This year’s Ottawa animation fest reflecting our chaotic world

A scene from the animation Finding Uranus by Vancouver-based Canadian/Hong Kong filmmaker Ivan Li. Courtesy Ottawa International Animation Festival.

You’ve noticed that the world is a bit chaotic at the moment, right? Apparently the animation profession has noticed as well.

At least that’s artistic director Chris Robinson’s observation about the 2,400-plus entries for this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival, running Sept. 25-29.

Reviewing those entries, “I got this sense that people seem a little bit lost in all this chaos going on… this feeling of everybody searching, trying to grasp onto something,” he says.

A scene from Pinch by Diego Maclean. Courtesy Ottawa International Animation Festival.

As an example, he points to The Physics of Sorrow by Theodore Ushev, a native of Bulgaria and now a Montrealer. His 27-minute narrative animation, which has also just played at TIFF this year, is produced by the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada.

“It’s sort of about his life but also about Gen-Xers feeling a bit restless, in exile not necessarily from a homeland but from (their) youth or something,” says Robinson. “It seemed to epitomize what I was seeing in other films in other ways.”

That feeling of being lost is probably connected in part to technology, he continues. “Getting so plugged into that and what are you connected to? You’re not really plugged into anything.”

Not that angst defines all 183 films — a lively mix of short and feature films, works by Canadian students, and others — that made the final cut into the festival’s various competition categories.

Finding Uranus, a competitor in the student category, is one of the fun ones, says Robinson. A coming-of-age sci-fi flic by Vancouver-based Canadian/Hong Kong filmmaker Ivan Li, it caught Robinson by surprise. “If Stanley Kubrick was going to come back and make a film about self-pleasure, this would be it. It’s just a remarkable, fun film.”

Girl in the Hallway tells the story of a murdered child. It’s by Ottawa animator Valerie Barnhart. Courtesy Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Also coming from the west coast, but more serious is Pinch, by Diego Maclean. Created with 2D computer, the sketch style, three-minute short (you can see the trailer here) tracks the adventures of a guy who discovers a superpower that challenges his sense of morality. Maclean says he was interested in looking at the ability we now have to create maximum damage with minimal action (just think of the havoc you can wreak in the lives of others with a simple, ugly tweet from your phone).

Maclean says he’s especially fond of animation because “It’s an art form that still allows one person to start and end the whole project and maintain integrity of the vision. In something like live action, so many other people are involved that there’s an inevitable dilution of the vision. Animation is kind of like comic books, that one person can control from beginning to end.”

Other screenings at the festival, one of the largest such events in the world, include The Tales of Lizzy Hobbs. Elizabeth Hobbs is a British experimental filmmaker whose unusual techniques run to the use of ink on bathroom tiles, typewriters and rubber stamps in her examination of obscure moments and people in history. She is also a jury member this year and will discuss her film making techniques in Arts Court Theatre on Sept. 28. 

Ottawa entries include Girl in the Hallway by Valerie Barnhart, who spoke with ARTSFILE in April about her film, which employs animated cut-outs and other techniques. The film is based on the murder in 2000 of a young California girl, Xania Fairchild, and the failure of a podcaster, Jamie DeWolf, to protect her.

Ottawa’s Chris Dainty is also competing this year. His animation, Shannon Amen, pays tribute to a young queer artist, Shannon Jamieson, who was unable to reconcile her sexual identity with her faith and committed suicide in 2006.

Like Ushev’s The Physics of Sorrow and other films at the festival, Dainty’s world premiere is a NFB production.

This is the 80th anniversary of the NFB, and the festival is marking the event with a two-part compilation of NFB productions called Eleven Moving Moments with The National Film Board of Canada.

Robinson says that when Norman McLaren was hired by the board in 1941 to launch its animation studio,  “He went around to Canadian art schools to find all these people to bring in. They had no experience animating, and he just let everybody wing it, improvise. And that led to unusual techniques and ways of expressing.”

“There is no Canadian animation without the NFB,” he continues. “The Canadian stuff I see today is so diverse — great (things) being done in commercials, in TV, in music videos, experimental (projects), all these different techniques being used: it all comes from the Film Board.”

The Ottawa International Animation Festival runs Sept. 25-29 at multiple downtown locations. Information and tickets:, 613-232-8769

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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.