'THE SUBJECTIVITY OF MEMORY' An image from Waltz with Bashir.
There are moments when, by coincidence or an aligning of the stars, something amazing accidentally comes together. Here in Providence, next week is one of those times, as two complimentary events combine to create one of the finest showcases of contemporary animation that you'll find anywhere in North America this year. And it's all free.
David Polonsky, art director of the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, will give a talk about the making of the film at the RISD Auditorium on April 13 at 6:30 pm. Rhode Island College then rounds up notable international and local cartoons for its Festival of Contemporary Animation on April 17 and 18 at Sapinsley Hall.
Waltz with Bashir, which won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film in January and was nominated for the Academy Award in the same category, tells of director Ari Folman's efforts to recall his experiences as an Israeli soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War — and in particular the massacre by Israel-allied Lebanese Christian militias of thousands of civilians in a pair of Beirut refugee camps surrounded by Israeli troops. "The Israeli army almost knowingly allowed the Christian Phalangists to do that," Polonsky tells me. "Not enough was done to stop the massacre. It's a very sore spot in the Israeli consciousness.
"Because the film is dealing with memory and there are scenes of hallucination and dreams, the only way to do these things for Ari is animation," Polonsky says. "The basic idea of the film is the try to deal with the subjectivity of memory, but still not let go of the fact that these are real events."
The visuals, mainly done with Flash software, mix limited animation that suggests cutout flat paper puppets with more fully-rendered motion, as in a scene depicting a veteran's nightmare of being hunted by a pack of snarling dogs. The sense of movement was often created by chopping drawings into many little pieces in the computer and then using the machine to manipulate them.
"We made a point of not talking to the [veterans] about" how it looked, Polonsky says. "We didn't want to get too involved in the stories. We wanted to have that kind of freedom to have our own rendering of the stories. After they saw the film, many of those people said that's exactly what it looked like." He chalks it up to the vicissitudes of memory.
Rhode Island College's Festival of Contemporary Animation, part of the school's Spring Celebration of the Arts, was organized by Rhode Island College film studies department head Bonnie MacDonald, animation professor Jo Dery, and screenwriting professor Maya Allison, who is also director at 5 Traverse Gallery in Providence.
In an era in which digital animation has come to dominate the field — from Pixar's WALL•E to South Park — the festival program is distinguished by a devotion to hand-made techniques — drawing, painting, puppet animation, paper cutout animation — then processed digitally (Flash, After Effects). An example is Providence filmmaker Daniel Sousa's Minotaur, which will be screened during the roundup of local talent on the second night. It began with drawings made on a light table, which were cut out and mounted on stiff cardboard, and then positioned and filmed in a 3D set.
"You can see when a computer animates something. Everyone can tell. When there's less of an intermediary between the animator and the animation, the idiosyncrasies that are created are fascinating to me," Dery says. "Movement is the language of animation. How something moves tells you how to feel about it . . . How they move says who they are."
The April 17 program begins at 7 pm with a selection of the best of the 2008 Ottawa Animation Festival, plus films by William Kentridge of South Africa, Japanese animator Koji Yamamura, RISD grad Takeshi Murata, Lilli Carre of Chicago, British artist David Shrigley, and Leif Goldberg of Providence. On April 18 at 7 pm, New England animators — Nancy Andrews of Seal Harbor, Maine, and Jo Dery, Lorelei Pepi and Sousa, all of Providence — will screen and discuss their work.
"I think every film we chose really deals with narrative in an interesting way," Dery says. "The films are not cartoons. They're not a string of sight gags. They have more weight to them. It's personal, not commercial work. It leans away from cartoons and more toward art."