Bonjour Annecy!

It’s been a while since I’ve gone somewhere new. While France is not exactly ‘new’ as a destination, the only collective experience I have of the country are horror transits at Charles de Gaulle airport and labourous days on end in Cannes at one of the TV markets.

It’s strange then to descend on a little town called Annecy by the southeast of France, 30 minutes from Geneva airport, on a lazy Sunday summer afternoon.

Here’s the venue for the fabled Annecy International Animation Film Festival, now into its 51st year.

Festivals, especially one that’s half way round the world, could understandably be perceived as luxury events to attend by animation companies more concerned with looming deadlines then independent, art-house films and general merry-making amongst artists and animators.

Truth be told, we are not (and no commercial entity is) in the business of making short films for festivals. Short films don’t make money. And companies need to make money to exist.

But I think it comes down to the overarching aspirations of any given studio. Now, this would typically be either to produce great TV shows that sell the world over, or make films that are box office successes, which in turn translate to merchandise from lunchboxes to video games to bed sheets and pyjamas.

But there would be studios – and studios are invariably a reflection of their founders and directors’ philosophies and personalities – that aspire to higher levels of personal and creative expression; to not simply tell stories (because there will always be a need for that, whether it’s on TV or film) but tell them well and from the heart, and to ensure that creative enterprise permeates through the the studio, commercial realities notwithstanding.

Animation is merely an art form, but it is one with such limitless cinematic possibilities that to be a great animation studio must be to possess the tenacity and commitment to help its artists push those creative boundaries and nurture talents to become great storytellers.

I think that is what Annecy is about. It does not celebrate the commercial success of animation (frankly, there’s no need to), but an art form that is at once infinitely varied yet universal in its language to tell any possible kind of story. And of course, it celebrates the filmmakers.

I attended mostly the short films in competition screenings at the main theatre venue Bonlieu, hoping to take in as eclectic an experience as I could.  I don’t think one really comes out of these screenings with a definite mood.  Some films are deeply personal, some are more commercial. Some are hilarious, and some make you want to put a bullet in your head. Some stir your heart and awakens the soul. Some boggle the mind, and some simply f*** with it. And then there are those that sort of straddle across a few of the above categories.

Maybe that’s why the pub is usually the best place to go after a screening. There are several pubs in the area that I was told are the usual drinking holes. There’s the Captain’s Pub, where the brits frequent. There’s the Irish Pub, where…well, the Irish, along with other folksy suit types go to (I was there on Wed with the Cartoon Network and Disney guys and saw someone tried to light his fart outside the pub). Then there’s the American Bar or Scotch Bar where the Americans hang out. I told my friend Alex (who’s from Israel) the town needs an Asian bar. But since the Asian population is so small, he suggested combining Asian and Jews. It could well be the bar with the most gang fights.

But the place that the animators and creative types frequent above all others must surely be Café Des Arts, a quaint little joint nestled in a cul-de-sac at the end of a little bridge across the canal. It’s packed to the brim on just about every night during the festival. It’s also the one where animators and artists mingle like they all graduated from one big class, draw and doodle on their sketch books half drunk, and talk about the films they saw that day.

For an executive like me who’s used to suits who are usually  more interested in how much financing we can bring to a project or how cheap our studio can produce something or what shows we could give them to add to their distribution catalogue (and to be fair they’re just doing they’re job), it’s such a refreshing and invigorating feeling to be among young people whose lives, for the most part, revolve plainly around bringing drawings to life on paper (or in a computer), and are so hungry for inspiration and to improve their craft they’d listen to anyone who has something to say about their work or just chat about animation over a few rounds.

The only part I didn’t look forward to after drinks was the dark and eerie gravel road I had to take on the way back to the hotel. There’s been cases of mugging during the festival over the last few years I was told and  I definitely looked over my shoulders more than once every night as I took the long road. If things got rough I was ready to either run or act like a I’m having a mental meltdown. Jumping into the canal in that temperature wasn’t an option, unfortunately.

Back to the short film screenings – being in the theatre is an experience in itself, if somewhat bizarre for the uninitiated. They’re almost always full, and the crowd boisterous before the films commence. There’s the time-honoured ‘competition’ of hurling paper planes at the screen, and every plane that reaches its destination (which is near impossible) always receives a generous round of applause and cheers. This year there was apparently a new quirk – audiences making bubbling noises just as the lights go down which makes the theatre feels like being inside an aquarium with invisible goldfishes.

It’s interesting how some of the short films don’t really reflect the mood of the audience, as you would expect in a typical theatre screening. No matter how dark or depressing certain films are (and there were plenty of those), the crowd is always hopelessly jovial – clapping to music, relentless with their paper planes and even singing. One suspects they’re just happy to be there, among their friends and peers, reveling in the whole tribal spirit and just watching animation – which is probably the one thing that defines most of their lives.; a higher purpose that they live for and a craft that they are striving to perfect.

But it’s also just a really, really fun experience. If I – perhaps an unrequited artist disguised as an animation executive who struggles ever so often to reconcile the apparent conflicts between commerce and art, and could in fact have developed a dangerous cynicism that veils my perception of the industry  – can emerge from it all with a somewhat renewed vision, then as an animator, you‘re just gonna have the time of your life.

To be Continued…


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