The London International Animation Festival (LIAF) has included a dedicated screening of animated documentaries in its programme for the last nine years. In a recent interview Festival Director Nag Vladermersky told me that when the documentary-focused screening was first devised it showcased both new and old work, but over the years the quantity of animated documentary submissions the festival has received has increased and the screening now includes only new work. Vladermersky observes that film and animation schools are producing a growing number of student films in the animated documentary form, which in combination with the growth in funded animated documentaries supported by organisations such as Wellcome Trust, has led to this sharp increase in submissions. The LIAF animated documentary screening provides a good opportunity for the festival to reach new audiences; Vladermersky notes that the screening is marketed to documentary enthusiasts as well as to the animation community.
In recent years the LIAF animated documentary screening has seen steadily increasing audiences, and feedback from the events are excellent, with audience members 'quite effusive' in their written feedback. Vladermersky believes that the quality of filmmaker discussion after the screening is particularly high in the case of animated documentary, making the overall festival experience richer for audiences. Vladermersky is often asked by live action documentary filmmakers for recommendations of animators that they could work with, as they increasingly recognise animation as a good way to create interest in work which would otherwise feel like a talking heads piece. He personally considers animated documentary to be “a great opportunity for filmmakers to really push, to show the internal as well as external world and really add a visual layer to what could otherwise be a visually boring documentary”. Despite this, Vladermersky notes that too many of the submissions that LIAF receive are 'talky' or 'illustrative', and do not experiment with the potential of the form.
The 2016 programme of animated documentary presented a broad range of styles and approaches. Several films used animation in an illustrative manner to visualise stories told in voice over. The most striking of these was perhaps Sophie's Story (Christos Hatjoullis, UK), a compelling testimony from a woman about her experience of overcoming addiction in order to be allowed to care for her baby. Tough (Jennifer Zheng, UK) used the format of questions and answers between the filmmaker and her Chinese mother to explore her parents' experiences of the Cultural Revolution as well as her own identity as a second generation British Chinese woman.
Jonas Odell's I Was a Winner uses characters based on gaming avatars to explore gaming addiction. In this film former addicts are depicted as their in-game characters, inhabiting their game world, telling their stories 'to camera' talking-heads-style. The characters seem relaxed in the game world but they are alone. Are they revisiting a world that used to be populated and vibrant, now finding it empty? Or are we seeing a part of the interviewee that has been trapped in this world, left behind by the player who finally quit? The film's strange atmosphere encourages this question as well as delivering touching stories that hold the attention.
Samantha Moore's Loop, made as part of Animate Project's Silent Signal slate, does a good job of interrogating not only its scientific subject matter but also the nature of both scientific and creative investigation and representation. As we hear the voices of scientists struggling to describe how they visualise the biological subject they are seeking to understand, Moore's visuals attempt to keep up, showing us illustrations of their imaginative descriptions. The film was made using Moore's distinctive process of participant feedback, in which she creates multiple iterations of her illustrations until the subjects are satisfied that they are effective visualisations of their ideas or experiences.
Twiddly Things, by Adara Todd, offers a striking vision of what it's like to live inside a mind suffering from Alzheimers. Beginning in a fantastical landscape, the film gradually draws threads to the real world where we find the its subject. The interview that leads the film is simple but very touching. It really draws the audience into the experience of losing control of the perception of external reality, of inhabiting a consciousness drifting between external and internal worlds.
Broken – The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck (Volker Schlecht and Alexander Lahl, Germany) was one of the most traditional animated documentaries in the programme. It tells the harrowing story of women imprisoned by the GDR for their political beliefs. Strong visuals support verbal accounts, shedding light on this ugly moment from history. Other programme highlights included: Private Parts (Anna Ginsburg, UK), an entertaining tour of contemporary attitudes to female sexuality and genitalia; Micki (Izabela Plucinska and Alexander Lahl, Germany), a visually innovative account of a young woman's death while trying to cross the Berlin wall and Little Elephant (Kate Jessop, UK), a thoughtful document of an Indian woman's difficulty reconciling her sexuality with her family's beliefs.
As a LIAF jury member, I shared the difficult talk of choosing a winning film in the documentary category. After extensive debate, the awarded film was selected as Empty Space, by Estonian filmmaker Ülo Pikkov. The majority of this stop-motion film depicts a young girl playing in a carefully constructed set. She explores her space and entertains herself, alone but at ease. As the film progresses a sense of danger is introduced, as forces from outside seem to threaten the stability of her little world. The set of the film is in fact original doll furniture built in the 1940s by Leonhard Lina, a former officer of the Estonian Defence Force who was forced into hiding to avoid capture and imprisonment. Trapped in a small hiding place for years, Line built a detailed miniature replica of the home he had left behind. After a decade in hiding, Lina rejoined the world and his family and gave the miniature furniture to his daughter as a gift. In the years that has passed however, she had grown too old to play with dolls. Pikkov draws on interviews with Lina's daughter to create this film, and she also appears occasionally and mysteriously in the film, a real-life woman overlooking the set. While some context as to the story is offered by text cards at the end of the film, the indexical material included is obscure. The origin of the furniture and the character of the doll are not presented explicitly and the presence of the relatively giant, live-action woman occasionally overseeing the scene is not explained in the main text of the film. Instead, Pikkov paints an impressionistic picture of the story's emotional thread, creating a film that contains a profound sense of isolation, longing, nostalgia and loss. This bold and creative approach to exploring a true story pays off in a memorable, touching film that is steeped in atmosphere.