For the second (and hopefully final) year in a row, the Ottawa International Animation Festival was held virtually. This is always the busiest time of year for me, but with the addition of Plus Equals and a couple of other projects, things really piled up this year, which meant I could only make time for the short film competition and two features (one of which, Archipelago, was sadly not available to view outside of Canada).
In general, this year’s films were noticeably preoccupied with a) grief, and b) dogs, and there were significantly fewer films than usual, too. I felt less engaged than in years past, but I’ll chalk that up to the many distractions in play. Experiencing the festival in a theatrical setting is a much more focused affair, so I really hope that’s possible again next year.
Short Film Competition Stats
The films in competition this year generally feel to me like a less memorable crop, so I was surprised to see that the majority of them scored three stars or more.
All categories’ average scores landed in the middle as usual, though the student films had a weaker showing.
|Category||Film Count||Avg. Rating|
Check out France and Slovenia kicking ass! A better than average year for Canada, too. Croatia, not so much.
|Country||Film Count||Avg. Rating|
|Hong Kong SAR China||1|
Short Film Competition 1
A fun music video that gets a surprising amount of mileage out of its two simple, hand-drawn characters’ limited repertoire. I’m especially fond of the periodic splashes of psychedelic color.
An incisive snapshot of an emotionally abusive relationship, luxuriating in every detail of the preparation of a meal only to show how quickly a loving gesture can be undone by spite. Its visual technique is hard to pin down, but the craft is on point and effective across the board, especially the editing. The touch of comedy at the end is both cathartic and extremely dark.
The name says it all. A desaturated potpourri of Scotch tape, a mechanical pencil, a limp snake, and various fleshy human forms that’s equal parts mesmerizing and unsettling.
Kula (The Tower)
Functionally reminiscent of last year’s excellent Opera, in that it consists of a single vertical tracking shot of a structure abuzz with activity, but the similarities unfortunately end there. The frivolous images here are neither thematically resonant nor visually stimulating.
Conceptually and technically strong ad for a good cause, demonstrating a person’s evolution through a stop-motion overview of the belongings that move in and out of their life.
Sobaki pakhnut morem (Dogs Smell Like the Sea)
Narratively slight (something about a woman who’s too shy to face the delivery man she fancies), but oh so beautiful to look at. Gestural figures with just enough detail rendered in vivid watercolors.
Part of a larger avant-garde opera and very much my kind of thing. Abstract shapes, textures, and typography that are obviously digital but have a tactile printed feel, whose hypnotic rotations are displayed in dramatic perspective and semi-soft focus. The lyrics’ connection to the aesthetics is unclear, but I love the uneasy atmosphere the music and visuals create. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the suite; from skipping around a bit, it looks like other chapters are reminiscent of Stan Brakhage.
Signal films for animation festivals rarely rise above the level of eye candy or a quick joke, so this one stands out for its effort to use its limited time to actually say something about the moment it’s tasked with representing. Namely, that it’s hard to eat popcorn while wearing a face mask. Thoroughly charming clay animation perfectly paired with an appropriate soundtrack.
I enjoyed the bright yellows and blues and quasi-Cubist look of this ode to the Latvian Honor Guard, even if its meandering imagination of their inner life didn’t really interest me.
Something of a primal scream from a girl robbed of her ethnic identity, framed around the seven deadly sins and featuring a tug-of-war between her Métis ancestors and the Christian colonialists who displaced them. Well-executed design and stop-motion animation, but otherwise, its outrage is far too plainspoken to be as affecting as it should be.
Short Film Competition 2
Never been much of a Sleater-Kinney fan, and apparently this half-assed video isn’t going to change that.
On a family camping trip, a condescending dad’s outdoorsman bluster accelerates the deterioration of his marriage. A beautifully designed, lit, and photographed stop-motion puppet film, but it hinges on some ill-fitting surrealism that doesn’t satisfactorily resolve.
Dogadjaji za zaboraviti (Events Meant to Be Forgotten)
Based on a poem about ephemerality, I suppose it’s appropriate that this collage of photographs found at a flea market is easily forgettable.
Cute, fun, silly, fine.
Focusing on the 2016 Islamic State bombing of a Brussels metro train, this short documentary deftly weaves footage of the event and its aftermath with the narration of a survivor who remembers none of it. Several segments slowly moving through exploded particles that vaguely articulate the train put you inside the moment in a very specific and unnerving way. Somber but not mawkish, which puts it well above most commemorations of this sort of tragedy.
Norges blindeforbund “Hjelp, vi har en blind pasient” (Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted “Help! We have a blind patient”)
These PSAs starring fabric puppets advocating for empathy for the blind are darkly comic in a way that I’m not sure is really appropriate, but the message certainly gets across.
The naive hand-drawn look of this one isn’t really for me, but I appreciate its insightfully poetic evaluation of a romantic relationship that has run its course.
David OReilly “set up a voice mailbox to record people’s experiences during the pandemic,” and this film is a compilation of those recordings edited to capture a range of emotions. The recordings are a well-assembled snapshot of an historic time, and they’ll make a good document when we have more distance from the pandemic, but it all feels a little too soon. The visuals are effectively a demo of the 3-D synthesizer OReilly built, and while they occasionally dovetail with the audio’s emotional content, they mostly feel pretty arbitrary.
Leah Shore brings her distinctively colorful and absurdist style to a particularly of-the-moment (and characteristically NSFW) Peaches song, and it’s a wonder these two haven’t been working together all along.
Short Film Competition 3
A dad reconnects with his childhood love of hockey by getting his son his first hockey stick. Lovingly made, but too sentimental for my taste.
One of the more engaging electronic music visualizations in recent memory. Frenetic and busy but not overwhelming, and a nice combined focus on rhythm and texture, all within a steadily rotating cube. The beginning feels disconnected from the rest of it, but I don’t mind. I appreciate its strange visual logic.
I hate to knock what is obviously a very personal film about a child’s experience of her father’s illness and death, but dead dad films are a crowded field, and this one just doesn’t stand out.
Spontaneous, nonsensical exercises in lo-fi 3-D animation are a crapshoot. In the right hands, they can be quite charming. I guess these weren’t the right hands.
A frank discussion of the subhuman treatment of Slovenian women in recent generations, rendered in drawings as crude as the patriarchal attitudes they represent. The pairing of the naive visual style and the narration’s shrugging, “that was just the way it was” attitude makes for a quietly horrifying experience.
Mizushiri certainly has a style, and I like it. Interesting that the same look and feel—pendulous forms, languid movements, desaturated pinks and greens, all coated in a thin haze—can be alternately anxiety provoking (as in Mizushiri’s “Anxious Body) and calming (as it is in this piece).
Kind of a fun pixilation setpiece, with the camera looking straight down on a real person moving around within the profile of a house drawn on the surface of a stage. But it’s scatterbrained and amateurish enough to make its three minutes feel a little longer than they are.
A visual exploration of Christian Orthodox tradition and traveling theater troupes. Too peripheral to be properly educational, but its bold color and graphic look are plenty engaging on their own.
I never know quite what to make of these sorts of fashion brand commissions. For this one, Bárbara Cerro appears to have been given free reign to do her thing, and she chose to make this vague and vibey piece about femininity. No idea what it has to do with Dior’s offerings, but its line work and colors and textures are all nice to look at.
A beautiful and spare hand-drawn elegy for a society in decline.
Short Film Competition 4
I love the interaction of expressive rotoscoping and abstract imagery here, but the writing feels overwrought.
I’m always impressed by the 2-D stop motion technique of animating clay on glass, but it seems like it too often is used to just render a bunch of animals running around in nature. Neither the music nor the visuals spoke to me in this one.
On several occasions, this film drops hints that it’s going to resolve to some kind of coherent payoff, but it never does. As a concept, that’s not a problem, but there’s not enough here otherwise to sustain its meandering.
A whole bunch of different flavors of kaleidescopic animation of hands. It does what it sets out to do very well, but just a few hours after my initial viewing, I had to rewatch it to write this review because I couldn’t remember anything about it. Somehow it’s not quite the sum of its parts.
Udaraba 2021 Campaign
A cute commercial demonstrating the various activities available at a summer camp, with invisible campers allowing the viewer to project themselves onto the scene. Playful clay animation with nice transitions between the vignettes.
Zak Margolis’s name is somehow familiar enough that I was sure I had seen his work in recent years, but apparently the video he made for one of my favorite Unwound songs nearly 20 years ago is the only thing that previously crossed my path. Anyway, this meditation on a hallway window framing the coming and going of the days is an appropriate document of a housebound era.
Я-РЫБА (I’m a Fish)
I love the unapologetically warped visual style here, and for a time I thought the unseen force dominating the protagonist was a political allegory à la Jiri Trnka’s The Hand, but it unfortunately reveals itself instead to be a trite mother/child “if you love something, set it free” scenario. It’s further undermined by its ostentatious soundtrack, a pastiche of Hollywood film score tropes.
I don’t have much patience for fables, even ones as well-produced as this one, but I was struck by something it made me realize: The stories and cultures of indigenous populations upended by colonialism are always so preoccupied with antiquated spirituality and ancestry because they’ve been denied the opportunity to make their own version of modernity.
Short Film Competition 5
I always appreciate a novel perspective on an age-old idea, and this distinctively Estonian take on adult ennui and escapist fantasy does not disappoint.
A fun stop-motion PSA decrying single-use plastics with wonderfully exaggerated character designs.
There probably aren’t too many coming-of-age stories that involve a boy befriending a slug, and this one is thoughtful and well-paced. Its rough drawing style and low-contrast monochromatic style aren’t really for me, though.
Adult Swim “Happy Human Holiday!”
This year’s obligatory Adult Swim bumper featuring another self-consciously bizarre distortion of Rick and Morty. This one is Christmas themed and interesting enough for the 15 seconds it lasts.
Explorations of pure form are highly subjective, but for me they’re not any more hit or miss than any other category at this festival, and I wish we got to see just a few more of them. This one is a great journey without a destination, a slowly morphing mass of colors bleeding into each other that at times seems to intentionally invoke the artifacting of various digital compression schemes.
Probably the most lovingly rendered film in the fest, a feat of animated pointilism with boldly kinetic camera work. I was bowled over by its color, technique, and cinematography, but its broader visual style and story (another tale of parental loss) didn’t connect with me as much.
Maybe one of the most unique visualizations of music I’ve seen, and thoroughly delightful in every respect. My only complaint is that it’s too short! Its interpretation of Chris P. Thompson’s idiosynchratic piano composition playfully moves between two and three dimensions in a way that reminds me a little of the web-based Presstube animations of the early 2000s.
A kooky little film noir that takes place, as the title suggests, on a bus at night, and ends in a truly bizarre spasm of violence. Even though its influences are plain (Hitchcock, Tarantino), I can still confidently say I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Short Film Competition 6
Mitovebuli Sofeli (Abandoned Village)
I like the idea here: a static shot of an abandoned village viewed over time as a sort of organism, shaped in equal measure by the lives of its former inhabitants and the natural world now overtaking it. But the meditative execution is ultimately subtle to a fault.
A glitchy 3-D music video with a dreamlike quality that keeps the violence of its heist narrative from feeling at odds with the music’s chill vibe.
An affecting autobiography of a trans woman, making excellent use of the emotionally expressive advantages available in hand-drawn animation.
This apparently has something to do with taking the minotaur from Picasso’s Vollard Suite and removing it from the gender binary? I wasn’t into it.
Minimalist chamber music accompanied by prismatic animated dots? Yes please. Squarely in my wheelhouse, to be sure, but not in a preaching-to-the-choir kind of way. Lots to love about the various systems of movement it discovers for its strands of dots, which are likely to give me ideas for Plus Equals.
A pitch-black look at the mundanity of evil, imagining the relationship between a woman in the Chilean secret police and her dog, who is trained in torture. Apart from the Quay brothers’ work, I don’t recall seeing porcelian dolls used in animation much, and as this film demonstrates, you can really cultivate an unsettling vibe with them. A memorable ending to this year’s short film competition.
Feature Film Competition
Forty-five minutes into this thing, I didn’t have satisfactory answers to the questions “What is happening here and why should I care?” so I turned it off.