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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2024

GoCritic! Feature: Disgusting Miracles – Body images in stop-motion at Animafest Zagreb 2024

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- We look at five shorts across Animafest Zagreb’s Short and Student competition sections, which use stop motion to explore various aspects of our relationships with our bodies

GoCritic! Feature: Disgusting Miracles – Body images in stop-motion at Animafest Zagreb 2024
Barbara Rupik's Such Miracles Do Happen

At this year’s Animafest Zagreb, the human body, our relationship with it, and its various functions and imperfections was a recurrent motif in both the Student and the Shorts competitions. This astonishingly complex topic calls for a form of expression that is equally physical in nature. Considering that it requires physical movement, stop-motion animation seems the most appropriate approach.

Let us start with two extremely sensitive themes, the respective Achilles’ heels of the female and male genders: breast size and balding. Competing in the Students’ section of the festival, Subarna Dash and Vidushi Gupta’s This is TMI brings to life an array of women’s impressions, memories, experiences and insecurities related to their breasts, in a facile yet non-superficial tone. Due to the freewheeling atmosphere of these spontaneous conversations, this Indian animation might indeed provide the viewer with too much information, but we have been warned of this by the title. The film combines different techniques with stop motion, including 2D animation, live action and claymation. We are invited to enter the “land of boobs”, where shades of pink and spherical shapes made from clay, and the cheerful, breezy conversations they illustrate, create the intimate atmosphere of a true sisterhood, leaving the female viewer with a genuine sense of belonging.

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This is TMI by Subarna Dash and Vidushi Gupta

The insecurities of the opposite sex are presented rather less loosely in Beautiful Men by Belgian director Nicolas Keppens. Competing in the Shorts section, it tells the story of three bald brothers who travel to Istanbul to visit a hair transplant clinic. After discovering that there is only one appointment available, they are forced to come up with an answer to the cruel and absurd question of who most deserves to have hair. The film’s use of stop motion with silicon puppetry creates realistic and almost painfully human characters. These three pale, chubby losers with their frill beards and peaky noses look just like the type of men who would rather do anything to gain more confidence than go to therapy.

For the same reason, communication is difficult for them, underlined by the pale colours of the setting, the recurrent use of darkness, fog and steam, and the numerous missed calls and interrupted or unheard messages. The film’s bittersweet tone leaves the viewer with a great deal of freedom for interpretation. The atmosphere is gloomy, but the situations are rather comical, and these two frameworks are applied simultaneously, intersecting and complementing one another. Ultimately, a strengthening of hair roots might also result in the strengthening of the roots of their fraternal bonds.

Beautiful Men by Nicolas Keppens

Another ballad of male insecurities from the Shorts competition is the French stop-motion animation Peeping Mom, directed by Francis Canitrot, which world-premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Freud would no doubt have enjoyed this film about Éli, a middle-aged bachelor taking care of his aging mother, spiced with suppressed echoes of the subconscious.

Éli is another chubby loser whose appearance has been meticulously designed using a hybrid technique combining stop motion with 2D and 3D computer animation. As she experiences the gradual decay of her body, the mother becomes surprisingly obscene. The various scenes depicting sexuality are designed in a rather disillusive way. An old woman with tiger-dildo sculptures who boasts all day long about her wild sex life and who praises the desirable shape of her female neighbour might be comical, but Éli does not feel like laughing. Having a mother who bluntly declares that “fucking is so good” does not make it easy for him to lead a healthy love life or, indeed, any love life at all. The dramatic tension in the plot is fuelled by the dynamic of desire and its constant castration.

Peeping Mom by Francis Canitrot

Shifting further towards the aesthetics of ugliness and returning to the Student Competition, Czech filmmaker Tereza Kovandová’s stop-motion animation, Humanity, immerses the viewer in disgusting aspects of the human body. The film produces a nigh-on polar-opposite effect to ASMR with its brilliant sense of slapstick humour stemming from the contrast between stylized, vivid, colourful visuals and annoyingly disgusting actions. For a full seven minutes, we enjoy a “wonderful” symphony of bodily functions: munching, snoring, coughing, croaking, sniffing, snickering and farting. With the expressive use of acoustic elements and similarly charming live-action inserts focused on secretions, Humanity makes us confront the uncomfortable and intolerable truth about ourselves: we are utterly distasteful and annoying. 

Humanity by Tereza Kovandová

But, even if it is disgusting, the human body is, nonetheless, a miracle. In Polish director Barbara Rupik’s film, screening in the Students’ Competition and entitled Such Miracles Do Happen (pictured on top), hard, soft, solid and liquid substances unite proportionately. Rupik’s stop-motion animation directs the viewer into sacred, mythical territory and challenges the viewer with an utterly original and abstract cinematic language, which arguably explores a legend about the origin of bodies, by way of wax puppetry. In a rural area enveloped in an obscurely mystical and Tarkovskian atmosphere, a boneless little girl unites with a moving statue. This ritualistic act is accompanied by an eerie and unearthly piece of music comprising vocal elements, also made by Rupik. The girl’s unimaginably repulsive body is not, in fact, recognisable as a body: she is melting incoherently, without shape, frame or boundaries. Conversely, the statue has a frame, but its interior is empty. The shell must be filled with matter to form a complete body. When form and content unite, miracles happen. Ultimately, it’s an alluring metaphor for cinema itself, and who knows what else!

Despite divergences in terms of technique and imagery, the above-mentioned stop motion animations all share an authentic curiosity for the human condition, approaching the issue from its most tangible angle: the body.

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