Non-Narrative, UK)

Six brightly colored, smiling faces demand that the titular Peter repeat the alphabet over and over, faster and faster. When it’s done well, I usually go for this kind of thing—it’s a form of comedy that values the timing more than the content—but this one felt too self-consciously WTF to me.

Strange Fish

Steven Subotnick (Non-Narrative, USA)

My favorite film in this screening. Something about the shape and movement of its spontaneous lines really appeals to me. Its seemingly random numbers remind me of Shellac’s “New Number Order.”

Four Faces of the Moon

Amanda Strong (Narrative, Canada)

Interesting personal journey through family, ancestry, and the oppression of indigenous people. A bit hard to follow, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but after a long day, it didn’t compel my commitment as much as it might have. Nice juxtaposition of impressionistic storytelling with representational puppet animation. It’ll probably fare better on a second viewing.

Naked Island: Saint-Louis Square

Chris Lavis, Maciek Szczerbowski (Commissioned, Canada)

This time, the pigeons are terrorized by a toddler and an owl. As with the others, bravo for recognizing brevity as the soul of wit, and it’s not unfunny, but it’s not ha-ha funny either.

Washed Out: Hard to Say Goodbye

Jonathan Hodgson (Commissioned, UK)

A music video for an innocuous electropop tune in which a rotoscoped guy wanders around the city. Not much here.

Short Film Competition Stats

There were just slightly more films on the lower half of my rating scale, but it’s worth noting that more films received very high ratings (four to five stars) than very low ratings (less than two stars).

Ratings Spread16132036101013

Ratings averaged about the same across the four categories, with the Student category faring better than usual thanks to a bump from the excellent Garden Party.

Category Film Count Avg. Rating
All 67
Narrative 28
Non-Narrative 14
Student 8
Commissioned 17

Breaking the ratings down by country gets a bit more interesting. Bolstered by the only film with a perfect score, France had the strongest showing. China’s and Japan’s low rungs on the ladder highlight my ongoing difficulty connecting with East Asia’s cultural exports.

Country Film Count Avg. Rating
France 6
Norway 1
Sweden 1
UK 7
USA 19
Germany 6
Netherlands 5
South Korea 2
Estonia 1
Turkey 1
Canada 13
Croatia 3
Belgium 1
India 1
Mexico 1
South Africa 1
Spain 1
Japan 5
China 4
Switzerland 3
Australia 1

Feature Film Competition

I could only fit three of the five features into my schedule. Incredibly, the other two—Lu Over the Wall and Night Is Short, Walk on Girl, the latter of which took the grand prize—both have the same director, Masaaki Yuasa.

My Dogs: Jinjin and Akida

Jong-Duck Cho (South Korea)

A young boy tries to find his place in his adopted dysfunctional family. Plenty of subtext about the effects of Westernization and rapid economic development in South Korea in the early 1980s, but this is more about family dynamics amid alcoholism, and its observations feel true, though I wish it did more showing and less telling.

Torrey Pines

Clyde Peterson (USA)

A girl entering adolescence grapples with her emerging queer identity and tries to survive a road trip with her unstable mother. It’s a nice little coming-of-age memoir, but not little enough. I think this would have worked better as a short. The effort spent establishing environs dwarfs the loose plotting and character-building that take place there, and the commitment to non-verbal narrative further limits the film’s ability to tell a personal story. With a few exceptions, its early-’90s pop-cultural signposts don’t reveal much about this particular kid: she was disgusted by the idea of becoming a woman, yes, but we see more of her watching the same TV shows, listening to the same music, and playing the same Gameboy as her peers. She goes past relatable and becomes almost generic.

Regardless of my quibbles, I applaud Peterson’s efforts, and hope the overlap between animation and queer cinema continues to grow.

I’ll Just Live in Bando

Yongsun Lee (South Korea)

A middle-aged drama professor faces a choice between a stable teaching career and a chance at his dream of being an actor. As his bad luck piles up, what began as a mild-mannered drama escalates into a complex and rather stressful thriller, without sacrificing much verisimilitude. One of the more interesting takes I’ve seen on the hell of responsibility.

Non-Competition Highlights

I only saw two non-competition screenings: a tribute to the Folimage studio and a selection of shorts preoccupied with death. My favorites are below.

The Sense of Touch

Jean-Charles Mbotti Malolo (2014, France)

A couple navigates the ups and downs of falling in love via sign language and dance, with a look that evokes Toulouse-Lautrec. Pretty captivating.

Beach Flags

Sarah Saidan (2014, France)

Young Iranian women compete to represent their country in a lifeguard competition. Without being dour, it focuses on the obstacles Iranian girls face when coming of age, and I love its design and quality of motion.

The Jump

Charles Huettner (2013, USA)

A pair of kids explores the past lives of souls that are floating by. The kind of film I’d like to see more of: using animation not just because it’s available but because no other method could do the story justice, and with a visual sophistication capable of making a fairly abstruse concept broadly accessible. It communicates a lot in under three minutes. Beautiful.