Ottawa International Animation Festival picks up on the politics of our time

A scene from the animated film Torrey Pines by transgender filmmaker Clyde Petersen.

Defiance may stamp many films at the upcoming Ottawa International Animation Festival, but you’d be right in thinking that’s hardly surprising. Political turmoil on multiple fronts over the past few years, festering racism and xenophobia, the crushing concentration of wealth: somehow, Bambi just doesn’t cut it anymore.

So offerings at the festival, a chunky mix of short and feature films running Sept. 20-24 at multiple downtown venues, tackle everything from political violence to societal apathy to race relations.

A willingness to grapple with divisive issues is pretty much baked into the genes of animation according to the festival’s artistic director Chris Robinson. “Animation, at least the indie side of things, has always been open and diverse – all the things that are the hot buzz words now. People from different countries, sexual orientation: It just didn’t get discussed, nobody cared, it was just, ‘Oh, OK, that’s who you are.’”

Referencing the trenchant social commentary that’s characterized hit television shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, Robinson says that animation “can sneak things in because people don’t take it as seriously or because it’s hidden.”

That eagerness to engage big topics has yielded high-interest films like the music video The Story of O.J., co-directed by Mark Romanek and rapper JAY-Z and part of this year’s festival. Skewering traditional stereotypes of African-Americans, the film prompted Robinson to say as soon as he saw it, “‘OK, we’ve got to get this.’”

A scene from My Dogs, JinJin & Akida.

There are other examples. My Dogs, JinJin & Akida by South Korea’s Jong-Duck Cho couches the 1980s clash of traditional Confucian culture and burgeoning westernization in an adventure story about a lost dog.

Naked Island, a series of short protest films from the National Film Board of Canada, does its own take on social commentary by digging into the dark side of cities.

Both Naked Island and My Dogs, JinJin & Akida are part of the festival competition series consisting of 110 works in feature and short film categories that will be judged over the course of the festival, with awards going to the best. There are also 45 non-competition films, including student works, being screened in the Panorama series. This year, the popular festival received a 1,992 entries from 85 countries.

Among other animation trends, Robinson says over the past couple of years he’s seen “more films made by women dealing with sex and doing it in more of a blunt manner (rather than using) metaphor.” That fits, of course, with the long-overdue emergence of writing about women’s sexuality including, for better or worse, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

Sexuality underpins other films at the festival including the stop-motion feature Torrey Pines by transgender filmmaker Clyde Petersen. It uses animated objects, cut-outs and puppets to tell the real life-based story of a queer punk who comes of age in Southern California in the early 1990s.

Also on the sexual defiance/coming-out list: The Fish Curry by India’s Abhishek Verma. Set in his native country, where homosexuality remains a flash point, it’s about a young man telling his parents about being in love with another man while preparing his dad’s favourite meal: fish curry.

And while defiance, whether in terms of content or the way a film breaks with stylistic or narrative expectations, courses through multiple works, there’s no shortage of other intriguing-sounding material at the festival. Using animated objects and clay, The Burden, from Sweden, is described as a “musical with apocalyptic undertones.” German student filmmaker Alireza Hashempour has entered In One Drag, featuring cigarette butts coming alive across a city.

There are also five films in the Virtual Reality category, part of a steadily increasing fascination with slapping on a headset for immersion in an animated world. “I suspect it will become a competition category one day,” says Robinson.

Watch, too, for family and child-friendly activities and films, meet-the-filmmakers sessions, and special screenings.  The latter includes A Synesthetic Pub Crawl in the Arts Court Studio, during which you sip local beers paired with animated films. Why? So that you can experience what happens when “the borders between sound, image, smell and taste dissolve.”

Information and tickets for the festival:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.