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Ottawa International Animation Festival at 40

// Featured, Reviews (Festival)

They say that 40 is the new 30, and if that works for animation festivals like it does for those of us born pre ’76 then the OIAF is still young at heart. For 40 years the organisers have been curating the best work around and the offerings this year are set not to disappoint. Festival top team Tom McSorley, Kelly Neall and Chris Robinson have pulled out all the stops offering a packed five days from 21st to 25th September this year set around Canada’s capital city Ottawa.

And what a location to host an animation festival. Not just because of the legacy of Canadian animation from the halcyon days of the NFB and beyond but because of its cultural diversity, somehow familiarly British. But turn a corner and you are in the middle of France then turn again and its modern Canada with its own sense of identity, creativity and tolerance. Ottawa probably has more beards per square mile than Shoreditch and would certainly be a challenger to rival it as hipster capital. The venues are diverse, from the modernist Gallery of Art to the St Brigids Centre for the Arts through to numerous bars and clubs throughout the city, each with their own vibe. OIAF is everywhere in the city and the city is proud to host it.

Window Horses (Dir. Ann Marie Fleming)

Window Horses (Dir. Ann Marie Fleming)

The festival opened on Wednesday with a Gala screening of Window Horses from Canadian director Ann Marie Fleming. Window Horses is an exploration of the protagonist Rosie’s mixed cultural heritage, and it sets about questioning how our idea of self, our identity is shaped by the influences of culture and art. Rosie is a young poet who, to her amazement, discovers that she and her self-published work has been invited to a festival in Iran. This opportunity allows her to investigate the culture of her estranged father, himself Iranian and that of her Chinese mother who passed away in the same year that her father disappeared from her life. The film is a sensitive well crafted voyage of self-discovery, skilfully blending the mix of cultures. Visually it is redolent of the work of director Candy Guard, best known for her work with the animated TV series ‘Pond Life’. Like Guard’s work Fleming has simplified her characters to uncomplicated shapes, flexible and fluid. The focus here is on the characters and their stories, but that is not to detract from the animation in any way. This is a story tellers film, nothing ephemeral here, this is grown-up animation and doing what the medium does best – telling tales that we should be interested in. And ironically it somehow epitomises the Canadian idea of self, the mix of cultures, the fusion or friction created by diversity and difference and as such was an inspired choice to get the 2016 festival underway.

Caroline Lead

Caroline Leaf

The 22nd is when the festival really hits its stride with an opportunity to meet the film-makers from the Short Film Competition at the St Brigid’s Centre for the Arts bright and early. Or bright and early if you went to the late night student party the night before. Actually for any animator 9.30am is early and at a festival more so! For me the day has two highlights – first is the six screenings of the OIAF Grand Prize Winners (films that have previously won at OIAF in a retrospective programme that honours some of the biggest names in contemporary animation) and second it’s the chance to attend the one-to-one talk with legendary animator Caroline Leaf. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Caroline before and talk to her about the pain-staking process that she went through to create her masterpieces. But I am more than happy to hear her talk again and again as she is utterly inspiring and humble about her work. Animation is a slow process at the best of times, so why make it more so in a painful almost torturous way? In a time where we can see the fruits of our labours instantly it’s refreshing to hear her talk about the intensity of laboriously scratching away at the emulsion on expose film stock, or the manipulation of oil paint over months and months. Maybe we should take a leaf out of Caroline’s book and do it the hard way. It’s about reward. And with Leaf’s work the rewards are plentiful. I think there’s a lesson there.

Ryan (Dir. Chris Landreth)

Ryan (Dir. Chris Landreth)

Of the films in the Grand Prize Winners programme my must sees are Caroline Leaf’s The Street and Two Sisters, both of which are visually arresting, compelling and utterly spell-binding. There’s also British animation stalwart Geoff Dunbar’s Ubu, Chris Landreth’s visceral, uncomfortable and uncompromising Ryan and Sarina Nihei’s 2015 winner Small People with Hats.

But that’s not all there is. Of the other films I need to go and check out the ones that grab me are from the Short Film Competition. In an age where we all feel the need to read a review before we commit to something these choice are made on nothing more than a hunch. Sometimes I will go and buy a book or an album, no reviews, no knowledge of the author or artist, nothing to influence my choice other than by a hunch that this is money well spent. I am seduced by nothing more that the artwork on the cover or sleeve. And so it is here. With a plethora of choices, and OIAF this year has an enormous programme of films, I find myself reduced to the seduction of a 30mm x 30mm film still and a concise, minimal under 30 words tag line. After much deliberation and a couple of fine Canadian ales (and that’s another good reason to come here, the beers is really rather good) much selection is this:

Diane Obomsawim’s ‘J’aime les Filles’. A warming tale of four women’s first loves.
Jan Saska’s ‘Happy End’. A funny film about death. It is funny.
Anna Ginsburg’s ‘Private Parts’. A frank discussion about unmentionable things made mentionable.
Kristian Perersen’s ‘Boygen’. A Fischinger style contemporary experiment.
Spela Cadez’s ‘Nighthawk’. Bukowski meets Steve McQueen. Enough said.
Janet Perlman’s ‘Let’s Play Like its 1949’. Chemistry set selfishness.
Theodore Ushev’s ‘Vaysha, l’aveugle’. Seeing the future and past through either eye. Should have gone to Specsavers.
Naomi van Niekerk’s ‘’n Gewone blou Maandagoggand’. Violence & tragedy affect a girl as she prepares for school.
Phil Mulloy’s ‘Endgame’. Wargames for office workers. A critique.

I hope to see as many of these films as my time allows and lets see which ones the jury select – will it be any of those on my list? Does it really matter at the end of the day? They have been selected and found to be worthy. That should be enough. But if I’m honest if it was my film I’d still want to win! Something about a festival does bring out the competitive edge in all of us.

The other events to dip into here at OIAF include the Canadian Panorama – the best short form work from Canada in the last year, the World Panorama and World Student Panorama – a plethora of quality work from all around the world. There’s also a 10th anniversary screening from Laika, a what promises to be inspirational talk from the legendary Donald McWilliams who worked extensively with Norman McLaren, a screening of Japanese Animators on the World Stage, talks from Disney Animation, Pixar and Ginannalberto Bendazzi (who should be on every animation students reading list). There are storyboarding workshops, a career fair including a presentation on studying animation in the UK from Falmouth University, VR experiences, an Animation Conference as well as the interactive Frame Bar. Here guests are encouraged to be creative and to make something animated. It could be drawn, sand animation, an experiment or something traditional, it really doesn’t matter. The results of this promise to be interesting to say the least and will be shown at the Awards Ceremony on Saturday night. In short OIAF offers something for everyone and with 40 years of experience rest assured they do it really well.

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