With most screenings just a couple of Bloomsbury streets apart, there was a friendly, community atmosphere at the seventh edition of the London International Animation Festival (LIAF): a rarity among such a frenetic, sprawling city. Over the course of 10 days, audience members began to assume familiar faces, and collective interest in the festival competition became palpable, as festival-goers scribbled down their thoughts on questionnaires, filing them into voting boxes. The last say might have gone to the professional judging panel but the audience vote was an important and lively part of the festival, as revealed by the final night’s packed-out Best of the Fest screenings. The announcement of the best film in the competition – Anita Killi’s Angry Man – was greeted with an ardent ‘Yes!’ from one festival-goer. Such a strong reaction is not surprising since choosing the winning film apparently caused some contention between the official judges. A recipient of various international awards, Angry Man portrays domestic abuse through the confused and scared eyes of a young boy. This ethereal, fairy tale work with beautiful paper cut-outs presented an interesting contrast between subject matter and form but was not necessarily a clear winner. The quality of the films at this year’s LIAF was so high and the content and form of work so varied that the selection of the Best of the Fest in some ways felt rather arbitrary.
Still, these final screenings did provide a nice snapshot of what the festival has to offer: from a dark tale of death in the audience’s choice – Zbigniev’s Cupboard – to witty physical comedy in the Chomet-like Runaway; from works that take human dialogue as their starting point – David Shrigley’s Pringle of Scotland and Joseph Pierce’s A Family Portrait – to films that rejoiced in purely abstract imagery. My personal favourite from Best of the Fest, Mathieu Labaye’s Orgesticulanismus, combined both aspects. Opening with a selection of family photographs as a narrator discusses his paralysis, the film used animation to explore the idea of movement and what it means to human beings when physical capability is removed. Small, lonely computer-animated figures repeated the same minute movements over and over again, trapped in an overwhelming black space: a woman swept leaves; a man started up a lawn mower; a lady tossed a pancake. Then the movement suddenly expanded. A single figure became a mass of different dancing, jerky, gyrating bodies before altering into organic, bacteria-like shapes. The film provided a visually absorbing meditation on the difference between human beings’ experiences and interactions between their minds and physical bodies.
Purely abstract work was strong throughout the competition categories and, in addition to its own very fine showcase, this year’s ‘technique focus’ screening presented some lovely examples. All the films used ‘direct to film’ techniques, from scratching and painting on celluloid to the application of objects onto film – fake tattoo transfers in Mike Maryniuk’s Tattoo Step and an eerie selection of moth wings in a soundtrack-less screening of Stan Brakhage’s seminal 1963 film, Mothlight. The screening was attended by special guest filmmaker Steven Woloshen, who presented a selection of his films: spectacularly paced painted and scratched compositions, following in the tradition of Norman McLaren and Len Lye, set to the plink plonk of uplifting jazz and, in one case, the throbbing pulse of Hendrix guitar.
The Woloshen retrospective was one of several special events organised in addition to the competition screenings. Many of these took place in the Horse Hospital, an independent, progressive arts venue and apt setting for more offbeat offerings, like the Late Night Bizarre programme of unclassifiable oddities and the special studio focus on the cutting-edge work of Parisian animation studio Autour de minuit. Daring in their animation style and subject matter, Autour de minuit animators have produced some extraordinarily breathtaking animation (even if on occasion the content did not feel quite as rigorously considered). Hendrick Dusollier’s Obras took the viewer through the process of urbanisation – a continual cycle of destroying and reconstructing – exploring city structures and landscapes through head-scratching angles and flight-simulator swerves. Most of the works were entirely computer-generated but Guilherme Marondes’s Tyger, inspired by William Blake’s poem, combined techniques by following a hand-operated puppet tiger through a night-time city, lighting up its path with illuminated foliage. It was great to see a cohesive portfolio from a single production house presented together. In a similarly concentrated focus, over the festival’s final weekend, a whole afternoon was devoted to rare 1920s Felix the Cat films. Presented by enthusiast and walking Felix encyclopedia Colin Cowes, the screening provided a fantastic immersion into the world of this immensely characterful, plucky black and white cat. The perfect slapstick rhythm and pre-occupations of jazz-era America played out beautifully and audience members could not help but leave with smiles on their faces.
That LIAF can move so seamlessly from ground-breaking, uncompromising CGI to 9.5mm home-entertainment Felix the Cat films is testament to its strength as a festival. It brings attention to unique and unusual animation, regardless of categorisation. Its breadth can make choosing between competition films feel almost impossible but it makes for a far more interesting festival experience. LIAF revels in the innovative possibilities of animation and, from all the lively debate in evidence, it clearly attracts an audience that strongly analyses and cares passionately about the art form.