It's a form that seems antithetical to the actual purpose of the genre. After all, animation tends to skew reality while the documentary strives to capture it. We go to the cartoon for creative escape. We come to the fact film for information and insight. Still, there are those who believe that the two dissimilar styles can be meshed into a successful cinematic hybrid. A perfect example is the Oscar nominated Waltz with Bashir. Another is the boffo Robert Evans' bio, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Now distributor A Million Movies a Minute has collected 13 examples of the type from around the world, each one tackling intriguing subject matter in the most unusual of motion picture ways possible. While all are not 100% successful, they all do argue for the viability of mixing mediums. Even better, some suggest that there is no better way to tackle a delicate or controversial subject than via pen and ink repurposing.
The Plot and the DVD:
Since there is no common thread except approach, we will dispense with an comparative overview and instead deal with each film separately. While it's hard to gauge a compendium's value in such a specific manner, there are more good films here than poor, meaning the overall value is vastly superior to one or two minor duds. Let's begin with the first example offered:
Conversing with Aotearoa (Score: ***1/2)
Director: Carrie Francis
Plot: Reflecting on the amazing force of nature that is their country, New Zealanders explain their love of this isolated nation.
Review: Like a travelogue taken to artistic extremes, Conversing would not be out of place on a high end cable outlet. The visuals are given extra impact thanks to the multimedia manipulation of the imagery, and the words highlight a passion with the land that few in other areas can match. This is also a comment on those who claim to worship the Kiwi life, Francis finding subversive ways to illustrate some of the more outrageous ideas and claims.
Blue, Karma, Tiger (Score: ****)
Director: Mia Hulterstam, Cecilia Actis
Plot: Three Swedish graffiti artists explain the art of "tagging", and what inspires them.
Review: Since the young women here are considered 'outlaws' in their native land, the use of stop motion claymation to tell their story is a stroke of genius. We get to "see" them without seeing them. And thanks to the skills of the sculptures, we truly get to know these beautiful, brave ladies. Mixing in a few words from a state worker who must systematically eradicate their work, we get an intriguing portrait of modern day Sweden, seemingly locked in a US circa 1984 mode - and damn proud of it.
The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (Score: ***1/2)
Director: Gerrit van Dijk
Plot: Using actual transcripts of the famous mobster's last 20 hours on Earth, we get an expressionistic look at violence in America.
Review: Part live action "recreation", part sketchbook screed against the various forms of violence to taint and influence the world, van Dijk manages something rather unique. Few could link Vietnam, 9/11, OJ Simpson, and other facets of America's notorious history to the incoherent, pre-death ramblings of a dying gangster. But thanks to the approach, and the voice work of Rutger Hauer as Schultz, the odd juxtaposition excels.
The Beloved Ones (Score: ***)
Director: Samantha Moore
Plot: Two African women discuss living with AIDS.
Review: The dichotomy couldn't be any deeper. The younger girl tries to survive and see things in a semi-positive light. The older woman, whose abusive husband continues to deny his disease (even with her and a number of his "girlfriends" dying), is far more bitter and outspoken. Together, they paint a powerful if superficial view of the AIDS epidemic worldwide. Somehow, seeing the subjects as they really are, outside of some primitive art class conceit, would have made the material that much more powerful. Here, we get the point, but not much of the impact.
Sold Out (Score: ***)
Director: Garrit van Dijk, Marie Jose van der Linden
Plot: As a supermarket chain threatens their Mom and Pop business, we take a nostalgic look back at how this family corner shop was created.
Review: This is one of the cases here where the means more than justify the message. The story is simple - the mega food mart is putting the corner shop out of business. By using cartoon versions of old photos, and having the subjects in same "come alive" and tell their side of the story, we place a "human" face on the subject of corporate competition and personal disenfranchisement. As funny as it is sad, it's a wonderful look at a tenuous topic.
One Voice, One Vote (Score: **)
Director: Jeanne Paturie, Cecile Rousset
Plot: Two individuals discuss the upcoming 2007 French National Election, each one offering their own personal take on the place of politics in everyday life.
Review: Politics make strange bedfellows they say - and none are odder than Martine and Amaud. She represents France circa the '60s. He's a typical ennui laden slacker from the current social trend. Together, the offer the same moldy old insights about the political process that have been hashed out for decades. With nothing really new to say and a disillusioned philosophy that feels tired and redundant, we quickly lose interest. Only the interesting visual approach keeps our attention.
Learned by Heart (Score: ***1/2)
Director: Marjut Rimminen, Paivi Takala
Plot: Finland's history post-WWII is explored in five parts.
Review: Long, involved, and riddled with ambiguities, this walk through the last 50 years of Finnish history is heartbreaking. Like a perfect illustration of the old saying about "failing to learn from history and eventually repeating it", the insights offered and issues discussed paint a damning portrait of a nation happy to be free - only to resort to many of the positions it bristled against decades before. There is light here, and some stunning artistic design, but the bigger picture message is not to be forgotten - it's people, not political philosophy, that end up undermining the fabric of civilization.
Birdlings Two (Score: **1/2)
Director: Davina Pardo
Plot: Using a computer generated film her father made when he was in his 20s, the concept of the artist and his creation is explored.
Review: Nothing more than a celebration of one's parent "prettied up" with a multimedia mix of styles, there is little here to hang onto. Instead, we must simply settle back and enjoy the combination of pictures and pronouncements. Otherwise, the material grows tedious rather quickly.
A Shift in Perception (Score: **1/2)
Director: Dan Monceaux
Plot: Three blind Australian women explain their unusual lives.
Review: Animation is the best way of illustrating how these ladies "see" their world, and their wise and earnest comments don't hurt either. Of course, there is really nothing new to the notion of the handi-capable viewing the world through their own subjective purview. The insights can be a bit obvious, but the personalities of these darling women definitely come through. Similarly, the use of animation helps fill in the gaps live action would have a hard time satisfying.
Wiener Wuast (Score: **)
Director: Maya Yonesho
Plot: During a trip through Vienna, a series of animated watercoolers comment on the city and its impressions.
Review: Pretty, but rather dull. As we see the many stoic buildings of the Austrian capital in the background, we are treated to twee primary color canvases where primitive shapes bend and spin with no apparent connection to the scenery. It's as if the filmmaker just discovered the single cell version of animation, whipped out the paintbox, and proceeding to supplement her European trip. While it's fun for a while, it soon grows tiring.
In the Same Boat (Score: ***1/2)
Director: Emily Bissland
Plot: After meeting an Iraqi refugee, a racist Vietnam vet has a change of heart.
Review: While the cut out block stop motion work can be a bit overwhelming, it's the story of these two men and the meeting of the minds they achieved that is the real reason to celebrate this piece. Sometimes, the jagged figures and images detract from what is being said, but for the most part, this is an informative and inspirational piece. Too bad it can't be shared with those who continue to pursue an agenda of hate instead of understanding.
Do It Yourself (Score: ****1/2)
Director: Eric Ledune
Plot: Using the actual contents of a CIA manual on torture, the filmmaker follows the specific techniques, illustrating their effectiveness on...fish.
Review: As a brilliant illustration of bureaucratic BS and how frightening it can be, Ledune does a wonderful job of turning horrors into something semi-hilarious. The use of fish, fishing, fishermen, and other angler-oriented images dulls the impact, but doesn't lessen the shock. That the US actually applies such technique to its prisoners is beyond acceptable. Ledune tries to make a mockery, and ends up delivering something devastating - and definitive.
Talking About Amy (Score: ***)
Director: Yokiro Murakami
Plot: Using artist and mother Emi Lijima's own work, the concepts of social acceptance and family are explored.
Review: The biggest problem with this otherwise intriguing film is the lack of a coherent point. Just as our narrator gets to a solid idea or issue, the music streams in and the visuals go goofy. We want more information, not vague ambiguous impressions. While stunning to look at, there is little to garner from this proposed profile.
Presented in an anamorphic, 1.85:1 letterboxed image, the transfer here is terrific. Since we have 13 different films, from 13 different sources and stocks, you'd expect some deviation. But A Million Movies a Minute finds a way to make each film shine, especially when the approach argues for something that should be a problem to transfer. One minor note - the Dutch Schultz piece looks purposefully soft, especially in the live action material. Similarly, a few of the efforts here have a definite home video feel. Still, this is a solid presentation, visually.
Plain Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 with limited immersion or effects. Nothing to really celebrate or condemn. Most of these films are presented in their original native language, so be prepared for lots of subtitles. The English translations are always on target, thankfully.
Aside from a text-based "thank you" page from A Million Movies a Minute, the only other bit of added content is a commentary track from Eric Ledune regarding Do It Yourself. From the explanation of finding the torture manual online to accidentally discovering a proper subject for the illustrations, it is an intriguing, if sometimes scattered discussion. Why the other filmmakers didn't get a chance to defend their work is odd at best.
Animating Reality: A Collection of Short Documentaries is a real rarity - an overview of a hybrid genre and style that illustrates both the strengths and the shortcomings of the approach. Many of the films here are excellent. A few are unexceptional. All are linked irretrievably to way in which they were conceived and created. As a result, this intriguing omnibus earns a Recommended rating. It's not prescient for something "higher", and doesn't deserve to be downgraded because of a few mediocre choices. Like the marriage of animation and the documentary, something like this should be hit or miss. Luckily, there are more items to enjoy than endure.