The Contrechamp competition of the Annecy festival for animated film aims to showcase unique, challenging feature films outside of the main competition. This year’s selection includes two stories about life in a Communist dictatorship. It’s certainly a challenging topic, treated very differently, although both films revolve around similar themes of conflict between compromising and staying true to your moral compass, in an environment that actively discourages having a moral compass at all.
My Favorite War (director: Ilze Burkovska-Jacobsen), which ended up winning the best feature prize in this category, is a gentle autobiography drawing from the director’s experiences growing up in Soviet Latvia. Ilze’s father was an active member of the Communist Party; on the other hand, her grandfather had been labelled „an enemy of the people”. Ilze herself looks at the world through child eyes, finding joy in small things.
The setting of My Favorite War, with its pioneer songs and red pioneer neckties, is familiar to all Eastern Europeans; those who are too young to have lived it know it from the tales of their parents. It’s a society in which truth is an elusive thing, always twisted and buried, sometimes literally. Ilze and her schoolmates are idealistic young people who genuinely want to believe in the enthusiastic Communist slogans, but as they grow up they are disillusioned more and more.
For additional ‘authenticity’, the film mixes live-action documentary footage with the animation; the latter is very simple but effective, although the characters’ shiny, black eyes may be a bit too insect-like. Burzovska-Jacobsen infuses the story with a sense of hopefulness: she never fails to believe in the decency and inner strength of her family, her friends, her country as a community. This keeps the film afloat even when the unstructured narrative meanders sometimes. The personal point of view means we don’t get any grand theories or political opinions about Soviet Latvia: instead, freedom can be found in something as simple as a walk on the beach.
True North (director: Eiji Han Shimizu) is set in an place that makes Soviet Latvia look rather idyllic by comparison: a forced labor camp in North Korea. The film follows the plight of a family which starts out living a relatively comfortable life in Pyongyang, but ends up being sent to the labor camp because of an unnamed offense against the regime. Two children and their mother have to survive and adapt to a life that seems beyond human endurance.
The events depicted in True North involve an almost non-stop gallery of horrors: starvation, disease, beatings, torture, rape, murder, humiliation, dehumanization, executions of pregnant women (I’m considering these to be less spoilers than trigger warnings). Despite the darkness surrounding them, some of the people in the camp try to hold on to their humanity and kindness.
This is a very worthy story to tell, but unfortunately I’m not sure that it’s being told through the right means. The CGI animation makes the film looks a bit like an extended cutscene from a computer game; combined with the filmmakers’ attempt to inject some Hollywood-style action and tropes, it seems rather generic and removed at times. The voice acting in the English dub is a bit clunky too, and there are definitely too many montages.
The result was that I didn’t find myself as moved by True North as I could (should?) have been. The filmmakers’ hearts are in the right place, but perhaps the subject matter would’ve benefitted more from a personal approach, rather than a fictionalised script.
The 2020 Annecy International Animated Film Festival takes place online until June 30.