Drawn From Reality

Leading directors of animated documentaries will be celebrated at a festival in Tel Aviv this month.

When film director Milos Forman was asked to take part in a documentary and relate a personal experience about loneliness, he wrote down his story and read it into a microphone. "Until recently, I suffered from loneliness only when I disengaged from people I loved. I didn't understand how hard it is to part from animals as well.

"One day, in early spring, my dog disappeared. It wasn't the first time he'd run away, but he always came home. This time he didn't come back. I called his name, but it was no use. Still, even after a few days, I didn't give up hope. Maybe he would come back, maybe he got lost, maybe someone found him and was taking care of him.

"I put up notices in public places and waited for the phone to ring. In the meantime, the ice that coated my pond melted, and I went down to check if the fish in the pond had survived the brutal winter. And then, when I reached the edge of the pond, I saw a horrifying sight: Next to the floating wooden pier, his beautiful eyes suddenly appeared, and they were looking at me."

That is how Forman's story opens the animated documentary "A Room Nearby" (2003), which will be screened at the end of the month at the fifth Comics, Animation and Caricature Festival in Tel Aviv. The film's directors, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, asked Forman and four others to relate experiences connected with loneliness and the tapes of them speaking make the basis for the film's soundtrack. The story is told through animation: minimalist illustration, delicate colorfulness and abundant imagination. This combination of an authentic soundtrack and expressive illustrations is the gist of how the genre of animated documentary is evolving.

When you first come across it, the concept of "animated documentary" sounds strange, almost an oxymoron. After all, the purpose of a documentary is to capture a fragment of reality and to do so in a way that is as faithful as possible to that reality.

Ostensibly, a camera seems to be the most appropriate tool for making a documentary, because it records the scenes in front of it and imprints them on film. Animation, on the other hand, strikes one as inappropriate for the job because animation at its best creates a fictitious, abstract, stylized and expressive reality, something far removed from the scenes that a movie camera can perpetuate. Animation would seem to be a hard sell as a documentary medium.

But there has been a surge in the making of documentaries in recent years and a growing realization that a documentary does not capture an objective truth, but rather the way that reality is reflected in the eyes of the director. Decisions such as what to film and what not to film, what angles to employ, how to edit the material and what soundtrack to use affect the portrait of reality presented in the finished film. The successful "Fahrenheit 9/11," for example, does not offer an objective description of what happened after the terror attacks in the United States; it shows the way in which the director Michael Moore sees things.

If so, then it is possible that animated documentary is not such a wild idea after all. And, indeed, lately there have been an increasing number of films in this genre around the world; animation and documentary film festivals have special categories for it, and even the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, has stipulated in its regulations that an animated documentary can compete in the documentary film category.

The documentary aspect of these animated films focuses primarily on the plot and soundtrack: they are based on documentary material, events that actually took place and the people who experienced these events usually do the narrations in these films and in their own voice describe the course of events and how they experienced them.

A ready-made story

How can the growing popularity of animated documentary films be explained? Dudu Shalita, the animation curator of the Comics, Animation and Caricature Festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque at the end of August, says that young artists are looking for new means of expression, and this genre offers them a personal form of expression that leaves a lot of room for creative maneuvering. It allows animators to rely on documentary material and frees them from having to build their own story and create an imaginary reality from scratch. The animators, says Shalita, can then benefit from a ready-made story, the authentic element added to the film and the special touch of a person telling his own story in his own voice.

Shalita chose to include several animated documentaries in the upcoming festival. The tribute to Paul Fierlinger will provide a golden opportunity to get acquainted with one of the dominant and esteemed artists in this field. Fierlinger, 69, has been creating animated films since he was 12. He has done hundreds of advertising clips, television series and films, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. He has won dozens of awards at festivals and became famous for the series of clips he made for "Sesame Street." For a short time he even worked as a director of documentary films (regular ones, not animated) at Universal Studios.

Work on his first animated documentary, "Drawn from Memory," started in 1993. It is an autobiographical film that describes his childhood, the difficulties he faced while living in a hostel and with foster families and his suffering following his diplomat parents around the world (he was born in Japan, was a war refugee in the U.S. during World War II, moved with his parents to Communist Czechoslovakia and fled from there for ideological reasons).

In a telephone interview from his home in Pennsylvania, asked why he decided one fine day to make an animated documentary, Fierlinger answers simply: "I had a good story, and the right to use it was mine. I didn't have to buy it from anyone. I saw it was good and since then, all the films I make are animated documentaries. I have become so closely associated with this genre that now, even when commercial entities commission public relations or advertising films from me, they ask me to do it in a documentary style," he laughs.

Over the last few years, Fierlinger has been devoting most of his time to making documentaries together with his wife and creative partner, Sandra. According to him, beyond the strength of a story that is taken from real life, animated documentary has another advantage. "I never worked as a salaried employee and I always was responsible for selling my films myself. Thanks to the Internet, it's a lot easier today, because people can reach me and purchase my films with relative ease. But they're not willing to buy every film. Since I started with animated documentaries, I've discovered that people prefer watching films about real life and buy them more."

The pioneer of animated documentaries was apparently John Hubley, an influential animator active in the U.S. last century, who, like Fierlinger, also made his films together with his wife. Their films challenged the rules of traditional animation, dared to tackle social issues and included various experiments with the soundtrack. The couple made their first film with documentary aspects after they recorded the voices of their kids as they were playing, and drew animation based on that soundtrack.

Alone at night

At the upcoming Tel Aviv festival, three films by the Fierlingers will be shown: "Drawn from Life" (2000), "Still life with Animated Dogs" (2002) and their last film "A Room Nearby" (2003). When Fierlinger asked why he decided to make his last film about loneliness, he says that after they finished working on the previous, film he and Sandra noticed that the public television station that aired it, PBS, showed the film primarily in late-night time slots.

"We received letters from many people who saw the film late at night, and many talked about loneliness," he says. "We realized that we have a special audience and decided to aim our next film at this audience. Luckily, this is a station that doesn't live on advertising and its managers agreed with us that it was a good idea to do a film that would appeal to lonely people late at night."

How did you choose the people who appear in the film?

Fierlinger: "We found all of them in our immediate surroundings. We've already done quite a few documentaries. We called friends and acquaintances who seemed suitable and we asked them if they had experiences related to loneliness. We didn't choose them because we knew they were lonely people. In my opinion, there isn't anyone who hasn't experienced loneliness. There are some who'll deny it, who'll say, `Me? Lonely? Never. Maybe my sister.' People take it almost as an insult, as if you're saying to them, `You're losers, you don't know how to occupy yourselves.' But we chose people who are open in this respect, who don't deny it, who we knew wouldn't have a problem talking.

"The case of Milos Forman was different. I knew he had been lonely. I met him when I was 12 when we shared a dorm room in Czechoslovakia with Vaclav Havel. I met him again when he was already a famous director. His wife left him for another man and he suffered terribly. He was lonely for years, uninterested in people. I knew about his experience and that he's a hard person to get close to, that it's not easy to get him to talk about himself and I wasn't sure he'd agree to take part in the film. He asked to think about it and then a day later called me and said, `Yes, I have a story about loneliness. It's a story about a dog.' I knew the story well, he'd told it to me several times, and I thought it was a good start, and that perhaps I'd be able to get him to open up more when I sit and talk with him.

"When we met with him, we found that he'd written down his story. None of the other people we interviewed had done that. They all improvised. I asked him if he could relate the story without reading it, but he said he couldn't, because his English isn't that good. So I let him do it his way."