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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2024

GoCritic! Review: Pelikan Blue


- László Csáki’s animated documentary tells a specifically local story that’s universally enjoyable thanks to dynamic, breezy storytelling

GoCritic! Review: Pelikan Blue

With its rascally, easy-going charm and lively storyline, László Csáki’s animated documentary, Pelikan Blue, offers an alluring splash of colour at Animafest Zagreb 2024. After world-premiering in the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival last year and subsequently winning the Young Jury Reteena Award at DocsBarcelona, the film made its way to the Contrechamp Competition at Annecy.

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Csáki’s film tells an eminently Eastern European story from the beginning of the 1990s, the absurd and chaotic years spent transitioning from communism to market economy in Hungary. The collapse of the socialist regime created an economic loophole and people quickly learned how to adapt to it. In fact, the three main characters in the film are a perfect example of how some managed to take advantage of these changing circumstances.

Three youngsters, driven by audacity and an overwhelming desire for freedom, start to forge rail tickets for routes all around Europe. First, they use the tickets to discover the newly opened outside world, but they soon realise this business opportunity is too good to keep to themselves. Together, they form a perfect team: Ákos is incredibly creative, smart and inventive, Petya is brave, and Laci has the calmness and sanity to carry out such a scheme.

The film’s plot reconstructs real-life events based on reminiscences narrated by those who actually experienced them. The stories are brought to life by animated dramatization, voiced by actors, with nuance coming courtesy of voice-over comments from the real-life protagonists. Interviews encompass the viewpoints of multiple actors within the story: besides the ticket forgers, we hear from the people who used the tickets, as well as the director of the Hungarian State Railways and the police officers from that time. Augmented by title cards with quotes from Hungarian authors from that time-period and from the present, these interviews not only provide a simple overview of events, they also offer deeper insight into the prevailing political and social context, and into the psychological impact it had. Bitter memories of the past combined with the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding the sudden change produced an ambiguous, nihilistic feeling where nothing really mattered and everything was possible.

Csáki’s film consists of a simple, not-overly-detailed visual world rendered through 2D computer animation, just like the kind we see in modern, adult cartoons with caricature-ish figures and vivid colours, such as Family Guy, The Simpsons or Bojack Horseman. Live action inserts are also used to show nostalgic objects from the realm of post-socialist Europe, such as the GDR mark and a strip of flypaper. These inserts also emphasise the documentary aspect of the story, foregrounding relics of their forgery, such as the actual train tickets in question or the bleach they used to wash out the indigo from the paper known as “pelikan blue”. Attention to detail - for instance, the precise dimensions of Pesti est, the newspaper in which the heroes hid the forged tickets - is essential for carrying out the crime, and it became an important characteristic of the filmmaking approach too.

Pelikan Blue is a specifically local story, but it’s a universally enjoyable movie thanks to dynamic, breezy storytelling and a progressive rise in dramatic tension, notwithstanding its occasionally repetitive structure. The film’s airy, carefree atmosphere belies the fact that the story is about a crime, and mirrors the laxity of the prevailing public mood. Emphasis is placed on the fact that the tickets provided an innocent opportunity for these youngsters to experience freedom. As the brains of the outfit, Ákos, wisely concludes towards the end of the film: “People can thank pelikan blue indigo for their freedom.”

Pelikan Blue is a Hungarian production by Umbrella and Cinemon Entertainment. World sales are being managed by NFI World Sales - National Film Institute Hungary.

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