After two years of being primarily an online festival, Annecy is back, quite alive and bigger than ever. The official statistics are amazing with a record-breaking attendance of 13,248 people. MIFA also grew with 4,300 attendees and exhibitors from 106 different countries. For the first stime, MIFA had an expanded representation of African nations. Soon MIFA will have to have a three-story tent.
Despite all of the conferences, pitching sessions, making-of’s, and masterclasses, it is film that I go to Annecy for. It used to be that there were only 5 or so features at the festival but in the past few years, animated feature films have become a major part of the event. The Official and Contrechamp (alternate feature) Feature Film Competitions had a total of 20 films in the two categories. There were also numerous feature films, both classics and new, in other programs. Feature-length animated films used to be made primarily for young audiences. This is no longer true with filmmakers tackling every subject imaginable from sex to war.
Signe Baumane is a case in point. She is not just a brilliant animator, she is also a consummate storyteller. Her latest film, My Love Affair With Marriage, took 8 years to make. It received its European premiere at Annecy this year and was awarded a Jury Distinction by the Feature Film Jury. Its story of inner female rebellion is a thinly disguised musical autobiography with 23 wonderful songs throughout the film sung by The Mythology Sirens (aka The Trio Limonade from Latvia).
The film’s story revolves around Zelma who becomes convinced at an early age by songs and fairytales that love will solve all of her problems as long as she conforms to society’s rules of how a young girl should act. As Zelma grows older something doesn’t seem right with the concept of love. The more she tries to conform, the more her body resists.
Born in Latvia during the Soviet occupation, Zelma navigates the labyrinth of love and marriage from the age of 7 to 28. My Love Affair With Marriage is about the acceptance of inner rebellion with some biology thrown in. Biology, voiced by Tony Award-winning actress Michele Pawk, is a non-human character who comments on Zelma’s brain activity as she falls in and out of love. As we learn in the film some of the processes of falling in and out of love are chemically very complex.
Signe told me that “My Love Affair With Marriage is in a unique category. “It is a Biological Thriller! In a normal thriller, you want to find out who did the deed, but if you watch a Biological Thriller you may find out what ruined your relationship.” This is a film that gives the viewer a lot of food for thought and you will probably walk out of the theatre looking at your own relationship differently.
About her reception at Annecy, Signe said “You know, working for 8 years on one project people kinda forget you and a new generation of animators spring up and they never even heard of you. I even forgot, myself, that I existed some time ago, and that there were festivals and people who watched my movies in movie theatres and festivals – all forgotten”.
“Then we (she and her life partner Stergis Warner who built the sets and did the lighting for the film) arrived in Annecy and voila. There are crowds and crowds of people interested in animation and they come to see every film including mine. It felt like coming out of a cave into bright sunlight: overwhelming”.
“Honestly, it was an unforgettable experience, Annecy 2022. I was surprised how many different people connected with My Love Affair With Marriage – age, gender and nationality did not matter. I dedicated the film’s honorable mention to women who animate and LGVBTQ+ people who animate. Diversity and inclusiveness are in our cards”.
The Latvian, United States, and Luxemburg coproduction is 107 minutes long or to put it another way, 154,080 frames of footage with a mind-boggling approximately 40,000 animation drawings. Signe works in the traditional animation style of pencil on paper. She does not work from a storyboard. As with Signe’s previous feature film, Rocks In My Pocket, her new film is for mature audiences. I wholeheartedly recommend that you see My Love Affair With Marriage when it comes to a festival or theatre near you.
Nayola is a hard-hitting film that gives you a lot to think about. Portuguese animator Jose Miguel Ribeiro, noted for such award-winning short films as The Suspect, portrays the horrors and consequences of the Angolan Civil War in his first feature film. Nayola is the story of 3 generations of women affected during and by the 25-year-long (1975 to 2002) Civil War that raged in the country following its independence from Portugal. Angola is located on the Western Atlantic Coast of Southern Africa. The film interweaves the past and the present to tell the story of a woman, Nayola, who travels on foot into the interior of Angola during the civil war in search of her husband who has been reported as missing in combat.
In a fast forward to the present, we are taken into the lives of Nayola’s daughter and her elderly mother who live together. They are suffering through the aftermath of the civil war. Nayola left her daughter, Yana, when she was only 2 years old to be raised by her grandmother. Yana has become a rebellious teenage rapper, challenging the present power structure.
The scenes of Nayola trekking through the war-torn Angolan landscape are particularly touching and chilling at the same time. The film uses bright, bold colors to heighten the feeling of danger and fear that the title character is feeling in her search for her husband. It is impossible not to be moved by this compelling film.
Jose Miguel calls Nayola “A tribute to the struggle of brave Angolan women whose lives are imprinted with the violence of history”. The story is adapted from the play Caixa Preta (The Black Box) by Jose Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto.
Another disturbing film, an animated documentary about genocide is Aurora’s Sunrise directed by Armenian director Inna Sahakyan. The 96-minute film is based on the true story of Aurora Mardiganian, who at the age of 14 escaped the slaughter of the Armenian genocide and embarked upon an odyssey that took her halfway around the world to Hollywood stardom.
Aurora lost her family to the first genocide of the 20th century, a nightmare that she bravely survived. In 1915, as World War I raged on, the Ottoman Empire singled out its entire Armenian population for eradication. After watching the male members of her family shot, Aurora, along with other female members of her community was forced on a death march toward the Syrian Desert.. The older women and children were slaughtered brutally while the young girls were sold into sexual slavery.
Through many miraculous twists of fate, Aurora was able to use her wits and courage to escape her captors and eventually find her way to New York City. There she begins a search for her uncle who she believed was living in the city. To assist in her search, she tells her story to newspaper reporters.
Newspapers latched on to the extraordinary story of this young, extremely beautiful girl. Within a year her story had spread across the country. Hollywood took notice of the sensation that she was causing and with little regard for the well-being of an already traumatized young girl, persuaded Aurora that bringing her story to the silver screen would help other survivors of the genocide.
Aurora relived her nightmare in front of the camera and became the most improbable starlet of the silent era. The film, Auction of Souls, broke box office and fundraising campaign records. After the film’s release, one out of every three American families reportedly contributed to the campaign to help the victims of the terrible genocide. The aid group Near East Relief raised 116 million dollars and saved the lives of over 132,000 orphaned survivors. In the late 1920s, expanding United States-Turkish relations led to any mention of the genocide fading away with pressure put on the press to silence it.
In 1929 Aurora married and became a mother and she lived the rest of her life in obscurity. Along with the animation, the real Aurora tells her story through interviews recorded before her death in 1994.
For many years it was thought that there were no remaining copies of Auction of Souls in existence. How a portion of the film ended up in the Armenian Film Archives is another interesting story. Director Sahakyan told me that “. . . in the late 1940s the French- Armenian cameraman Yervand Setyan found the reels of Auction of Souls in a Marseille cinema. He didn’t know what kind of movie it was though he understood it was about the Armenian Genocide. He later repatriated to Soviet Armenia and brought the reels of film with him. From there, one reel somehow found its way into the Soviet Armenian film archives. The destiny of the other reels is unclear and they are considered lost”.
“Half a century later, in 1994, Argentinian-Armenian researcher Eduardo Kozanlyan, who was conducting research on the film Auction of Souls in the Armenian film archives, watched the surviving reel and realized what it was. This is what we restored again and have in our film”.
The 18 surviving minutes of Auction of Souls, interspersed throughout the film, add a chilling reality that would not have been possible to recreate in animation or modern live-action. This film is not a documentary for the faint of heart because the horrendous murders are very graphic. It is, however, an extremely important account of a terrible event in history that has been too often overlooked.
I was not familiar with the work of artist Charlotte Solomon and even though I found its animation style a bit flat, the film was interesting. The film Charlotte tells the story of a young German Jewish artist who in her short life (1917-1943) created what is considered to be a timeless masterpiece titled Life? Or Theatre?
A chance meeting with American philanthropist Ottilie Moore in Italy resulted in an invitation to Charlotte and her family to stay at Moore’s estate in Villefranche-Sur-Mer France. As the Third Reich gained power Charlotte’s grandparents moved to Moore’s estate. In 1939 Charlotte’s parents were able to obtain a travel visa to France for their daughter to care for her ill grandmother.
Charlotte’s grandfather was a terrible tyrant and in a fit of anger after her grandmother’s death, he revealed to the young girl the hidden family history of suicides. Her grandmother, mother and aunt had all killed themselves.
Dwelling on her girlhood in a house of suicides, her schooling in a fascist state, and her years of exile in France was so difficult for Charlotte that she wrote, “If I can’t find any joy in my life and in my work I am going to kill myself”. She overcame her depression and thoughts of taking her own life with a project that she called “eccentric and mad”. By painting her life, she discovered that she did not have to kill herself as the other female members of her family had done. Rather she could create her world anew as she wanted it to be. Out of that came Life? Or Theatre?
The monumental work is made up of 769 gouaches. Gouache is a technique in which a gum or an opaque white pigment is added to watercolors to produce opacity. She accomplished the works of art in just two years, between 1940 and 1942. If her paintings were placed side by side, the 10×13 inch pictures would reach the length of 3 New York City blocks. Life? Or Theatre? Is considered by many to be the first graphic novel.
As Nazi aggression escalated in France, Charlotte wrapped up her paintings and gave them to a local physician for safekeeping. Today the paintings are housed in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
In 1943 Charlotte Soloman and her husband, Alexander Nagler, were ratted out by a neighbor. The couple was sent to Auschwitz where she was put to death on her first day there. Charlotte was 26 years old and 5 months pregnant.
As I said at the beginning of my article Annecy had a record number of attendees this year. The festival is outgrowing the screening capabilities of the town. Toward this issue, Annecy Artistic Director Marcel Jean said that the festival is working on a permanent project just 400 meters from the Bonlieu which is currently the center of the festival. It is a big complex in the center of town that was owned by the French army as a stable when they used horses. There are plans for a theatre there along with an exhibition space, the festival offices, and the welcome desk for the festival. That will expand the festival space but…