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2019 Ottawa International Animation Festival

21 countries, 76 shorts, 5 features, 48 hours

I made my annual voyage north this past weekend for the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Forsaking any notion of downtime, I made it to 12 screenings in the space of 48 hours this year. Below are my notes on each of the 56 films in the short film competition, as well as four of the features in competition, and a handful of other screenings. Links are provided to films and trailers when available, with embeds of some of my favorites.

Short Film Competition 1

I’m Not a Robot

Sean Buckelew (Narrative, USA)

A fun take on the mundane nightmare of the neverending CAPTCHA, beginning with asking the user to identify objective standards (fire hydrants, cars) before spiraling into value judgements (ugly people) and existential dread (sadness). These days, digital interface could be its own film genre (see Kate Reed Petty’s desktop films).

Kids

Michael Frei (Non-Narrative, Switzerland)

Hundreds of faceless figures move as a unit, stopping, starting, and changing direction seemingly arbitrarily. An interesting study in conformity and the network effect.

This Is a Fish Film

Michael Bohnenstingl (Student, Germany)

A fish wonders whether or not it should follow the crowd. That’s pretty much it. Amusing but slight.

Deszcz (Rain)

Piotr Milczarek (Narrative, Poland)

When someone is pushed off the roof of a building and saved by a superhero, others decide to sieze the moment. Great premise and comic timing. Very much my kind of thing. And the restrained palette, the faceless office workers, and the impossibly tall, nondescript office building give it a bit of a Playtime (Jacques Tati) vibe.

Gunno

Simeon Kondev, Felipe Di Poi Tamargo (Commissioned, USA)

A politician persuades an assassin’s gun to act against its own best interest, just as he did for his constituents. Effective, unflinching political sattire.

Alfred Fauchet, à droite, à gauche (Alfred Fauchet, Here and There)

Mathieu Georis (Student, Belgium)

Multiple instances of the same man try to use a single car to dispose of waste, running afoul of a cyclist and having other mishaps along the way. I initially thought this would be a fun metaphysical oddity, but it ultimately felt aimless.

Slug Life

Sophie Gate (Narrative, UK)

A woman has a love affair with a slug. One of those films that makes me wonder if my lack of interest in illicit drugs has been a mistake.

Sonolumin

Diana Reichenbach (Non-Narrative, USA)

A fulldome light study on a brick structure. Interesting combination of painting with light on long exposures and just blasting the structure with color at dramatic angles.

Girl in the Hallway

Valerie Barnhart (Narrative, Canada)

The true story of a young girl who was abducted and murdered, as told at a story slam from the perspective of her former neighbor. It’s a good story, and well told by the narrator, but while the visuals aim for rough and spontaneous, they feel unresolved to me.

Now 2

Kevin Eskew (Student, USA)

A series of poodles reveal themselves to be lawncare machines in disguise. With each reveal, a colorful, gelatinous jigsaw puzzle comes together, because why not? I can’t say why, but it works for me. Great palette and continuous line drawing style.

My Best Friend ‘Explodes’

Ainslie Henderson, Will Anderson (Commissioned, UK)

Two anthropomorophic circles freak out when it becomes apparent that one of them will explode. A fun little comedy routine, part of a series of three.

Toomas Beneath the Valley of the Wild Wolves

Chintis Lundgren (Narrative, Estonia, Croatia, France)

Struggling to find work after he’s fired from his job, Toomas makes use of his most desirable assets. Meanwhile, his wife is learning how to take charge. On par with Lundgren’s previous film, and pleasantly reminiscent of Bob’s Burgers’ brand of conflict resolution.

Short Film Competition 2

The Flounder

Elizabeth Hobbs (Narrative, UK, Austria)

Even after seeing it twice (it was also shown in the Tales of Lizzy Hobbes retrospective), I couldn’t follow the narrative, but the aesthetics are exquisite, all kinetic watery lines and chaotic colors and splashes and scrapes and scratches.

Orpheus

Priit Tender (Narrative, Estonia)

An armless man, with the help of a sentient pair of red gloves, entertains island natives and sea creatures with song and dance. That doesn’t begin to describe how bizarre this film is, even by Estonian standards. Whatever’s in the water over there, I hope they keep drinking it.

Rubble Bucket: Annihilation Song

Amanda Bonaiuto (Commissioned, USA)

With animated music videos, I sometimes like to guess if the visuals were inspired by the music, or if the animator just shoehorned an idea they already had into the commission. No way to know with this one, but I’m really hoping it’s a case of the song speaking to her: “Rideshare besieged by pelicans.”

Gravedad

Matisse Gonzalez (Student, Germany)

A girl living in a community affected by variable gravity describes her ecstatic highs and crushing lows. Interesting way to look at bipolar disorder, and learning to live with it rather than aspiring to “normalcy.”

WildAid: Hankograph

Koji Yamamura (Commissioned, Japan)

An effective PSA calling attention to ivory usage in hanko stamps, which Japanese people use to sign documents. Individual hanko stamps (made of wood, not ivory) were created for each frame of the animation, which dramatizes a brutal elephant hunt.

Ça mouille! (It’s Wet!)

Alexis Godard, Nan Huang (Student, France)

An ecosystem breaks down when the woman at the center of it breaks her mirror. Apart from its fantastical aspects, it’s an interesting example of what animation can get away with (stylized images of a woman pleasuring herself) that live action can’t.

The Good Fight Short: Troll Farm

Steve Angel (Commissioned, Canada)

I generally find Jonathan Coulton’s music too lyrically on-the-nose and too aesthetially bland, and this song is no exception, but the video is a concise and effective visual explanation of a hostile foreign government’s disinformation campaign.

Ravines

Guillaume Pelletier-Auger (Non-Narrative, Canada)

Jittery lines, alternately fibrous and liquid, terraform the frame, revealing rock-like structures.

The Day You Were Born

Richard O’Connor (Commissioned, USA)

A sister tells her younger brother about their deceased mother, whom he never got to know. I usually like StoryCorps’ stuff, and given the gravitas of this film’s true story, I wanted to like it more, but it didn’t tease any especially interesting insights out of its subjects.

Linzer Lust (Linz Delight)

Maya Yonesho (Non-Narrative, Austria, Japan)

P.O.V. of someone moving through public spaces holding up a hand-drawn flipbook that replicates what’s in front of them. Very cool.

Lidérc úr (Mr. Mare)

Luca Tóth (Narrative, Hungary, France)

A tiny man emerges from a larger man, begins to study him clandestinely, and eventually falls in love. This seemed to be going somewhere interesting, and then it just ended.

Short Film Competition 3

Don’t Know What

Thomas Renolder (Non-Narrative, Austria)

Sometimes it’s all in the edit. This experimental short finds a whole universe of rhythmic possibility in remixing just a few seconds of video footage. This one won the Grand Prize for Independent Short Animation.

Tricky Women 2019 Trailer

Marta Pajek (Commissioned, Poland)

I love when something this short can invite so many questions, refuse to answer any of them, and be all the stronger for it. Excellent example of the power of good sound design as well.

Shannon Amen

Chris Dainty (Narrative, Canada)

Artist’s tributes to their dead friends are risky endeavors: Audiences can resent being guilted into a positive response to a mediocre work. Luckily this one is audacious in the right way and makes a compelling protagonist, an artist in a tug-of-war between her sexuality and her faith.

The Six

Xi Chen, Xu An (Narrative, China)

A more interesting (if no less befuddling) cyclical piece than Xi’s previous film. By the time I started to kind of get my head around it, it was over. I hope I get another chance to see it.

My Best Friend: Rewinds

Ainslie Henderson, Will Anderson (Commissioned, UK)

The second short in the three-part My Best Friends series. Yet again our heroes are subjected to the whims of the animators-as-chaos-agents and must cope, this time by learning to speak backwards.

Duet

Jeanette Fantone (Student, USA)

This is apparently meant to be about two sisters, and there’s clearly intent to that effect, though it doesn’t quite come across. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful and prismatic series of seemingly half-remembered images.

The Levers

Boyoung Kim (Narrative, South Korea)

A young man must choose between wealth and conscience when he learns the truth about his strange new job. Spoiler: He chooses wealth. The end. A decent premise, presumably inspired by the Milgram experiment, but it eschews an arc in favor of a cynical straight line.

Sans objets (No Objects)

Moïa Jobin-Paré (Non-Narrative, Canada)

Figures are shown doing manual labor, but the objects of their labor are unknown. Hard to say if my tolerance for this one’s abstraction was limited due to seeing it at the end of a long day, but it didn’t move me.

The Fish

Pes (Commissioned, USA)

Pes’s singular talent for repurposing objects is put to good use in this clever PSA about marine plastic pollution.

Acid Rain

Tomek Popakul (Narrative, Poland)

A young woman’s hitchhiking odyssey takes a dangerous turn when she starts spending too much time on the road with a drug dealer. It has an appropriately distinct look befitting a raver road trip; one can only assume copious quantities of molly were consumed during production.

Short Film Competition 4

Ostatnia wieczerza (Last Supper)

Piotr Dumala (Narrative, Poland)

Turns the da Vinci painting into something of a modern dance work on a moving passenger train. Its economy of movement and scratchboard aesthetic work well enough, and the tense string quartet score is great, but the repetition of the “dance” gets tiresome. Apart from the narrative inherent in the painting, the film’s placement in the narrative category is puzzling. Also, this film is 13 minutes long with a limited crew and the end credits are at least two minutes long. I mean come on.

BRZ: Daylight

Amir B. Jahanbin (Commissioned, USA)

Nice use of color, chiaroscuro, and noisy digital texture. Not much else to hold onto, though.

Mémorable (Memorable)

Bruno Collet (Narrative, France)

A painter’s descent into dementia is, well, more painterly than most. A bittersweet story beautifully told with (I think) computer-generated puppets that capture the warmth of stop-motion.

Hurlevent (Windshriek)

Frédéric Doazan (Non-Narrative, France)

A book is caught in a wind storm, and the wind is blowing the type off the pages. I love cleverly animated typography, and aspects of this draw favorable comparisons to Robert Massin.

Fridge

Eugene Kolb (Narrative, USA)

A woman falls in with a vegan, is forced to recon with her carnivorous appetite’s effect on the environment, and fails to do so. Its minimal style (simple lines, flat colors, a touch of texture) and slacker sense of humor work well together, though it’s weirdly uneven for such a short film: all scattered humorous details at the front and pretty one-note after that.

Foglemmegei (Forget-Me-Not)

Katarina Lundquist (Student, Denmark)

An old man living in the woods must cope with the loss of his troll friend. Adequately executed 3-D but the whole thing pretty much feels like a tug-the-heartstrings Pixar audition.

Harley Davidson: 115th Anniversary

Jake Fried (Commissioned, USA)

Looks great, deftly managing a lot of competing imagery in a dirty ink style that seems appropriate for the brand. I don’t much look forward to entries in the Commissioned category (I’m more interested in litigating art than commerce at this festival, to whatever degree they can be decoupled), but at least they’re usually pretty short.

Sous la Canopée (Under the Canopy)

Bastien Dupriez (Non-Narrative, France)

Tropical birds in a rainforest, abstracted in a way that didn’t really speak to me. I had a hard time staying with it.

1980Yen: Takoyaki Story

Sawako Kabuki (Commissioned, Japan)

A colorful music video with pulsing, morphing, dancing shapes and figures. Something about this one’s simple style and fluid movement made it more tolerable for me than the others of its ilk in competition.

Blieschow

Christoph Sarow (Student, Germany)

A dialog-free coming of age tale on a farm, which hits the notes you’d expect. Impressive for a student film, making great use of exaggerated perspective to give the audience the same overloaded senses of its child protagonist.

Kinky Kitchen

Bea Höller (Commissioned, Germany)

Citrus fruit and a manual juicer get it on when no one’s looking. A decent enough quick joke, I guess, but a little too giddily dumb for me.

Movements

Dahee Jeong (Narrative, South Korea)

I’m very much game for an examination of varying rates of speed (Das Rad from 2002 comes to mind as a good example), but this film’s take on the concept was a little too oblique to be satisfying.

Short Film Competition 5

Baby Baby

Aggelos Papantoniou, Nikhil Markale (Narrative, Australia)

The title is the punch line, the joke is perfect, and it doesn’t waste a single second. My only complaint is that this was the very first thing I saw in the short film competition, and it set an impossibly high bar for what would follow.

Pinch

Diego Maclean (Narrative, Canada)

If Bill Plympton riffed on The Kids in the Hall’s Head Crusher character and handed the project to an apprentice, this is what you would get. Unsatisfying payoff, but a fun enough ride.

Juana Molina: Paraguaya Punk

Dante Zaballa (Commissioned, Argentina)

In music videos like this, sometimes their largely non-objective imagery grabs me despite my indifference to the music, and sometimes my enjoyment of the music gives me more tolerance for otherwise underwhelming imagery. More the former than the latter on this one, but nothing very memorable.

Physique de la tristesse (The Physics of Sorrow)

Theodore Ushev (Narrative, Canada)

A man’s recollections of how he was shaped by his Cold War boyhood and military service. Its encaustic painting technique is mesmerizing, but as an adaptation, the film feels overambitious, and I think I’d rather just read the original text.

The Beatles: Glass Onion

Alasdair Brotherston, Jock Mooney (Commissioned, UK)

An animated Beatles scrapbook. Goes in a variety of visual directions and is a reasonably enjoyable accompaniment to the song, but doesn’t rise above the blah of the standard music video paradigm. It made me think about how MK12’s animations in The Beatles Rock Band are excellent interstitials, but viewed as isolated films, they’re empty calories.

Entropia

Flóra Anna Buda (Student, Hungary)

Ah, art students. So desirous of inscrutable self-expression. I admire it, even when I find it ponderous. No idea what to tell you about this one except that art school kids love the concept of entropy and are sometimes good at making interesting looking things that purport to explore it. The credits were as long as the film, so you know this was a BIG PRODUCTION.

My Best Friend: Ends

Ainslie Henderson, Will Anderson (Commissioned, UK)

A fitting conclusion to the My Best Friends series.

Erodium Thunk

Winston Hacking (Non-Narrative, Canada)

Masterful, fast-moving collage work involving advertisements from the ’70s and ’80s. Viscerally unnerving but without provoking any actual emotion, which leaves you in a peculiar headspace. I expect this will reward many repeat viewings.

Flut (Flood)

Malte Stein (Student, UK)

I was surprised to see this is from the UK, since its dialogue is German. I assumed it was from the eastern part of that country, drawing as it does from the distinctive surrealism that characterizes much of the animation from the former Eastern Bloc. Those films tend to be hit or miss, and this is just grotesque, peculiar, and amusing enough to recommend it.

Herman Brown Is Feeling Down

Dan Castro, Kenneth C M Young (Student, UK)

I’m usually a sucker for this brand of interplay between abstract textures of color and sound, but the film’s trite portrayal of depression doesn’t fill out its runtime.

Finding Uranus

Ivan Li (Student, Canada, Hong Kong)

A sci-fi/surrealist take on incel masturbation. Uh, no thanks? Nevertheless, the crowd (or at least the students in the crowd) loved it, and it won multiple awards at this festival. Great. I remember the days when I prized what I perceived to be “shock value” above all else in humor. I’m glad they’re behind me.

Short Film Competition Stats

My ratings this year were generally middling to favorable, with just a few significant films on the high and low end of the spectrum.

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The student category would have done better than usual this year if it weren’t dragged down by the award-winning Finding Uranus.

Category Film Count Avg. Rating
All 56
Narrative 19
Non-Narrative 9
Student 12
Commissioned 16

Based on the ratings spread above, it’s unsurprising that the countries with the largest sample sizes averaged in the middle of the scale, but it’s nice to see a strong showing from Austria, Japan, and Poland.

Country Film Count Avg. Rating
Australia 1
Austria 3
China 1
Japan 3
Poland 4
Switzerland 1
Canada 9
Croatia 1
Estonia 2
France 5
German 4
UK 8
USA 11
Hungary 2
South Korea 2
Argentina 1
Belgium 1
Denmark 1
Hong Kong 1

Feature Film Competition

L’extraordinaire voyage de Marona (Marona’s Fantastic Tale)

Anca Damian (France, Romania, Belgium)

Marona’s Fantastic Tale is a dog’s life story in her own words. Though its namesake’s narration is frequently incisive and eloquent—the dog’s naive perspective on humanity asks some good questions—the film does get a bit treacly here and there. Luckily, any such shortcomings are bulldozed by its endless appetite for graphic invention. Marona’s various humans, the sums of their loves and fears and desires, are defined above all by shape and locomotion, and their forms and movements are only tenuously beholden to physical reality. Seeing animation this effectively expressive at feature length is a rare treat.

J’ai perdu mon corps (I Lost My Body)

Jérémy Clapin (France)

I like the idea of a character study focused on hands, and I Lost My Body is a frequently compelling execution of the concept. However, its surrealist subplot (a disembodied hand’s epic journey back to its owner) is mostly a distraction, its reliance on various dramatic tropes gets wearisome, and its score pushes way too hard to elicit emotions it hasn’t quite earned. (These Stranger Things arpeggiated ’80s synth chords thing are really a thing now, huh?)

Tux and Fanny

Albert Birney (USA)

Tux and Fanny cheerfully navigate daily life in a pixelated world: trying to watch multiple TV shows at once, using their cat as a piano, and getting into scrapes with fire ants and magical deer. It’s probably a little longer than it needs to be, I wish its comedic rhythms were a bit more varied, and its Slavic language choice seems to be needlessly calculated to amp up the weirdness for a primarily American audience. But overall it’s a breezy and strangely sweet series of connected vignettes juxtaposing off-kilter jokes with existential musings. In some ways it feels like a slightly more accessible neighbor of Phil Mulloy’s Christies series.

Away

Gints Zilbalodis (Latvia)

The sole survivor of a plane crash tries to find his way back to civilization through a semi-mystical wilderness while being slowly pursued by an ominous giant, It Follows-style. With strategically undercooked cell shading and a quest-oriented narrative, Away feels more like a video game than a film, but it’s a game I enjoyed watching. Incredibly, in keeping with its protagonist’s solitary journey, this whole film was made entirely by one person. Not so long ago, it would have taken someone a lifetime to pull this off.

Other screenings

Animation Outlaws: All About Spike & Mike

Kat Alioshin (USA)

Spike & Mike were probably the most important stewards of the underground animation scene in the ’80s and ’90s. I fondly recall my introduction to that world via the 1994 incarnation of their festival, which introduced me to, among others, the amazing Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit. Animation Outlaws is a fun trip through that wild world, interviewing many notable animators (and showing clips of their classic films) who first found an audience with Spike & Mike’s help, but it doesn’t get far below the surface.

The Mischievous Musings of Piotr Bosacki

Bosacki’s films are basically physics and philosophy lectures with lo-fi animated diagrams to support his ideas, which are spoken in an impossibly dry monotone. I know it doesn’t sound all that enticing, and some of his concepts are so out there that I frequently lost the thread. But wow if I wasn’t fascinated throughout. One bit that stuck with me (which I think he was quoting from someone else): “Experts keep learning more about less until they know everything about nothing.”

The Tales of Lizzy Hobbs

Most of the films in this retrospective, frequently stories from British history animated in watercolor, weren’t really for me. But I really dug Hobbs’s more recent work, including the aforementioned The Flounder and G-AAAH, a film about Amy Johnson’s historic intercontinental flight in 1930. Prior to her aviation fame, Johnson was a typist, so G-AAAH was animated on a typewriter. Fantastic.