MONSTRA CELEBRATES ITS 20TH BIRTHDAY
The 2021 edition of Monstra saluted Belgian animation. This is especially fitting because the Belgian physicist and mathematician Joseph Plateau was one of the first people to demonstrate the illusion of a moving image. He did this in 1829 by using two counter-rotating disks with repeated drawn images in small increments of motion on one disk and regularly spaced slits in the other. This invention was called the Phenakistoscope from the Greek for “trick the eye”.
It was the first widespread animation device to create a fluid illusion of movement. Plateau collaborated with Belgian painter and lithographer Jean-Baptiste Madou, who designed the images for some, probably most, of the early phenakistoscopes. To pay tribute to the Belgian inventor the festival sent thousands of phenakistoscopes to Portuguese schools for students to paint and assemble.
Because Belgium has three official languages, Flemish, French, and German, as well as three distinct cultures, the animation styles are very diverse. Twenty-two separate programs were devoted to Belgian animation. Four screenings were given over to Raoul Servais, a National Treasure of Belgium. Born in 1928, his father showed 9.5 mm films to his young son on their Baby Pathé projector. Charley Chaplin, Charles Vanel, and Felix the Cat films were often screened.
After secondary school, Raoul entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Gent (KASK) in the decorative arts department. Although there was no film department at the academy, he had already been bitten by the animation bug. Raoul and his teacher made his first camera out of a cigar box. Although Raoul was disappointed with the quality of the image of his first film, Spokenhistorie (Ghost Story), he knew that he wanted to continue experimenting with animation. The rest is history.
After graduating from KASK he went to work as an assistant to the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte and by 1963 he had become a noted animator. Because Raoul did not receive any formal film training and had to spend years unraveling the secrets of animating, he founded the Animated Film Department at KASK in Gent so that animation education would be available for the next generation. Over his long career, he has received more than fifty awards, including the National Film Board of Canada’s Norman McLaren Heritage Award as well as the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Raoul was the first Belgian to receive the Palm d’ Or at Cannes for his short film Harpya and the Grand Prix at Annecy for Nocturnal Butterflies. He was also awarded the Lion d’ Or for the Best Animated Film at Venice in 1966 for Chromophobia. Now in his ’90s, Raoul has just completed a new short film that will soon be out on the festival circuit.
During Monstra, Raoul’s feature film, Taxandria (1994) was screened. In the 82-minute film, a lighthouse keeper leads a young prince toward an imaginary world, Taxandria, where the boy learns about the power of love and the value of liberty. Fourteen of his short films were screened in two separate programs as well as Raoul Servais, Memories of An Artist, a 2017 documentary by Bastien Martin.
Anima, The Brussels International Animation Festival celebrated its 40th Anniversary this year. Two programs curated by the festival staff, Festival Anima Best of 40 Years and Best of 2020 was introduced by Karin Vandenrydt. Karin developed the Flemish-speaking arm of Anima and is a member of the selection committee. Since 2020 she has been co-director of the festival along with Dominique Seutin. Karin was also a member of the Monstra Feature Film Jury.
As the title Best of 40 Years implies, the ten films in the program are all-time Anima favorites. They included Michael Dudok de Witte’s Academy Award-winning Father and Daughter and Tragic Story With Happy Ending, which earned Regina Pessoa the Annecy Grand Prix Cristal in 2006. The Best of 2020 showcased films from the February 2020 festival; Anima was the last live festival before lockdown. When I was there in 2020 I had no idea that I would not sit in a theatre and watch live film for another year and a half.
A program of Independent Animation in French was also curated by Anima Festival. Independent Animation in Flemish was programmed by Isabelle (Iza) Cracco and Frank Poncelet. A graduate of KASK, Iza has taught animation at the Academie voor Beeldende Kunst Gent since 1994. She also works for the Raoul Servais Foundation, teaching animation to children of all ages as well as being an active member of the ASIFA Animation Workshop Group.
Iza’s latest film Gloria is about a woman who loses her husband and unborn child in an automobile accident. We watch as Gloria tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered life and move on. This poignant film is a reminder of how fragile life is. Gloria was screened at the closing ceremony.
Iza’s fellow curator, Frank Poncelet, is also an independent artist, director and producer. He is currently working on Video Art using Neutral Style Transfer techniques and producing a sequel to his 2017/18 short film Alpha. The new film will be titled The Voyage Home. Iza was a member of the Student Film Competition Jury and Frank was a juror on the Super Short Film Competition Jury for films three minutes and under.
The Flemish program included such classics as the multi-award-winning Oh Willy (2012) by Emma de Swaef and Mark James Roels. The César Award-winning film (the French equivalent of the Academy Award) is the story of a fifty-something Willy, who returns to the naturist community where he grew up, and his mother lived, to visit his dying mother. No screening would be complete without Emma de Swaef and Mark James Roels’ 45-minute classic This Magnificent Cake. The title of the film comes from the words uttered by King Leopold, “I want a piece of this magnificent cake” when he declared the Congo his possession. The film is set in the late 19th Century, interweaving the stories of five different people, a troubled king, an aged pygmy working in a luxury hotel, a failed businessman on an expedition, a porter who is lost in the jungle, and a young army deserter. As with their previous short, Oh Willy, This Magnificent Cake is a stop motion film utilizing wool, felt, and textiles to create the puppets. It is a magnificent film indeed.
Belgium has numerous high-quality animation studios in both the Flemish and Wallonia halves of the country. Brussels-based NWAVE is responsible for such theatrical releases as The Queen’s Corgi and the Big Foot series.
Founded in 1979, Camera-Etc, located in Liège in the Wallonian (French-speaking) area of Belgium, produces and co-produces creative animated films. The studio holds workshops where children, young people, and adults make films together in a group with the assistance of professional animators. Camera-Etc films are screened at festivals throughout the world.
No tribute to Belgian animation would be complete without Studio Panique! located in Brussels. Founded by two longtime friends, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, who met at university, the studio is best known for their A Town Called Panic films. The Panic films are created using small plastic toys and feature Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, who all share a house. Along with three standalone films, A Town Called Panic was a television series that ran from 2002 to 2009. The 2009 feature-length film, A Panic in the Village: The Movie can currently be seen on Netflix.
Aside from the Cowboy, Indian, and Horse series, Studio Panique! co-produced the award-winning Ernest and Celestine which was directed by Aubier, Patar, and Benjamin Renner. The film was awarded the 2013 César as well as receiving an Oscar nomination and nominations in six categories at the Annie’s.
The studio’s latest project is fifty-two episodes of the series Rotten Dog. Directed by Patar, Aubier, and Davy Durand, Rotten Dog and his friend the cat Chaplapla triumph in thirteen-minute adventures over all adversities in the alley where they live. The delightful characters are adapted from books by Marc Boutavant and Colas Gutman.
Comics and graphic novels are a large part of Belgian culture. It is only natural that the characters in them should come alive on theatre and television screens. During Monstra the Portuguese audiences got to see such iconic figures as Astérix and the great Belgian hero TinTin in action. The TinTin in Raymond Leblanc’s 1972 TinTin and the Shark Lake is the real thing, not the Spielberg version that lost most of the charm of TinTin when he became a motion-capture character.
Along with Astérix and Cleopatra (1968) and TinTin and the Shark Lake, four other classic Belgian feature films were screened. My favorite of the films is The Rabbi’s Cat (2011). Based on the work of the French comics artist Joann Sfar, it is the story of a rabbi, his daughter, and their cat who becomes a talking philosopher after swallowing the family parrot. Set in 1930’s Algeria during a time when the Jewish and Arab communities co-existed, the film is as rich in humor as it is in wisdom and is visually beautiful.
Monstra Masterclasses were particularly strong this year. In keeping with the Belgian theme, Anima Festival Co-Director Karin Vandenrydt gave the audience a look at the rich history of Belgian animation. Utilizing slides and film clips Karin presented an entertaining overview of a small country with a big animation tradition.
Portuguese director and producer Abi Feijo gave one of the most entertaining and informative presentations I have attended in quite a while. The catalog said that Abi would “talk about the different paths his love for animation has led him”. Indeed he did, he spent most of his time talking about his Magic Lantern and showing us some of his large collection of magic lantern slides. The Magic Lantern is an early type of image projector that uses pictures that are paintings, prints, or photographs on transparent plates, usually made of glass. The magic lantern was the forerunner to the slide projector. Abi’s enthusiasm and joy as he showed off his impressive slide collection was infectious and I left the theatre feeling that I had enjoyed a rare treat and a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half.
Co-directing films is a rare art unto itself. Somehow Portuguese animators/directors Vasco Sa and David Doutel have managed to do it for twelve years and are still close friends. With three short films to their credit, O Sapateiro (The Shoemaker) 2011; Fuligem (Soot) 2014; and Agouro, 2018, the pair are now at work on another short film as well as a feature-length film.
When I asked David what is the secret to their success working together, he said that “we’ve always been more friends than co-workers or co-directors. In fact all the base for the path we made until the creation of the studio has that principle and values well established: friendship and trust make all the rest a natural result of the coincident passion of us all and that would be animation film.
As if David and Vasco are not busy enough, they have started an animation studio in Porto, BAP Animation Studio Cooperative. BAP is a collective of directors and animators. The studio has produced such films as Alexandra Ramires’ Elo (Ties) which won best Portuguese Short Film at Monstra as well as the audience award and Alexandre Siqueira’s multi-award-winning film Purple Boy. Besides creating and producing amazing films David and Vasco are two of the nicest people that I know.
Puppet animation has a rich tradition in Portugal. Lisbon is home to a wonderful puppet museum that not only pays homage to this tradition but also houses a large collection of puppets from around the world. Each year during the festival in conjunction with Monstra, the museum presents a special exhibition. Previous expositions have showcased the works of the Brother’s Quay and the Portuguese animator Jose Miguel Riberio.
This year the honor went to Bruno Caetano and his lovely film O Peculiar Crime Do Estranho Sr. Jacinto (The Peculiar Crime of Oddball Mr. Jay). In a city where any form of nature has been forbidden, Mr. Jay, a simple man, finds the courage to challenge what he believes is wrong and in so doing puts the world back on the right track. Mr. Jay proves that one man can make a difference. The film has been shown at over a hundred festivals worldwide and has garnered more than three dozen awards and distinctions.
Nik, Alex Siqueira and I were lucky enough to have a private tour of the exhibition with the film’s director Bruno Caetano. The sets are amazingly detailed and mirror the streets, squares,…