This is a candidate for the standout film of My French Film Festival. It is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen and also one of the saddest and most desperate despite a more optimistic tone towards the end of the narrative. As an animation it affected me as much as classics like Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988). There are many kinds of animated films but as far as drawn/painted animation is concerned, I would place French productions (linked to a graphic novel industry) alongside Japanese anime and manga.
The source here is a novel by ‘Yasmina Khadra’, the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian military man who chose to disguise his identity to avoid censure. The novel first appeared in 2002. The film adaptation is by two women, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec. Both women are credited as directors. Breitman is one of three writers who adapted the novel and Gobbé-Mévellec is the animator responsible for the overall graphic design and the ‘look’ of the film. I haven’t read the original novel but given the nature of the story, the gender shift in the control of the ‘voices’ of the characters would be worth exploring. (I’m referring here to the broader sense of how a character in a narrative can articulate how they feel rather than simply what they say.)
As the title suggests, the story is set in Kabul, but at a specific time between 1998 and 2001 when the Taliban occupied the Afghan capital that was reduced to ruins. They have imposed Sharia Law and are taking drastic action against anyone who attempts to flout the new restrictions on behaviour. The narrative focuses on two couples. Atiq is an older war veteran who has been made the gaoler of women condemned to die for lewd behaviour and other crimes. His wife Mussarat, the woman who nursed him after he was wounded, is now seriously ill. Zunaira is a young and very attractive teacher and artist who now rarely leaves the house because she cannot bear to wear a burqua. Her equally young husband Mohsen is also a teacher now despairing at what has happened to Kabul. Each of these four characters is attempting to come to terms with their situation and each finds that either they feel compelled to act in particular ways or that they attempt to do what they think is right only to discover that it leads to an unexpected and usually bad outcome.
I’ve seen some criticism that by focusing on an ‘academic’ couple, the story takes the kind of route that might be easiest for Western audiences, but this is balanced by the story of Atiq and Mussarat. In each case the couples meet others who offer different trajectories. Mohsen meets his old university teacher and Atiq meets a childhood friend and an elderly man – possibly the character who acts like a kind of wise man. The women meanwhile are caught between neighbours who look out for them and other women who seem to have become Taliban collaborators, acting as prison guards with their Kalashnikovs. The Taliban seem to revel in their own hypocrisy, lounging about with dancing girls behind closed doors and enforcing the social laws with violence. Everyone else is to some extent lost and bewildered.
There have been many narratives released in the West about what has happened in Afghanistan over the last 30-40 years. I don’t know which, if any, offer the most accurate representation – probably it isn’t possible. Many are stories created by exiles or Western observers. The ones I know best are those by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and especially by his daughter Samira. Both Mohsen and Samira have used elements of absurdity and surrealism as part of their approach. The most relevant comparison for The Swallows of Kabul is possibly Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003), set immediately after the Taliban have been ousted by international forces. In that film a young woman, Noqreh, rebels against her conservative father and attends a school where she takes part in an election for ‘President’. I was struck by how in both her film and The Swallows of Kabul the two young women flout the strict dress code by wearing a pair of white court shoes with a low heel. Noqreh changes shoes as she moves from a Koranic school to the new school where women speak out. Zunaira wears her shoes defiantly, knowing she is asking for trouble. The shoes are the only ‘personal’ aspect of a woman’s appearance on the street – every woman wears the same burqua (though the children seem to recognise their mothers’ birqua when it is borrowed). The uniformity of the burqua-clad women is the other strong image I remember from the Iranian film and it is repeated in the still from The Swallows of Kabul in the image at the head of this post.
The strength of The Swallows of Kabul for me is in the approach to the animation style which I think works to create that sense of realism counterposed by surrealism. Much of the production process is explained in the Press Pack which is extremely useful. Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec explain in some detail how the animation style developed. The animation house Les Armateurs, best-known internationally for The Triplets of Belleville and Ernest & Celestine were involved from the start but Zabou Breitman was convinced that she wanted a process that involved actors performing scenes first which would then be drawn, rather than voice actors adding dialogue to a conventional animation. Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec then provided the background ‘plates’ for the representation of the city and created the overall look of the film as a traditional 2D ‘drawn’ animation using brushwork and washes of colour. The filmed performances then led to a process similar too but distinct from rotoscoping which Breitman felt would be too ‘fluid’. The final result with the actors placed against the background offers a unique representation of Kabul under the Taliban. The dialogue is voiced by mainly French actors and I noted that Swann Arlaud appears as Mohsen, one of his three appearances in the My French Film Festival. Mussarat is voiced by the great Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass.
I really don’t understand why this film hasn’t got a UK release. It has appeared in festivals in the UK and is currently available (with English subs) for streaming on Curzon and also (at a lower price) on YouTube. Here’s a trailer with English subs.
I only recently caught Shinkai Makoto’s much lauded Your Name (Kimi no na wa, Japan 2016) whose gender-swapping premise, mixed with natural disasters, was a fascinating mix of teen pic and SF. Weathering With Me is even better, though I’m not sure how much my delight in the latter film was influenced by seeing it on an IMAX screen.
The last film I saw on the big screen format was Blade Runner 2049 which seemed to me to be diminished by the large screen. I have found it difficult to know where to look on the IMAX space and this uncertainty interrupts the flow of the filmic experience. As Weathering With You was limited to one screening in Bradford I’m grateful to my daughter for insisting we go, despite my reservations. Whilst I haven’t wholly changed my views on IMAX’s suitability as a medium for narrative cinema, I am pretty sure this anime benefited from the eyeball-encompassing space facilitated by the large screen: it is an exceptionally beautiful film. However, I found Blade Runner 2049‘s visuals superb too so I’m not sure what the difference is. If anything, watching Weathering, because the need to read subtitles necessitates an obvious movement of the gaze to the bottom of the screen, should have been an even less fulfilling experience but I was simply bowled over by the images.
Like Your Name, Weathering With You deals with a coming of age narrative but instead of a backdrop of natural disasters, here it is ecological disaster that affords the context to teenage travails: it is raining incessantly in Tokyo. At first it appeared that Makoto was making a point about climate change, Gaia is mentioned early on, but by the conclusion it seems, disappointingly, to have been more a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and first love. Morishima runs away from the boring sticks to make his fortune in Tokyo and Amano finds she is ‘weather girl’, a modern shaman who can make the sun shine. How they get together is subject to many (sometimes implausible but who cares when you’re seeing such sumptuous images?) narrative obstacles, some of which are funny.
In one scene the protagonists fall slowly, upside down, from the sky and I can’t work out why that image affected me so much. Whilst falling from the sky is obviously not a good idea for everyday life, maybe the image is about connecting with the unearthly aspects of our planet; hence Amano is a shaman. In our ‘sophisticated’ capitalist world we have lost touch with Earth, hence most don’t notice the incremental changes as we destroy it. Science has often been at the service of capitalism, developing products, services and new markets, and when it has attempted to speak loudly about climate catastrophe its message has been mangled and muted by vested (money) interests. Although Weathering With Me isn’t directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one week!
This was a programme selected by the Leeds Animation Workshop and screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. The occasion was to mark forty years of Leeds Animation Workshop and their total of forty films. Rona Murray celebrated and praised their contribution to both animation and women’s struggles over the years in a ‘thank you’. Before that we had a fine programme of animated films by women filmmakers from a variety of countries and in a variety of forms with a stimulating range of subjects.
No Offence, Leeds Animation Workshop (1996).
This was part of a series of films the Workshop made using the ‘fairy-tale’ form. In this case the topic was sexual harassment at work. In an original twist a Queen disguises herself as an ordinary female worker to investigate the behaviour of her managers. The tale includes reforms to end the harassment. The narrative is told with the distinctive voice of Alan Bennett.
Otesanek, Czech Republic 2017. Director Linda Retterová. 6 minutes
This film is an updated version of the traditional tale, ‘Little Otik’. There is an earlier version by Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerová (2000). This version is less macabre and the ‘Otik’ character is a carved trees stump in the form of a child. But s/he also devours everything in sight. The animation uses felt and embroidery as the materials for stop-motion.
The Black Dog (1987). 18 minutes.
This is a film by Alison De Vere who was a key figure in British animation from the 1950s until the late 1990s. The ‘Black Dog’ of the title is a shaman figure in a dream world which parallels work by surrealist artists. The fantastical settings are finely done and traverse a range of imaginative imagery.
The New Species, Czech Republic, 2014. Director Katerina Karhánková. 6 minutes.
The film follows three children as they attempt to identify a mysterious bone. On the way we also see representation of adult ways with children.
Phototaxis, USA (2017). Director Melissa Ferrari. 7 minutes.
The film uses the ‘Mothman’ myth from West Virginia; dramatised in the feature The Mothman Prophecies (2002). The film draws quite complex parallels between this and an addiction epidemic in the region. The film is fairly experiential in its techniques, including paper with superimposed pastels.
Black Soul, Canada (2000). Director Martine Chartrand. 9 minutes
In this narrative we see an older black woman and her grandson as she proffers examples of their cultural heritage. The film uses paint-on-glass techniques. The colours are luminous whilst the film’s trajectory is versatile.
Three Thousand, Canada (2017). Director Asinnajaq. 14 minutes.
This film combines newsreels [partly from the 1920s], ethnographic film and film of indigenous art work to explore the worlds of the Inuit peoples. It uses both animation techniques and film footage.
Nutag-Homeland, Canada (2016). Director Alisi Telegut. 6 minutes.
The film-maker is of Kalmyk origin. This people were formerly in the North Caucuses but now they are settled by the Caspian Sea. Their history is one of travails and forced migrations. The film presents poetic images of this through hand-painted frames.
The Fruit of Clouds, Czech republic (2017). 10 minutes.
Another film by Katerina Karhánková. In this a small colony of delightfully realised woodland creatures have an unusual diet. One brave individual finds an abundant source of this.
Own Skin, Leeds (2018). 3 minutes.
Geena Gasser and Saskia Tomlinson enjoyed an internship at the Animation Workshop. This hand-painted film examines the pressures of the body image.
They Call Us Maids: The Domestic Workers’ Story, Leeds Animation Workshop (2015). 7 minutes.
This film uses the actual experiences of migrant women works to expose the exploitation and oppression that they frequently suffer. The film relies on hand-painted water colours. It was commissioned by the Pavilion arts project and worked with Justice 4 Domestic Workers.
The whole programme was a rich palette of animation. There were a variety on techniques on show. And the subjects ranged widely as did the form of the films. Most of the titles had not been seen in Leeds before so this was a real treat.
Hopefully we will see more with a celebration at the Leeds International Film Festival of this important anniversary.
This programme at the Hyde Park Picture House is a celebration of the Leeds Animation Workshop on its fortieth birthday. The Workshop was inaugurated in 1978, though the collective had been working together since 1976 on their first film, Who Needs Nurseries. The fact that the Workshop has survived is itself a feat. The majority of the workshops and collectives from the late 1970s and 1980s have now disappeared though their members till contribute to Independent British Cinema. But the Animation Workshop have also been active in production, having produced a total of 40 animated films, one every year. A new work made with their support, Own Skin, screens in this programme. Animation is a slow and painstaking form of film, requiring care and attention to every single frame.
They have also produced a varied and imaginative range of films. Who Needs Nurseries, concerned with the needs of pre-school children, is an example of a campaigning film. Give Us a Smile (1983) is a powerful agitational film addressing issues of sexual harassment and violence. The experiences presented are based on real cases and the examples of reactionary male attitudes are direct quotes. These are interlaced with pictures, drawing, media quotes and songs. Through the Glass Ceiling (1994) dramatises this issue through a modern version of a classic fair-tale. As well as drama the film uses wit and irony. More recently They Call Us Maids: The Domestic Workers’ Story (2015) addresses the situation of migrant worker caught in a form of modern slavery. This was another campaigning film made with ‘Justice 4 Domestic Workers’. It uses beautifully produced water colour drawings as the basis of the animation.
Clearly one factor in the long survival of the Animation Workshop is commitment. But they have also remained adept at negotiating the shifting shoals of financial support for work that falls outside the commercial area of the film industry. Their first work was funded by the Equal Opportunity Commission. Their early years relied on the funding available from the system set up under the ACTT (ow BECTU) Workshop Declaration, which was supported by a range of organisations, including Channel 4. They also secured funding from the British Film Institute in this period. In the 1990s the Workshop tapped into the funds arriving from the European Union. They Call us Maids: … involved the Pavilion Arts Project, Leeds-based organisations and crowd funding.
The programme this coming Tuesday includes They Call Us Maids:… and No Offence (1996), addressing work-based harassment and using another modernised fairy-tale in a witty mode.
The programme also includes films by their colleagues in Britain and farther afield in Canada, the Czech Republic, and the USA. Apart from the pleasures of good animation work the selection will offer a variety of views on a variety of social issues and themes. The film-makers will have a chance to talk about their work. The complete programme is on the Picture House Webpages and the screening is also part of the current Scalarama Festival.
From September 26th until the 29th the Workshop will run a ‘residency’ at 42 New Briggate (alongside the Grand Theatre). This is the new venue of the Pavilion. There will also be an evening screening on the Thursday and a lunch-time talk on the Friday. Details on the Workshop Facebook Pages.
Whilst popular cinema in the 1920s was focused on fictional dramas there were a variety of non-fiction films. This was the decade in which John Grierson coined the word ‘documentary’ for films that presented the actual world about us. Germany, as elsewhere, produced films that utilised film shot in and about recognisable places, peoples and institutions. The travelogue, one of the earliest examples of feature-length non-fiction film, was popular. There were also experimental and avant-garde film-makers who offered films that emphasised cinematic techniques and explored the way that film represented reality.
Across Two Worlds by Car (Im Auto durch Zwei Welten, 1927 – 1931) is a travelogue but also an adventure.
“For this prototype road movie, race car driver Clärenore Stinnes (1901 – 1990) and Swedish cameraman Carl-Axel Söderström covered 46,758 kilometres. Travelling in an Adler sedan and sponsored by companies like Bosch, Aral, Varta and Continental, they drove through 23 countries and once round the globe – ..”
This epic journey took two years and started out east from Frankfurt, through the Balkans, the Middle East, Iran, the USSR to Siberia, across the Gobi Desert into China and Japan. The crossing the Pacific it continued up the backbone of South America along the Andes. Then by boat to the USA, ending up in New York. Another boat across the Atlantic bought them back to Europe and finally Germany. Söderström claimed that he did ‘more pushing than filming’ and in fact there are long stretches where the filming is sparse. All we see of the USA is the West Coast and then the East Coast. There was also a van or truck accompanying the sedan, presumably all the stores and equipment.
After the journey Stinnes had the film edited by Walther Stern and added a commentary and a musical score by Wolfgang Zeller. The commentary accompanies the images but these are intercut with shots of Stinnes talking direct to camera. The score is European in style even for the far-away places.
The sponsorship by German firms was an important aspect of the production. In her opening comments Stinnes stresses the German composition of the team, then noting that the cameraman is Swedish. She adds, in a comment that is mirrored by others later in the film, that Scandinavian are Germanic ‘fellows’. The filming does tend to stress the backwardness and poverty of the lands through which much of the journey travels. In fact, even discounting the boats, the round-the-world journey is only partly driven. There are frequent sequences where local people are persuaded or paid for hauling the vehicles, often through mud, sand or rocky terrain. The most gruelling, for the labourers, is when they cross the mountains and deserts of Peru. So her comment that ‘the automobile makes the big world small’ is as much rhetoric as actuality. The film is interesting but conventional: Stinnes is not Riefenstahl. However, she clearly is an independent and adventurous woman.
Short Films 2: ‘Experiments in Sound and Colour’ (‘Kurzfilme 2: Experimente mit Ton und Farbe’) offered nine film made between 1922 and 1934, the majority from the early 1930s. They consisted of actuality film, advertising film, puppet animation and conscious experimentation. All of them used varied colouring techniques for the period. Staff from the Deutsche Kinemathek introduced the programme providing illuminating detail on the various colour formats used.
The Victor (Der Sieger, 1922) and The Miracle (Das Wunder, 1922) used hand colouring and tinting processes, techniques that had appeared in the earliest days of the new medium.
Colour tests (Farmfilmversuche, Demo-Film für Sirius Farbverfahren, 1929) used a Dutch subtractive two colour system. In the earlier experimentations in colour systems relied on two rather than three primary colours. This produced acceptable results and could utilise the two sides of the film print.
The Joy of Water at the Zoo (Wasserfreuden im Tierpark, 1931) relied on Ufacolor. This was another subtractive two-colour system introduced in 1931 by Germany’s major production company.
Palm Magic (Palmenzauber, 1933/1934) was an advertisement using Ufacolor.
Two Colours (Zwei Farben, 1933) was a more experimental advertisement using Ufacolor. It made great use of the two primary colours in the system, red and blue.
Tolirag Circles (Alle Kreise Erfasst Tolirag, 1933/1934) was an experimental work by Oskar Fischinger, a major cinematic artist in this period. Gasparcolor was a subtractive three -colour system, the technical advance that made Technicolor a dominant system for several decades. It was developed by a Hungarian scientist. Fischinger used it in several of his works in the period and at least one Len Lye animation also used the system. The palette was different from Technicolor but it looked really fine.
Pitter and Patter (Pitsch und Patsch, 1932) was a drawing-based animation. In a distinctive set of techniques the sound was created by wave-like drawings that produced an equivalent of the soundtrack patterns printed on film stock.
Bacarolle (1932) used the same techniques but married with puppet animation.
This was a fascinating programme and I had great pleasure in watching the different colour palette and imagery. The different films came partly on 35mm film and partly on DCPs. Günter Buchwald provided accompaniment for the non-sound films.
The Great Unknown (Milak, Der Grönlandjäger, 1927) is a fictional drama presented in documentary mode. An opening title explains that the film is inspired by the exploits of polar explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Elements of both explorer’s stories figure in the plot.
Filmed largely on location in Greenland and Norway’s Spitsbergen archipelago, the film combines impressive landscape footage with ethnographic observation. With their athletic way of filming in the open air, the camera staff from Arnold Fanck’s ‘Freiburg camera school’ used the natural world as a key player, even blowing up ice sheets to create high drama.“
The film follows an expedition crossing Greenland to a high point in the north. The team consists of explorers Svendsen, Eriksen and Inuit Milak, an expert dog handler [who is titular in the German title]. During the course of the expedition we also watch their families at home waiting to hear how they managed.
The film seems to have been successful: critics at the time suggested that it was ‘Germany’s answer to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). The connection is obvious. Apart from being set in Polar regions the films also features Inuit. The difference is that whilst Flattery did not just record but directed Nanook and his actions, in this film the Inuit are placed in a completely fictional narrative.
I found the tropes from other polar stories, especially that of the British expedition led by Captain Scott, lacked conviction. The expedition is trekking across Greenland and there is a contest, a US team with the same objective. They struggle over ice slopes, snow slopes and crevasses. Eriksen sickens and we follow a sequence where he does a ‘Captain Lawrence Oates’ style exit from the tent in a snow storm. Then the team run low on food and face the possibility of failing to reach stores, fuel and safety. The plot avoids the tragedy of Scoot and his team, but the sequences are clearly modelled on that actual disaster.
What undermines some of the narrative is that the film combines excellent location work with rather obvious studio sets. This is the case in the sequence where Eriksen attempts ‘suicide’ during a storm and in the scenes where lack of food and exhaustion threaten the team and the expedition.
The team also use two dog teams, more like Roald Amundsen. Twice the dog teams fall into crevasses, the second time they do not survive. In each case it is down to an oversight of Eriksen. I have to confess that I hope his fellows would save the dogs rather than Eriksen. What makes it odder is that one dog does survive. But it is clearly not one of the dog team, all black or dark-haired huskies. This sole survivor is brown and more like Labrador. This is a shame, because the location work and the sequences of the Inuit are well done. The ethnographer parts of the film work better than the dramatic episodes during the expedition. The film was screened from pretty good 35mm with Günter Buchwald essaying a balancing accompaniment between actuality and fiction.
The final film of the day also combined actuality with fiction. The Light of Asia (Die Leuchte Asiens, 1925) was a joint German/Indian co-production directed by Franz Östen for Indian producer Himansu Rai. They worked on three productions in the 1920s, titles that are rare survivors of Indian cinema’s silent heritage. In this film English tourists are regaled by an old Buddhist monk with the story of a C6th monarch who has to choose the material and the spiritual; a choice that figures in several Indian mythic tales. Essentially most of the film is a flashback to this story. The film uses actual Indian locations and cast for its narration.
The film had been transferred to DC P and had an added music track by Willy Schwarz and Ricardo Castagnola, Schwarz playing traditional acoustic instruments and Castagnola contemporary electronic music. This was a problem. The soundtrack was far too loud during the opening credits: I saw other audience members winching. The staff did lower the volume but I still found it too loud, especially with the harder tones of electronic music. So I left shortly after the flashback commenced. I checked later and the level of sound had been requested by the composers. This is a tricky issue as composers and performers are entitled to have their music presented as they intend. But in the case of film the music is an accompaniment and I do think it has to be subordinated to the image. In fact, I have noticed in recent years that increasingly some accompaniments are too loud or forceful and distract from the image. I suspect this is a follow-on from the increasing use of ‘live music’ as a way of attracting audiences to silent film screenings.
Fortunately I had seen the film previously. At Le Giornate del Cinema Muto with live accompaniments on traditional Indian instruments.
The Light of Asia was the only film that I gave up on in the programme. I thought that the live musical accompaniments were well done. Models of assisting and informing the imagery whilst respecting the primacy of what is on the screen.
Quotations from Weimarer Kino neu gesehen Brochure.
A film about orphans (or more generally, ‘children in care’) immediately evokes memories of Oliver Twist (1948), Annie (1982), Holes (2003) etc. But I felt that this French-Swiss stop-motion animation brought me closer to the experience of such children than these or the many other live-action films in the same mould. Director Claude Barras called it “Ken Loach for kids” and that is not so far-fetched, with its mixture of realism, melodrama and indeed comedy.
There was a lot of interest in the film after it premiered at Cannes in 2016, and was nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe and won Best Animated Film and Best Adaptation at the 2017 Césars, but I was also interested in it because I had seen a short animation by Barras, The Genie in the Ravioli Can (2006), in a collection of French shorts put together by the BFI. His first full-length feature indicates the progress he has made in the decade that has followed.
The protagonist is a nine-year-old boy whose name is Icare but he insists on being called by the nickname his mother gave him – Courgette. His father abandoned the family when he was little and he lives with his mother, a violent alcoholic who spends her time drinking beer and watching TV soaps, and from time to time she administers a thrashing to her child. He mostly plays alone in his attic bedroom, his toys being self-made: a kite with a drawing of his imagined father as a superhero; and his mother’s empty beer cans. It was these which cause a dramatic change in his life as the pyramid which he was building with them fell down, causing his mother to angrily ascend to the attic with threats of a severe beating. When he slams closed the attic door to protect himself his mother falls down the stairs to her death.
A kindly policeman, Raymond, questions him gently, then takes him to an orphanage; the boy’s only possessions are the aforementioned kite and empty bear can – and his nickname which he is stubbornly determined to hold onto. Raymond comes to visit him in the orphanage, not because it’s his job as Courgette at first thinks but because Raymond likes him, and they exchange letters, Courgette’s being accompanied by colourful sketches – he is gifted in drawing – which chronicle his life in the orphanage.
Here Courgette meets his fellow residents, all with problems as serious or more serious than his. Simon, who has a tell-tale scar on his forehead and whose parents are drug addicts, is the self-appointed leader and bullies Courgette at first but when Courgette fights back they become best of friends. (The character of Simon is a good example of how the film avoids stereotypes and provides complex well-rounded characters). Simon catalogues the reasons the other children are in the home. Alice is victim of paternal sexual abuse and is subject to obsessive. Bea’s mother was deported back to Africa while her daughter was at school and every time she hears a car she rushes out shouting “maman”. Ahmed’s father is in jail for armed robbery of a service station and Ahmed wets the bed while Jujube’s mother is afflicted with OCD and endlessly opens and closes the fridge and cleans the toilet non-stop for weeks end. Simon wearily sums it up matter-of-factly: “We are all the same. We have no-one to love us.”
The outlook for Courgette lights up when 10-year-old, football loving, Kafka-reading Camille arrives by court order. When she arrives at the orphanage she immediately puts Simon in his place, showing that physical confrontation isn’t the only way to deal with a bully, and she helps the almost mute Alice to come out from behind her fringe and join the others. And Courgette immediately falls head over heels for her, which is reciprocated. But she has been sent to the orphanage after she has witnessed her father killing her mother for infidelity before turning the gun on himself.
A French film about an orphanage and children in care is bound to evoke Francois Truffaut’s 1959 film, The 400 Blows/Les 400 coups but My Life as a Courgette is in contrast with these films in that the pattern is reversed as abuse is suffered from the outside world while the orphanage is a place of safety and recovery. The small staff couldn’t be less Dickensian – the wise and calm and compassionate principal Mme Papineau, the children’s teacher Mr Paul, and his partner Rosie, the children’s carer, are dedicated and compassionate, a representation which is in contrast with the frequently negative portrayal of the “caring professions” (and the policeman Raymond would be included in this description).
If the mood is frequently dark, the saddest scenes are often alternate with comic ones: the children speculate on what adults get up to in bed, a trip to a ski resort, a snowball fight, a disco. This is a major contribution by Céline Sciamma who has adapted Gilles Paris’ s source novel, “Autobiography of a Courgette”. As a film director herself, her own films (Water Lilies/ Naissance des pieuvres, Tom Boy, Girlhood/Bande de filles), are coming of age stories which explore the difficult world of childhood and adolescence. There is little in the way of plot, just an accumulation of scenes from the daily life at the orphanage, until Camille’s aunt, who mistreated her when she had short-term custody, arrives wanting to make it permanent to get her hands on the state benefit which would accrue if she were Camille’s foster parent. This causes to children to band together to thwart her.
As for the film’s target audiences, in France and Switzerland Courgette is deemed to be suitable for 8-year-olds and it does have the cutesy angle which is a staple for children’s films. However (and notwithstanding the Bambi experience) not many 8-year-olds would cope with the characters’ backstories, and they would perhaps be mystified by the sex references and not be very familiar with Kafka. But Barras said in an interview that it’s more of a childhood film than a children’s film. This is true but it seems that the film is “double-encoded” for two separate audiences. This is reflected in the exhibition policy (at least in Aberdeen’s Belmont Cinema, and no doubt others,) of using a dubbed version for daytime screenings and subtitles for evening ones. Sub-titling could be problematic for a very young audience in relation to reading age.
The film’s emotional realism is all the more remarkable as the characters are 9-inch high plasticine puppets with enormous heads, extra-long arms, multi-coloured hair (blue for the protagonist, Courgette), red noses and ping-pong-ball-like eyes. It is hardly naturalistic and there is no danger of the characters travelling in the “uncanny valley” (a term used in animation to refer to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.)
We sometimes forget to attribute the cinematic aspects of animation films – and not just the incredibly labour-and-time-intensive work involved in stop-motion – which we take for granted in non-animated films, but I think I would need at least another viewing to fully explore this. What I would look at in particular would be the editing (the long takes allowing the film to ‘breathe’); the lighting which was very effective in bringing the puppets to life, particularly the use of “catch-lights” on the puppets’ eyes which helps to intensify emotional engagement. I should also mention the acting, the children’s parts being voiced by children of the appropriate age. And Sophie Hunger’s excellent musical score.
Finally, the film runs to only 66 minutes (of which 5 are end credits), a commercially-awkward running time but it would have been a mistake if it had been padded out and I was perfectly fine with that running time.
Here is the trailer with English sub-titles. If you want to see the dubbed version you’ll find it on YouTube under the title, My Life as a Zucchini.