Here is an abbreviated excerpt from my most recent research paper for my course, titled Politics in Animation: Obvious vs. Oblique. I chose this subject because I was embarking on my first politically themed short, and wanted to see what type of work was being made along these lines. Most interesting to me was how clearly or obliquely filmmakers choose to disclose their own political opinions on specific subjects.
Here is a sample from the films I researched, mostly ordered from films that address politics very obscurely (“Is this even about politics?”) to films that are overtly political (“OK, I get it already!”).
1. Yuri Norstein: Tale of Tales (1979)
Tale of Tales is a beautiful 30 minute animated short that at first glance might not be political at all. We follow a small wolf as he survives in an abandoned house, we visit a poet with writer’s block, we see a small boy who wants to feed crows in a tree, and we remember World War II and all the men it took (ptk78, 2012).
Dr. William Moritz in his essay ‘Narrative Strategies for Resistance and Protest in Eastern European Animation’ describes the structure of the film as “an “interactive” system, in which the purposefully convoluted narrative structure must be unraveled by the viewer” (Mortiz, 1997). He attributes this structure to the need to conceal the true meanings of the images from the censors of post-Stalin Russia, and says that Norstein’s ultimate message with his film was to urge “artists to accept the burden of keeping better times alive through Art” (Mortiz, 1997).
I think this conclusion is debatable and indeed Dr. Mortiz admits that the film appeals more strongly to the viewer’s emotions rather than reason. For me Tale of Tales is a film that could be seen through a political lens, but could just as easily be about memory and nostalgia. The political subject matter is not obvious, if indeed, present at all.
Tale of Tales won a handful of festival prizes and was named Greatest Animated Short of all time at the Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films in 2002 (Kitson, 2005).
2. Jiri Trnka: The Hand (1964)
The Hand is a film clearly about good and evil: a potter is happily making flower pots when a large hand interferes and encourages, then forces him to only make sculptures of hands, until the sculptor dies (Rehak, 2012). The hand is a symbol for tyrants in general, though it is widely acknowledged that Trnka he was protesting the soviet regime that ruled the Czech Republic at the time (Jun, 2012).
The film is on the left side of the ‘political animation’ spectrum, because it does not overtly address any specific, existing, political issue, but rather functions as an allegory for good and evil. The Hand was very successful, winning four major prizes at international festivals, and is regarded as Trnka’s best film (Jun, 2012) .
3. Martinus Klemet: In the Air (2009)
This nine minute short by Estonian Martinus Klemet takes place in an alternate universe where people are so influenced by what they see on television that they are compelled to repeat in real life what they see (Jokinen, n.d.). There is no dialogue, only surreal vignettes. It is dark, but also funny, reminding one of Terry Gilliam and Monty Phython.
This film definitely brings to mind political topics such as media and its control over the population, but these opinions are not stated outright. In the Air did well on the festival circuit, winning a few big prizes, and was featured on the Short of the Week website (Joonisfilm, n.d.).
4. Veljko Popovic: She Who Measures (2008)
This seven minute short shares some qualities with the previous film. A row of beings march through a desert landscape. They have screens attached to their heads that broadcast advertisements non stop. They push carts in which they collect trinkets and toys. One figure, similar to them, but without a screen on his head, tries in vain to stop their mindless procession (lemonade3d, n.d.)
The main political message of this film, how consumerism makes slaves of us, is not hard to see. But it still issues its message from the safe confines of an allegorical story, using characters to make us empathize, rather than overtly stating an opinion.
She Who Measures won about a dozen festival awards (lemondae3d, n.d.).
5. Ariel Belinco & Michael Faust: Beton (2007)
This short by the Israeli duo of Belinco and Faust follows a homogenous army as they are presented with a black kite flying beyond its camp walls. They are irked by the presence of this kite and try all sorts of increasingly extreme ways to get rid of it (Tima1980100, 2012).
The film is obviously political in that it represents an army acting in a stupid, destructive manner. But it does not address any specific issue, such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and instead addresses the broader theme of militaries in general.
Beton has won about a dozen awards at international festivals between 2007 and 2008 (Belinco, n.d.).
6. Martha Colburn: Destiny Manifesto (2006)
Martha Colburn is an artist who is certainly not afraid of shocking the audience, or expressing her opinion. The six minute short Destiny Manifesto is made with paper cut-outs, paint on glass animation and jerky, fast camera movements and contrasts images of the American Western Frontier with the conflict in the Middle East, to often violent effect (Colburn, n.d.).
But even so, her message is often not clear, as the film moves so quickly one has to really concentrate to identify all the different elements, what they are doing, and therefore what message we can take away. But there is no doubt that it is anti-war and satirical. In an interview for an Art21 profile, Martha says, when talking about war: “When it starts to infiltrate your own life, you do something about it” (Art21, 2012)
Destiny Manifesto does not seem to have won many festival awards, but is still shown at screenings today as part of numerous retrospectives and gallery exhibits of Colburn’s work (Colbrun, n.d.).
Watch an excerpt here.
7. William Kentridge:
Probably one of the most successful independent animators in the world, William Kentridge’s made his career with charcoal animated shorts like Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989) and History of the Main Complaint (1996), in which he takes on apartheid in South Africa (Art21, 2010).
In some ways the subject and his point of view are quite obvious: a black man is savagely beaten by white men while the main character does nothing; a file of destitute black people walks through a bleak city landscape, while an overlord decides their fate, etc (Art21, 2010).
But in other ways the films keep their opinions veiled. Kentridge uses a few characters symbolically (Soho Eckstein or Felix Teitlebaum) to represent good or evil elements in the story and there is no dialogue or standard story structure on which to hang a message.
Ultimately Kentridge’s films seem to meditate on emotional struggle, contradiction, and change rather than state a specific political opinion.
Watch an excerpt and interview here.
8. Max Hattler: Collision (2005)
Collision is a two minute, mesmerizing film that depicts American and Islamic colors and patterns rotating and morphing together. They progress, turning and changing faster and faster until an explosion occurs. There is no music but rather the sounds of war and machines (Hattler, n.d.).
This film is so effective because its political message is simple – America and Islam are more similar than they think, but they will ultimately, or are ultimately, colliding. Hattler uses the simplicity of pattern and color to make comparisons between the two worlds. In an interview for the Cinemire Blog in Russia in Jan 2013, Hattler states:
“Collision deals with this conflict between the West and the Arabic Islamic world and I’m not really on any side here, I’m more interested in maybe giving a different viewpoint onto the political situation. So Collision looks at both sides and equates them with kind of abstracted iconography that’s based on Islamic patterns and American quilts, and the colors and the shapes derive from the American and the Islamic/Arabic flags, using that as a kind of metaphor for an underlying humanity, possibly or pointing out the similarities between the two cultures rather than looking at the differences” (Hattler, 2013).
So even though this film’s political message comes across quite clearly, because Hattler is using quite obvious symbols from flags, they are symbols nonetheless, and he is not stating his opinion outright in words.
Collision has one eight festival awards, continues to be screened today, and was chosen as a Vimeo Staff Pick in 2011 (Hattler, n.d.).
9. Drew Christie: The Ghost of Gun Control (2013)
With Drew Christie we enter the realm of more overtly political animations. Christie is an animator whose films have focused on historical subjects in the past, like the killing of John Wilkes Booth, the sinking of the Hunley, or the great Seattle fire of 1889, but they never carried an especially political bent (Christie, n.d.). The Ghost of Gun Control, however, is one of his animated shorts made for the New York Times’ relatively new Op-Doc, or opinion documentary, series.
In it, the ghost of gun control’s past takes us through the history of gun control in America, explaining that it actually used to be quite popular, contrary to what the Republican party would have you believe today. The film specifically references events current at the time (the gun background check measure failing in the Senate) until the ghost bemoans his imminent demise (New York Times, 2013).
Christie is stating his opinion in words and images, and they are unambiguous. This film has had high visibility on the New York Times website, but has not yet had a festival run (Christie, n.d.).
Watch the film here.
10. Mark Fiore: George Zimmerman, Off the Hook (2013)
Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist and animator. George Zimmerman, Off the Hook follows a talking gun who explains the ‘Stand your Ground’ laws that allowed George Zimmerman to be pronounced not guilty after his shooting of the teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 (Fiore, 2013).
The piece is satirical and unambiguous. This short and Fiore’s other shorts have wide visibility online, as they are published weekly on the Daily Kos blog (Daily Kos, n.d.).
Watch the film here.
Subjects addressed in this sample of animated shorts are oppression by a dictatorial force, consumerism or media in society, war, discrimination and current events.
Some of the films are strong allegories, and a political opinion is only seen through the general notion of good vs evil (Tale of Tales, The Hand). Most of the shorts fall somewhere in the middle, using symbolism, satire, tragedy and humour to get their political point across without actually stating it outright (In the Air, She Who Measures, Beton, Destiny Manifesto, Collision and William Kentridge). It seems the only animated shorts where political viewpoints are stated outright are shorts made for editorial sections of newspapers, where personal opinions are expected (The Ghost of Gun Control, George Zimmerman, Off the Hook).
All these films have been successful, though it is interesting to note that the editorial animations don’t seem to have a festival life, and instead live almost exclusively online, while some filmmakers like William Kentridge and Martha Colburn (who address specific political situations, albeit obliquely) win fewer festival prizes but have extensive gallery careers.
Overall this research was quite useful for me as I embarked on my first political short, a one minute film about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case called One Night in Florida. Keep an eye out for it!
Art21 (2010, October 6). Preview: On Johannesburg [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.art21.org/anythingispossible/video/preview-on-johannesburg/
Art21 (2012, April 2). Pain & Sympathy [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.art21.org/anythingispossible/video/pain-sympathy/
Art21 (2012, May 18). Martha Colburn Brings the War Home | “New York Close Up” | Art21 [Video file]. Retrieved from: Martha Colburn Brings the War Home | “New York Close Up” | Art21
Belinco, A. (n.d.) Retrieved from: http://belinco.carbonmade.com/projects/2610721#1
Chilton, M. (2011, Aug 22). The Help tops US box office but hits controversy. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/
Christie, D. (n.d.). Work [Webpage]. Retrieved from: http://www.drewchristie.com/work/videos/
Colburn, M. (n.d.). Destiny Manifesto Video Excerpt [Video File]. Retrieved from: http://www.marthacolburn.com/index.php?id=71&movie=0&back=7
Colburn, M. (n.d.). Resume [text]. Retrieved from: http://www.marthacolburn.com/index.php?id=10
Daily Kos (n.d.). Mark Fiore’s Profile [Webpage]. Retrieved from: http://www.dailykos.com/user/Mark%20Fiore
Fiore, M. (2013, July). George Zimmerman, Off The Hook [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://vimeo.com/70526448
Hattler, Max (2013, Jan 25). Max Hattler on Cinemire, Russia, 2013 [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCflrtok9hQ
Hattler, Max (n.d.). Collision [Video file, text]. Retrieved from: http://www.maxhattler.com/collision/
Jiri Rehak. (2012, Nov 22). Ruka (1965) [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLtdCWrpM90
Jokinen, H. In the Air [Article]. Retrieved from http://www.shortoftheweek.com/2011/04/24/in-the-air-2/
Joonisfilm (n.d.). MARTINUS KLEMET [text]. Retrieved from: http://www.joonisfilm.ee/film-makers/martinus-klemet-2?lang=en
Jun, D. (2012). Jiří Trnka: 100th anniversary of the birth of a great Czech animator [Article]. Retrieved from http://www.radio.cz/en/section/czech-history/jiri-trnka-100th-anniversary-of-the-birth-of-a-great-czech-animator
Kitson, C. (2005, September). Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator’s Journey. Indiana University Press
lemonade3d (n.d.) Retrieved from: http://lemonade3d.com/#277
Loader, A. (2011, Jan 30). Alison Loader – We’re Asian, More Expected of Us. Animation Studies Online Journal. Retrieved from: http://journal.animationstudies.org/alison-loader-were-asian-more-expected-of-us/
Moritz, W. (1997). Narrative Strategies for Resistance and Protest in Eastern European Animation. In Jayne Pilling (Ed.) A Reader In Animation Studies. (pp. 38-47). Retrieved from http://www.iotacenter.org/visualmusic/articles/moritz/easteurope
New York Times (2013, April 22). The Ghost of Gun Control [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000002184971/the-ghost-of-gun-control.html
ptk78. (2012, Sept 11). Skazka Skazok (Yuri Norstein, 1979) [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD9cZEhsyzc
Tanner, C. (2012, Sept 19). Can a White Author Write Black Characters? Slate. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com
Tima1980100 (2012, July 17). beton-трейлер [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0zHTC604NU