Quick on the draw: the best animated shorts at Annecy Festival 2019

The experimentation possible in short film remains at the heart of the animation festival’s mission and this year, the programme contained excitingly vivid storytelling and innovative technique.

Alex Dudok de Wit

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Michael Frei’s minimalist, multi-platform KIDS toys with the theme of control

Michael Frei’s minimalist, multi-platform KIDS toys with the theme of control

Annecy was spun off from a Cannes sidebar in the 1950s, and it has since grown into that festival’s equivalent in the animation world. A teeming market and an even vaster film programme vie for the attention of some 12,300 badgeholders, who clog the canal-crossed lanes of this French Alpine town for a week each June. As animation production booms, the event’s stature continues to grow: what was once an intimate gathering of Europe’s artists is now the preeminent forum for the global industry. Disney, Warner Bros and Netflix make big announcements here. The French president has stopped by in the past.

The big-studio presence is a fairly new development, and it’s put some on the defensive. When influential producer Valérie Schermann told a 1,000-strong audience this year to “make European films – don’t try to ape the Americans”, the applause was fierce. Annecy’s organisers stress that the festival is still, at its core, about the art of animation, as manifested in the short films and indie features competing for its prestigious prizes. That isn’t just rhetoric: this year’s programming was bold and diverse, a loud counterpoint to the corporate clamour. I’ll report on the features separately; what follows are my impressions of the shorts.

Annecy siphons off experimental works into a separate strand, but the boundary with narrative films is porous, and many strange and innovative shorts slipped into the main competition. One highlight, Michael Frei’s strikingly minimalist KIDS, isn’t just a film: it was also developed as a game, and Frei’s multimedia approach toys with his essential theme of control. In the film, masses of featureless humans perform absurd, often self-destructive acts, sometimes under the guidance of an individual among them. In the game, the player instigates these acts. The message isn’t explicit. At times, I thought I was watching an allegory of stupid leadership and pliable crowds. At others, it seemed like an animator’s joke about the power he exerts over his creations.

KIDS trailer

Piotr Milczarek’s Rain, which was named best debut film, uses a similar premise to more overtly comic effect. A Superman figure saves someone who’s been pushed off a roof, only for hordes of people to leap off after him, hoping for the same heroic rescue. Superman can’t cope, so they fall to their deaths. Yet more keep jumping.

In an age of counterintuitive democratic decisions, it’s tempting to take these two films as political commentary – especially given how rarely animated shorts tackle politics head-on. One quasi-exception at this year’s festival was My Generation, Ludovic Houplain’s portentous indictment of rampant consumerism. The film is one long phantom ride through the cultural icons and corporate logos of recent decades, scored to a Hitler speech (I wonder whether any Disney execs were watching). As if by default, the film scooped a jury mention “for its social significance”.

Broadly defined, hot-button issues figured in a fair few films. There was a rich seam of works about sexuality and gender identity, most of them by young female directors. This reflects a growing discourse in society, but also the specific influence of Miyu, a newish French production-cum-distribution company with a taste for these subjects and a remarkable festival track record.

Les Levres gercées

Its 13 entries this year included Les Levres gercées, a restrained, well-told two-hander between an unsympathetic mother and her trans child, made by students from supreme Parisian animation school Gobelins. In Toomas Beneath the Valley of the Wild Wolves, also from Miyu, Chintis Lundgren returns to the pink-grey world of horny anthropomorphic animals familiar from her last film Manivald. She sends up both the porn industry and the women’s empowerment movement – always in a spirit of ribald fun. The rowdy Annecy crowd loved it.

Toomas Beneath the Valley of the Wild Wolves

Yet the audience award ended up going to Memorable, which also picked up the grand prize. Bruno Collet’s stop-motion weepie about a painter with dementia is competently made, but films like it hit the festival circuit every year. The subjective fragmentation caused by this condition is fertile ground for animators – a canvas for visual experiment. All too often, though, these stories fall prey to a sentimentality that does little justice to dementia’s cruel effects. So it proves with Memorable.

Memorable (2019)

Memorable (2019)

Far more memorable is the winner of the jury prize, Regina Pessoa’s Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days. The Portuguese animator’s exquisite artisanal films about outcasts have made her a festival darling. In Uncle Thomas, she delves into autobiography, paying tribute in stark pencil lines to the reclusive uncle who taught her to draw. Pessoa’s technique has never been in doubt, but here she takes her storytelling to new heights, finding a rich alchemy in the love, madness and distance that characterised their relationship.

Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days trailer

Of the 70-odd shorts I saw, the best came right at the end – and it’s about watching screens, no less. And a lot more besides. Movements, by the Korean Jeong Dahee, is a meditation in five parts on the nature of perception, starring a hyperactive dog, a woman and two walking trees. Moving through the narrative at different speeds, these characters foreground animation’s unreliability in depicting the flow of time – a notion complicated by self-reflexive gags about the film’s frame. This may sound drearily theoretical, but Movements is witty and completely surprising, a glorious cap to an exhilarating programme.

Movements trailer

Exhilarating for those who got to see it, that is. Annecy audiences complain year in, year out that the festival is too crowded, but this year the strain was palpable. Punters with pricey passes found themselves unable to reserve much at all; queues lasted as long as the screenings themselves. Unlike Cannes, Annecy welcomes people from outside the industry, not least the thousands of students who come every year. If that’s to continue, something has to change.

In the meantime, a spin-off festival, Annecy Asia, is due to be launched in Seoul. This experiment in franchising could relieve pressure on the French event, for a while at least, but at the risk of ghettoising certain countries. Yet even as they complain, the animation crowd might remember what all this ultimately means: their sector is growing, so fast that the notion of one dominant festival may soon seem quaint.

Correction (5 July 2019): the last paragraph of this report mis-reported the likely launch date of Annecy Asia. This has now been amended.

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