14TH ANIMASYROS & THE 7TH AGORA : 22 – 26 September 2021, Syros, Greece

For five days each year the beautiful island of Syros Greece becomes the capital of Greek animation. Along with numerous screenings, the festival also encompasses a Media Literacy program and the Agora which is the market section of the festival.

The beautiful town of Hermoupolis, Syros

This year the theme of AnimaSyros was freedom and revolution on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution. Inspiration was drawn from the words of the Greek revolutionary hero Theodoros Kolokotronis, who said “Just like rain, the desire for freedom fell upon us . . . and we started the revolution”.

In keeping with the theme two programs of short films were screened under the title Concepts of Freedom. They explored freedom in many different guises from revolutionary war and the struggle for human rights to animal liberation and personal freedom. French-born Austrian animator Rebecca Akoun captures the theme perfectly in Body Stranded. Based on an interview, this true story is about David who is Jewish and trapped in post-revolutionary Iran. Living in a world of constant fear, censorship, repression, and violence that Akoun represents in black and white drawings, David’s only escape into a world of color is through art.

Body Stranded

Some people like David, who lives a nightmarish existence, long for freedom while others don’t know when they are well off. In Kiki The Feather, Kiki, a little canary, has never known anything but the safety of her cage and the little old lady that feeds her. She sits on her perch all day watching the birds outside her window and dreams of flying with them. One day, with the aid of a cocktail umbrella, Kiki makes her escape to freedom where she learns that the world can be a scary and cruel space. The five-and-a-half-minute film by Julie Rembauville reminded me that I should count my blessings and be happy for what I have.

Kiki The Feather

Along with the many gems in the Concept of Freedom short film screenings, three feature films were also shown. Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers is well on its way to joining The Secret of Kells and  Song of the Sea as another classic for Tomm and the crew at Cartoon Saloon. The film is set in 1650 Ireland which was ruled by England. Oliver Cromwell sends English bounty hunters to try to rid the forest outside of the city walls of Kilkenny of wolves. Bill Goodfellow arrives from London to hunt the wolves with his daughter, Robin, who learns that there is more to the wolves than meets the eye. She also begins to understand how badly the English treat Ireland, its people and its environment and why the Irish are fighting so hard to be free.

My Favorite War is the personal story of director Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen. Ilze grew up in Cold War-era Latvia which was under Soviet control. She believed all of the Soviet propaganda she was brainwashed with at school until the day she discovered the remains of a German soldier buried in a sandbox. Soon she began to discover other buried lies. Ilze attended Anima Syros and gave a presentation at the Agora about animated Documentary making. She said that animating a documentary can keep a story true and poetic at the same time. She was also a member of the International and Hellenic Competition juries.

 I have seen Wolfwalkers and My Favorite War but I was disappointed that I didn’t have the opportunity to see A Colorful Dream by Czech director Jan Balej because it was screened at the open-air cinema which is a ways away from the Apollon Theatre, the main screening room. I am looking forward to seeing this puppet adventure story which deals with the timeless theme of conflict between unlimited power on the one hand and the desire for freedom, courage, and love on the other. Jan Balej made Little From The Fish Shop (2015), a fantasy drama feature that I like a great deal.

A Colorful Dream

Along with the already established competitions for best International Short Film, Student Film, Feature Film, TV and Commissioned Film, Greek Speaking Film, and the Audience Award two new categories were added this year. The K.ID.S competition comprised of films for the younger audience and Animapride which includes LGBTQI+ animation from around the world have both been side programs in previous years before assuming award status this year.

A very important part of the festival is the Hellenic Competition. It is open to films from Greece, Cyprus, and the Diasporas. The fourteen films in the competition ranged from a lockdown lament to a love story in an airport lost luggage room where one suitcase finds his true love. The film that won the competition, From The Balcony directed by Aris Kaplanidis, is a slice of life film about a lonely Greek woman who never leaves the balcony of her apartment. She observes and loudly comments on everything that happens within her site from passersby in the street below to events in the apartments across the way. The entire neighborhood knows she is watching and has mixed reactions until the day her son is killed in a traffic accident. After the accident, she is so traumatized that she never goes out on her balcony again and the neighborhood is changed forever.

The twelve-minute comedy/tragedy depicts a neighborhood where 2D traditional animation co-exists with 3D environments. The rich character of the Athens neighborhood is captured in vivid colors and strong lines. According to the director, his . . .” goal was to capture crude people in an artful medium and tell this story in high speed achieving impressionism in motion”. He obviously succeeded because From The Balcony was selected as the best Hellenic film.

For the third year in a row, This is #EU – European Values Award was presented by the representative of the European Commission in Greece. The award goes to a film that the jury feels best promotes the values of the European Union. This year’s winning film was La Prima Cosa (First Thing) by Spanish animators Omar Al Abdul Razzak and Shira Ukrainitz.

The delightful film is about Kookoo Rikoo, the only Arab Christian Israeli clown. He sings in a Byzantine choir, hunts snakes and works as a hotel receptionist. He also plays numerous instruments, but what he really likes to do the most is to make the Syrian children who have ended up in the hospitals in their neighboring enemy country, Israel, smile. The eighteen-minute film revolves around his friendship with a young female Syrian war survivor.

A special two-part program, MEDAnima, paid tribute to animated films from the wider Mediterranean region. The program screened films from North Africa, Asia, Southern Europe, and the Bulkan Peninsula. One of my favorite films in this program was How My Grandmother Became A Chair by Lebanese animator Nicholas Fattouh. The 2D drawings from this 2018 film tell the story of a grandmother who is surrounded by what she thinks is her loving family and her housekeeper who she sees as a predatory cat, just waiting for the right moment to pounce on her.

Her family also despises the housekeeper and fills their grandmother’s head with reasons why she should not trust the “cat”. It soon becomes apparent that the grandchildren are not acting from honest, caring motives but want all of Grandmother’s money and possessions for themselves. As Grandmother slowly turns into a wooden chair, a metaphor for a march toward death, the relatives turn into loud screeching birds. When a terrible storm washes away the spiteful family, Grandmother is saved by her loyal servant who has turned back into a human form. In the end, she realizes that her faithful servant is the only person who really cares about her. Fattouh dedicated the film to his own grandmother and to her housekeeper.

I have never thought about animators that live in Gibraltar but that has changed after watching Shadow of The Rock by Gibraltarian Krishna Sachanandani. The three shorts that make up the film, each thirty to 40 seconds in length, were part of a marketing campaign for the Gibraltar Literary Festival. The main character is Spike Sanguinetti, a lawyer and want-to-be detective, created by the writer Thomas Mogford. The title of the film is taken from Mogford’s first novel Shadow of The Rock. In the book, Sanguinetti enters Chicardo’s Passage and discovers a mysterious man standing outside a door. Chicardo’s Passage is an actual location on Gibraltar.

The 3D film uses a variety of shades of dark blacks, blues and plum with bright yellow lights. I not only discovered a short film that I liked. I am also anxious to start reading the Thomas Mogford novels. A good mystery is my favorite form of escape reading.

Opening night guests were treated to the animated documentary Hellenic Places: Hermoupolis. Greek Cypriot director Charalambos Margaritis told the story of the city of Hermoupolis, the capital of Syros Island. Located at the center of the Cyclades Island complex, in the Aegean Sea, the history of the city contains all of the elements that shaped contemporary Greece.

Hellenic Places: Hermoupolis

Hermoupolis’ classic revival architecture reflects the city’s former importance and wealth as the leading commercial and industrial center of Greece as well as its main port. The magnificent Apollon Theatre, home to AnimaSyros, was built between 1862 and 1864 by Italian architect Pietro Sampo. The first work to premiere at the impressive opera house was Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi.  

I was lucky enough to be able to see the interior of one of the stately old homes when the festival held a reception at the Kois Mansion. Built in 1860, the mansion was the residence of the Kois family. The mansion is a perfect example of neo-classical architecture that is prevalent in the stately homes near the waterfront, many of which were built to house a shop on the ground floor and palatial living quarters above. You enter the home up a majestic marble staircase. The crowning glory of the home is the ceiling fresco which represents eight of the gods of ancient Greeks, Zeus, Hermes, Themis, Apollo, Dimitra, Athema, Poseidon, and Artemis and four leading heroes of the Greek Revolution against the Ottomans in 1821. The fresco is completed with a frieze painting and crowned with a brim which leads to a jewel typical of the ionic order.

The Kois Mansion ceiling

Although the family no longer lives there, the historic house is available to rent for private parties and tours. Stavros Kois, who was raised in the family home and has an upscale optic store on the ground floor, was on hand to give us a guided tour which concluded in the dining room where a lovely spread of food was laid out.

Hellenic Places: Hermoupolis was financed through the special Covid -19 program of the Ministry of Culture and Sports implemented in collaboration with the Greek Film Center to support the film community against the impact of the pandemic.

Ninety Seconds is a joint project of AnimaSyros and radio station Melodia 99.2 It was created to honor the lives of much loved Greek songwriters and singers who have left their mark on Greek musical history. Each animated film features one of their most emblematic songs and is created by an up-and-coming director.

The second film in the Ninety Seconds series, Attik – Ninety Seconds for Kleon Triantafyllou, narrates the intense and adventurous life of Triantafyllou who was known as Attik. His famous song Zitate na sas po (You have been asking me to tell you) can be heard in the film in a new cover by Christina Golia. The film uses rotoscoped images of Attika and his life combined with stock footage. Directed by United Kingdom animator Georgia Burnell, this is her first commissioned film.

The festival believes in giving back to the community that gives them such strong support. To this end, the Media Literacy Programs are designed to reach different age groups and ability levels of residents of the island. Noted Israeli animator Tal Kantor led a workshop for adults titled Animated Freedom. Using mixed media techniques the group explored the concept by giving life to a collage inspired by the work of the Italian artist Georgia Fabris whose studio is in Athens.

Animated Freedom workshop Tal Kantor and me

The workshop for persons with disabilities, led by Greek animator Elena Pavlakis, was based on one of the epic works of the Greek National Poet Dionysios Solomos. Hymn To Liberty praises the struggle of the defenders of the city of Messologhi during the Greek Revolution. The words of his poem were later set to music and became the Greek and Cypriot national anthems.

Greek graphic designer and animator Margarita Simopoulous and her group of seniors explored the relationship between watercolors and the famous Delacroix painting The Slaughter of Chios. Their two-day workshop attempted to discover if the painting could be brought to life.

The noted cartoonist Giannis Xagoraris aka DoReMi, or Zagor worked with teenagers in a workshop devoted to satire, cartoons, and comics. Romanian animator and artist Paul Muresan led a group…