In Orbit: a distinctive visual style in telling a rough story about survivor guilt

Soham Chakraborty, Hanxu Chen, M Joffily, Justin Polley, Julie Trouve, “In Orbit” (2019)

Similar to Gobelins’ 2018 release “Quand j’ai remplacé Camille” in its theme of survivor guilt, “In Orbit” uses impressive visual imagery to explore an astronaut’s feelings of guilt at not having been able to save her colleague and lover from a space accident that has left her comatose, and the astronaut being forced by memory, visual associations in her work environment, and the mere fact that she is transferring to another work unit that will involve working outside a spaceship to relive the incident and gradually accept it. The film appears to owe a debt to past Alfred Hitchcock films (in particular, “Vertigo”) and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its ideas and images.

The colour palette of the film is dominated by blues, purples and dark colours which mirror the astronaut Sonia’s depressed moods (though red for danger and yellow also appear). In a number of scenes there is an emphasis on the huge scale and empty rooms of the space station where Sonia is currently resident, making her and her fellow travellers look very small and at times as much isolated from one another physically as well as psychologically from the guilt-ridden Sonia. Changes in viewpoint reinforce a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia as Sonia is pursued by her demons: in one memorable scene, the audience viewpoint does a somersault up to the top of the vault-like corridors Sonia runs through, following the lines of the walls, and then focuses (almost vulture-like) on the tiny figure running across the screen.

Even though all the action takes place on a space station, and the horror exists mainly in Sonia’s mind, this film has most of the necessary elements of a haunted-house horror film: the changes in viewpoint, the dark colours and shades, the suspense and anxiety, irrational fears and memories playing tricks on the mind. While the plot is rough around the edges and has no real resolution – we do not even know if Sonia is still on the material plane of existence when she finally meets with her lover – the film has succeeded as a science-fiction horror film in its visual style.

Blind Eye: a satirical poke in the eye at religious fanaticism, blind faith and priestly control

Bruno Cohen, Germaine Colajanni, Rohan Deshchougule, Ronit Kelkar, Isabella Littger de Pinho, Diego Porral, Yujia Wang, “Blind Eye” (2019)

After seeing Muhammad Houhou’s 2018-released short”Ostrich Politic”, I wasn’t expecting to see another animated short illustrating the famous Plato’s Cave allegory from students of the renowned Gobelins School of animation in Paris but a group of animators has done just that in the second year running in the school’s new 2019-released batch of shorts. “Blind Eye” tells the story of a community of worshippers sacrificing to their god The Almighty Eye in a complex ritual conducted by their priests. A small toddler starts munching on one of the sacrificial offerings and the offended community and priests yield him up to the giant birds to take him to the god. Just as one of the birds snatches up the child, the little boy’s sister races to the altar and tries to save him but both children are borne away by the bird … to an upper paradise world where the birds turn out to be part of the local wildlife and previous sacrificial victims, one of whom was known to the children in the past, lounge about on the grass and worship the sun.

The film is open-ended so it can be the subject of various interpretations: the children are stunned to learn the true nature of The Almighty Eye; the people in the upper world might be preparing the siblings for another sacrifice, one they won’t so easily escape; or they really have died after all and their spirits have gone to a completely different dimension. The film is also a satirical commentary on how blind faith and religious dogma jealously controlled by a priestly elite combine to keep a community ignorant of the truth.

The animation style is cartoony but zippy enough to keep a surprisingly complex plot going at a brisk pace and packing in enough story and one surprise after another in the space of just over six minutes. We actually don’t learn all that much about the siblings’ original community and yet there seems to be a lot of depth in it – certainly we get some sense of the priests’ hypocrisy and panic when the fanatical community threatens to get out of hand and tear the toddler from limb to limb for desecrating a sacrificial offering.

Viewers will either laugh along with the jokey poke in the eye at religious fanaticism and blind faith or be just as stunned as the children when the scales literally fall from their eyes at where they are delivered.

Oasis: eco-SF fantasy on societies’ responses to new ideas and ideologies

Florencia Atra, Leonard Hicks, Man Luo, Claire Matz, Luana Nguyen, Marine Petri, “Oasis” (2019)

Compared to other Gobelins animated shorts I have seen so far, the symbolism behind “Oasis” is a little more complicated to follow. The film revolves around two characters, the child Edwin and his agronomist mother Amaranthe, who live in a desert oasis paradise growing plants for scientific study. Edwin recovers a tiny plant from the sand which, when doused with special liquid nutrient that Amaranthe has developed, disrupts the precious ecosystem that Amaranthe has so carefully nurtured over the years. The plants die off, Amaranthe is devastated that her life’s work now lies in ruins, and a looming desert storm threatens to bury the entire oasis. Amaranthe allows Edwin to put his troublemaker plant into the central reliquary where her precious plant once stood, and Edwin’s plant promptly revives the entire ecosystem and wards off the dust storm.

The message of this little eco-SF fantasy seems to be that Edwin and his little plant represent a new paradigm of ideas that threaten societies long accustomed to a particular order and way of viewing the world that may no longer have any relevance or basis in a changed reality. Such societies will reject and suppress these ideas until an existential crisis threatens the survival of these societies; only then are the new ideas and new models accepted as the new mainstream paradigm.

The animation in “Oasis” is well done though not very remarkable. Background animation can be very lush and gorgeous as would be expected of a sudden explosion of green exotic flora. The characters communicate by looks and facial expressions. The music soundtrack is forgettable. “Oasis” is noteworthy mainly for its plot and the parable-like message behind it.

The Tree: a deeply moving film on hope and the importance of memory

Han Yang, Basil Malek, “The Tree” (2018)

Almost completely silent save for ambient background sound effects, this deeply moving animated short about an elderly man living an isolated life in a drought-stricken desert world, spending his days trying to obtain enough water from a well to water a tiny tree sapling that seemingly fails to thrive, is sure to have many viewers in tears. The narrative demonstrates the importance of the tree to the man: it is a memorial to his long-dead daughter who, in her dying days, drew a picture of herself and her father in the shade of a flourishing tree on the wall of their hut. After her death, the father planted a tree sapling on her grave and has cared for it ever since.

The animation is very minimal and concentrates on the main characters: the father and the tree itself. Despite all his efforts, the tree always appears fragile and on the verge of dying. The well gives up very little water. The father spends all his days trying to fetch more water to feed the tree until one day a huge dust storm gathers and threatens the tree’s survival. The father throws himself upon the girl’s grave to try to save the tree. What happens next may well shock many viewers and surprise and gladden others.

Self-sacrifice, hope, the importance of memory and remembering lost loved ones, and the deceptiveness of appearance – things that seem the most frail turn out to be the strongest – are the major themes of this poignant film.

Routine: a film far less boring than its subject matter

Valeria Dakhovich Molchanova, “Routine” (2017)

Astonishingly I found this film about an every-person character’s daily routine over a number of days far less boring than he does. The character wakes up at 6am as he normally does to get ready for work, travel into the city by train and arrive at his desk and PC. On this particular day though, a tiny black blob (representing his depression) appears on his shoulder. We see the fellow go through his work day glued to his desk, his eyes seemingly transfixed by what passes over the PC screen, maybe spending his free time out on the balcony smoking a cigarette, and then go home with his black-blob companion where he spends his evening watching his TV and then going to bed. He repeats the same routine the next day and the next … but with each succeeding day, the black blob grows bigger, more menacing and controlling, and life around the unnamed man literally becomes more grey and dead, the colour draining out of it … until a sudden and unexpected change in the weather stops the man and his antagonist depression in the street, the two facing each other, and viewers transfixed at the sight, wondering who will prevail …

In the space of a few minutes with absolutely no dialogue, the only soundtrack being the urban environment ambience, animator Molchanova shows in a very straightforward and effective way what living a monotonous, alienated and depressing life in a typical Western capitalist society, working for a soulless corporation, is like for millions of people around the world. Monotony and depression reinforce the rut in which many people are forced to live in and are helpless to leave, and erode people’s imaginations and reduce their perceptions of the world until they become the walking dead. The man appears to have no social relationships and seems to lead a very isolated life. For a moment in the film though, the man is given an opportunity to break out of his routine … but can he overcome the black monster looming over his shoulder and pushing him backwards?

While some viewers may be tempted to see the character and his surroundings as Japanese – he does have black hair after all, though the film’s colour palette progressively fades to black, white and grey – the animation is deliberately vague and cartoon-like visually to drive home the point that the city could be any Western city on Earth and the character could be one of us. The film’s conclusion is deliberately left unresolved, with the man appearing at least a little defiant as he confronts one of his demons for the first time.

Given that its subject matter and themes revolve around the monotony of modern life and the despair and lack of hope this induces in far too many people, the film is actually not as boring as it might have looked originally on paper, in part because as the character’s depression increases, the narrative starts to speed up, the days going faster, and this increases the tension as viewers come to realise that the character must eventually confront his depression.

Souffle-court: a study of an authoritarian father-son relationship through bike racing

Pierre-Marie Adnet, Jean-Luc Dessertaine, Guillaume Pochez, Tristan Poulain, Vincent Rouziere, Alessandro Vergonnier, “Souffle-court” (2018)

In this 5-minute short film, a young teenage supercross rider Tom is being trained by his father for an upcoming major competition at which recruiters for what I presume is the national training club in the sport will be attending. The film portrays the authoritarian ways in which Tom’s father controls his son, risking the boy’s safety and life at times, to fulfill his own need for recognition and success, his own career in biking having been unsuccessful. Up to now always compliant, never daring to rebel, Tom starts to have doubts about his dad’s obsessively single-minded focus on his riding and gradually comes to realise there is a whole world outside supercross racing where he can be free and just himself. Viewers sense that crunch-time is rapidly coming, when Tom must make a decision that perhaps could affect the rest of his life …

Compared to some other Gobelins shorts that were also released in 2018 by graduating students, the animation is not quite as good though the backgrounds are well done and quite detailed. The characters are drawn in a minimalist way that makes them look flat but which allows their faces to show subtle emotions: indeed I would say this portrayal is the film’s strongest point. Plenty of close-ups are taken of Tom and his father to show how trapped Tom feels in his relationship with his father. The father behaves like a bastard throughout the film but becomes a broken man at the film’s climax and viewers can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for him when he discovers that his dream has coming crashing down a second time.

While the story is quite simple with an open-ended conclusion, it is nevertheless quite emotionally intense in its own minimalist way.

Ostrich Politic: a brilliant short film about the ease with which societies become fascist

Mohammad Houhou, “Ostrich Politic” (2018)

What struck me most about this film is its encapsulation of the allegory of Plato’s Cave in which society is convinced that the shadows it sees on a cave wall are reality whereas a few individuals who have dared to venture out of the cave realise that reality (and thus truth) is very different from what is seen on the cave wall. For years, a nation inhabited by ostrich citizens has long believed that ostriches by nature are timid and, when faced with problems and conflicts, deal with them by sticking their heads into the ground. Heck, their national hero is immortalised in bronze statue form sticking his head into the ground. However the president of that nation discovers from reading recent scientific research that this long-held and treasured tradition may be just that … a tradition with no basis in fact. He decrees that the notion that ostrich instinct is to stick your head into the ground is false and ostriches’ natural inclination is to confront and resolve problems when they occur. The bronze statue is covered up and laws forbidding sticking your head in the ground are enacted. The chaos and panic these laws create throw society into disorder, the streets are filled with hysterical ostriches racing to and fro, unable to accept the responsibility that being free and knowing the truth entails, until further scientific research reveals that maybe sticking your head in the ground might be a natural and instinctive reflex after all.

Of all the Gobelins short animated films I have seen so far, this one by Lebanese animator Houhou is the most brilliant in its story and relevance to human society, and in its execution. The animation, using archived live-action film shots, and deliberately drawing on Nazi-era symbolism and elements in parts, with an emphasis on oranges and reds amongst the shades of grey and dark grey in the backgrounds, is skillfully and beautifully done. The film does not have a distinct style of animation but rather draws inspiration and elements from a range of film and animation styles, and its distinctiveness comes from a narrow range of colours and the realist look of the ostriches and the city environments where they work … or rather, where they stick their heads in whatever receptacles will accommodate their craniums.

The film’s narrative quickly comes to the point about human nature and society: rather than prize truth, fact and rationality, we humans find truth and its consequences – we might need to change our ways for the better and make sacrifices so others can also achieve comfort and security – uncomfortable to accept and accommodate, and prefer to deny facts by either hiding from them or worse, arresting and imprisoning the messengers who bring such unpleasant news, and suppressing the truth at all costs. People prefer the comfort and security of lies and propaganda, even at the cost of freedom and, in the long term, prosperity and stability, and a better life for their children and grandchildren.

The film does not delve into how lies and propaganda are formed and repeated so much that they form reality for the majority of society.

A Gong (Grandpa): a journey of grief, accepting death and finding hope

Ellis Ka-yin Chan, Tena van der Galovic, Zozo Jhen, Yen-chen Liu, Marine Varguy, “A Gong (Grandpa)” (2018)

A tale of a small Taiwanese boy attending his grandfather’s funeral with his parents, performing little rituals he has no clue about, becomes a journey exploring intense grief, the closeness of ties between two generations, reincarnation and the hope it encompasses, and the continuity of life. The animation may look cartoony (it was hand-drawn with oil pastels) and a bit two-dimensional but this is to emphasise the film’s focus on the child and his point of view. Dialogue is pared back almost to the point where the film could be considered a silent film.

The film cleverly portrays the boy’s growing confusion and concern over the death of his grandfather and the strange rituals the adults follow (and urge him to follow as well) during the funeral to see off the old fellow, clad in his motorcycle outfit in the open coffin. The child’s unease reaches breakdown point when at night he hears the distant roar of a motorcycle and he races outside the house in pitch darkness to chase a dim red light. When the light disappears and the child comes to a fork in the road, he is in complete despair at having lost his grandfather forever. At this point, something unexpected happens: a puppy with a very familiar shape and expression on its face appears.

Taiwanese funeral customs and the spectacle they involve – not to mention their overwhelming nature to small children who may be perturbed by emotional adults, the solemn chanting of Buddhist monks, the burning smell of incense, and more besides – are showcased to good effect here. Viewers may be more impressed though with the boy’s grief and gradual acceptance of his poppy’s death, and the old man’s final gift to the child to offer him hope and comfort.

Les lèvres gercées: a tiny kitchen sink drama reveals a dysfunctional family

Fabien Corre, Kelsi Phung, “Les lèvres gercées” (2018)

In just five minutes, within the setting of a small kitchen and with just two characters – a mother and her son who is wrestling with gender dysphoria – a family crisis plays out through dialogue demonstrating inattention and lack of communication. The boy wants to tell Maman that he is transgender but Maman, shown throughout the film with her facial features cropped so that we never see what she really looks like until the very last shot, is too concerned with other things – like his truancy problem, the fights he has with classmates and finally his suspension from school – to listen to him.

The style of animation, looking as if someone was pressing down hard with an ink brush, is very detailed and shows characters and objects in close-up with lots of lines. We are treated to some interesting points of view: at one point, we have a bird’s-eye view of cereal being poured down the kitchen sink, being sucked into the drain. At other points in the film, soup starts to boil over in the saucepan and washing whirls around in the front-loader. The boy’s anguish and pain over what he is and what he feels himself to be are so clear that viewers can’t help but feel for him. The mother is often portrayed quite harshly with lines that emphasise her anger and narrow-minded stance.

As with other recent Gobelins graduates’ films, the voice acting and the script, entirely reliant on dialogue, are effective in establishing an intimate and private home scene in which a child faces an inner conflict that he needs parental help with, but which is not forthcoming. It’s only when he appears to be considering suicide that the mother finally begins to understand the depth of the boy’s despair. At this point, the film is done.

Viewers will want to know what happens next but this is an appropriate point to end the film. More is known about this particular family’s dysfunctional nature by the little that is revealed and what is deliberately left out, which may be a lot or not much at all. This animation is an excellent example of the “show, don’t tell” principle of telling a story and how dialogue is used to push that story along and embellish it.

Mehua: criticising the dogma and empty rituals of religion

Camille Aigloz, Simon Anding Malandin, Michiru Baudet, Margo Roquelaure, Diane Tran Duc, Lucy Vallin, “Mehua” (2017)

In real life, the Aztecs did not sacrifice their own women and girls en masse to their gods: they usually sacrificed prisoners of war in special ceremonies at certain times of the year and celebrated such ceremonies and the associated rituals with dignity and solemnity. The reason for human sacrifice lies in the Aztecs’ creation myths in which the gods sacrifice themselves for humanity and therefore require human offerings so that the sun can continue to bring day to the world. The stereotypes that mar this short film are regrettable as its message can be applied to any religion or ideology: dogmatism, complacency and perhaps ignorance of the original rationale for particular ceremonies and rituals (as time passes and generations are further removed from those traditions’ original context) can lead to ossified attitudes and resistance to change and compassion. Two women, one older than the other and who could be her older sister, prepare themselves for mass sacrifice at the top of a pyramid. When they climb to the top, the older woman lays herself down on the stone table, the masked priest raises his bloodied knife … and the younger woman picks up a flame-bearing pole and starts swiping and whacking the other priests in her attempts to save her friend.

As with other Gobelins animated shorts, the plot is vague and left open-ended. Viewers can assume a far worse fate awaits the two women for daring to disrupt a sacred tradition that keeps the sun rising every morning. The backgrounds and scenes in the film are beautifully done with an emphasis on blue and green shades. Particularly stunning is a sequence in which the older woman prays (in French-accented Nahuatl) to the snake gods who, arranged in a labyrinth that might resemble star charts consulted by Aztec priests to determine sowing and harvesting dates for farmers, arise from their slumber and watch the black background above their heads crack to reveal sunlight. Swathed in gorgeous tones of jade green and bright blue against the black backdrop, the scene looks computer-designed but displays bright imagination as the snake gods raise their heads and hiss and roar in fury.

No matter that they have broken their people’s most sacred customs and laws and must face their community’s wrath, the two women support and trust in each other, standing against the world as the guards and warriors climb the pyramid to discover they have killed the priests. What punishment awaits them – or perhaps what reward the women will receive for removing a parasitical class – we can only guess at.