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GOCRITIC! Anifilm Liberec 2024

GoCritic! Feature: Perfectly Puppeteered – Anifilm’s Puppetry Shorts Selection


- For its 2024 edition, Liberec’s Anifilm Festival brings puppets to the forefront, showcasing the wonderful humanity found within inanimate objects

GoCritic! Feature: Perfectly Puppeteered – Anifilm’s Puppetry Shorts Selection
Don Juan by Jan Švankmajer

Spanning nearly a century, countless styles, a variety of materials, and plenty of thematic approaches, Anifilm’s 2024 focus on puppetry feels particularly poignant in an age of manipulation. We find ourselves in the post-truth era, constantly misguided by propaganda, fake news, and the emergent AI, like puppets on strings. It is fitting then that Liberec’s animation festival’s very trailer represents humanity strung up in a spiderweb, using shadows to project the festival’s title card — yet another reference to the nature of perception and reality by the way of Plato. Breaking through the looming cloud of deceit, Anifilm’s selection of puppetry films, especially the shorts, comes across as deeply human and heartfelt. 

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Both blocks of Manipulated Puppets shorts blend various stylistic proposals from throughout film’s history, starting as early as 1930 with the advertisement Spejbl’s Case (by an uncredited director) and reaching the struggles of Iranian emigrants with 2019’s Song Sparrow, directed by Farzaneh Omidvarnia. This particularly wide timeframe is defined not by its differences, but rather by a throughline of experimentation, brought about by the extent to which puppetry intermingles with animation and live-action performance. Regardless of a time period, puppetry within cinema is unapologetically experimental, supplementing its otherness in an ever-increasing variety of ways, be it through the use of stop-motion props, digitally altered expressions, or even live actors, whose movements are sometimes rendered in stop-motion for an outlandish effect.

Specifically, in his 1969 film Don Juan, Czech master Jan Švankmajer places oversized wooden puppet heads on actors’ bodies to achieve a fairytale-like quality, giving up on human facial expressions. He tells the story of a man who lusts for his brother’s lover, leading to lethal consequences, by aptly blending live-action and stop-motion to dehumanise the characters' movements. The result is nothing short of movie magic.

Punch and Judy by Martin Máj

The same intermedia blend of puppetry, live-action and stop-motion can be observed in both Švankmajer’s original 1966 Punch and Judy, depicting a hammer fight between two unruly puppets, and Martin Máj’s 2013 reinterpretation of the same title, in which the two combative puppets turn against their human master. Just as memorable is their compatriot Jan Mika’s post-anthropocentric standout We’re Human, After All (2016), capturing the story of a fox and a hare that band together against a human hunter, discovering camaraderie and meaning in nature’s unhindered circle of life. Not only is the story emotional and the character design hilariously silly, but the staging and digitally animated eye movements ensure Mika near-rivals Švankmajer’s greatness.

One will also surely notice puppetry’s deep connection to editing. What these movies lack in complex facial expressions or dynamic gestures, they more than make up for in refined editing and sound design. Máj and Karel Czech’s Mr. Badger (2012) pays off most of its gags through revelatory changes in perspective, adding surprising amounts of character to the thespian badger. Song Sparrow’s sorrowful story of illegal immigration gone wrong told through felt puppets similarly gains in intensity through lightning-quick cuts, fades, double exposure, and juxtaposed music for vivid dream sequences. Švankmajer’s work naturally trumps the rest, with both Punch and Judy, and especially Don Juan, using rapid editing and classical music to forge masterfully whimsical, crazily comic stories.

Manoman by Simon Cartwright

One of Švankmajer’s foremost achievements – not exclusive to his work, but perfected in it – is the courage to not shy away from the close-up. Though counterintuitive, as puppets, be they fur, plastic, felt, wood, or clay, lack intricacies one might find in traditional animation, the close-up is often the most interesting part of these films. It can simultaneously be both hilarious and deeply moving, convey courage and wickedness, hurt and delight. Don Juan is tormented and crazed, and Máj’s Punch and Judy hand puppets are equal parts prisoners and torturers of their master. Meanwhile, British filmmaker Simon Cartwright’s Manoman (2015) shows us a man whose animalistic urges have taken human form, with the camera alternating between shaky close-ups of the panicked man and of the unhinged, naked manifestation of his instincts, to disturbingly delightful comic effect. 

All the puppets in these films attain a peculiar form of expression, equal parts unflinching and flexible. Through their limited physicality, puppets allow the viewer to deduct a meaning that remains mostly subjective, even when the filmmakers’ methods include clear pointers. They exist in a perpetual state of post-objective-truth, refreshing in an age marred by uncertainty and overt propaganda. To be alone with such an amorphous meaning removes the fear of outside influence or misunderstandings. In the perception of puppeteering films, the honesty of subjectivity trumps doubt or external influence. You are alone with the picture.

As per its catalogue, Anifilm’s thesis for this year is if puppetry should or can be assimilated within the broader scope of animated features. A viewer who is prone to categorising rigorously might disagree, yet what is undeniable is the puppet’s deeply moving impact and openness to subjective interpretation, both from the creator’s and the viewer’s side. Regardless of whether we label it as animation or live-action, or choose to completely discard categories and consider it as something entirely separate and remarkably unconventional, Anifilm’s puppetry selection showcased exquisite filmmaking.

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