HOPES AND FEARS TO BREAK CIVIC APATHY AT ANIBAR, 2019

This entry was posted on August 7th, 2019

Kinema Liqeni, Anibar’s lake cinema

By Amanda Barbour

It’s not particularly wise (or useful) to dislocate any art from the social, political and historical climate that gave rise to it. While this article is a report on the 10th edition of the Anibar International Animation Festival, it takes place in Europe’s youngest democracy which requires some context. The partially recognized nation state of Kosovo has a complicated origin story. This articles not-strictly-cinephilic interludes will allow our readers to have a more nuanced understanding of the environment from which the festival emerged, and how that bleeds into the present. The 2019 program has the explicit aim to, “inspire civic activism through the arts.” The thematic that framed this year’s festival was Hopes and Fears. I’ve interpreted this as the hope for a better future, and the fear of failure to achieve that. Coupled with the fear of change.

Kosovo is a relatively small area in the Balkans, south of Serbia and formerly a part of Yugoslavia. Relations between Orthodox Serbs and the predominantly Muslim Kosovar Albanian population have never been particularly good. In response to civic unrest, the 1974 Constitution of Yugoslavia granted Kosovo a certain level of autonomy including their own administration, assembly and judiciary. Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic rescinded that autonomy in 1989, bringing ethnic tensions to a boiling point throughout the 90’s and this erupted in war between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Yugoslav juggernaut in 1998. At this moment in human history the now executive director of Anibar, Vullnet Sanaja, was 6-years-old. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) intervened on behalf of the KLA and war officially ended in 1999. After nine years of internationally supervised limbo, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Anibar hosted its inaugural festival one year later.

The festival trailer, by Parisian animator Alice Saey, sees a fountain guarded by gargoyle-like herons[i]. The fountain is leaking and colorful bouncing balls clog the leaks. They fill up with water and press against the heron’s beaks, leaving audiences to guess which side will win. The buildup of tension and potential to burst are what Saey identifies as, “how two completely antagonistic entities end up having to cohabit the same space.”[ii] Saey knew from previous work with Anibar that it’s a very city-specific festival, that city being Peja. The founders and current core staff are all locals with a shared interest in the intellectual, personal and professional growth of their hometown. Their activism both stems from and is at odds with a fairly provincial, conservative city. Saey states that the black and white elements in her trailer; stone, concrete walls, mountains, reflect this static traditionalism. Her bouncing balls embody Anibar, interrupting and ricocheting off this environment, therein changing the picture[iii].

Saey’s schema, of two antagonistic entities existing in the same space, is very relevant to the Kosovo war. While each city experienced the war differently, Peja saw extreme levels of violence. A team of Time journalists, stationed in the province within a fortnight of the ceasefire, described the scene:

“…the ground offers up body parts. Bits of ashen bone–a thigh, a rib cage–and chunks of roasted flesh litter the floors of burned-out houses. Corpses, left where they fell, putrefy in fields and farmyards amid the buzzing of flies and the howling of stray dogs.”[iv]

Miloševic’s scorched earth policy saw over 80% of houses in Peja destroyed[v]. What adds a level of insidiousness is the fact that the combatants weren’t necessarily foreign. Not all Yugoslav forces were from Belgrade, some Kosovar Serbs joined the ranks. A man identified as Marinko told Time Magazine:

“I will take my parents to Belgrade, relieve myself of military duties and return to my home in Pec (Peja). This is all I have. If the Albanians want to come and take it from me, then let them. Make my day. I’ll kill them. It will be guerrilla war.”[vi]

Marinko made that statement when the war was over. The most recent revenge attack against Kosovar Serbs in Peja was in 2004[vii]. This information illustrates an incredibly sectarian foundation for the nation. While no war is clean, the fact that Serbian forces raided the province three times and bodies could be found with 150 bullets in them[viii] suggests that this wasn’t a war with logical, rational military objectives. Nor a proportionate response to the KLA. Yugoslav strategy hinged on something more visceral, an emotional response to Kosovar Albanians trying to assert themselves (intellectually, politically, culturally) throughout the 90’s. The perceived audacity to do so was met with decimation.

Most of the staff at Anibar were children during the war, but they don’t necessarily harbor much hostility towards Serbs. In conversation with Sanaja, he tells me that ethnic tensions have never been an issue at the festival, as attendees are normally quite open minded and ambivalent about the nationalist ideology that shaped the past. Serbian animator, Ana Nedeljkovic, has been a guest of the festival for the past five years. I asked if it was weird for her, being Serbian, to be in Kosovo. Nedeljkovic had the same answer as Sanaja, that in the context of a film festival, nationalist rhetoric and violence isn’t really an issue. I find this quite amazing. I’m Australian, and people back home will use the most obscure, abstract and imaginary justifications for propagating bigotry. In the Balkans, there is very real and very recent violence that people could use as an excuse to be antagonistic. While that definitely exists, there are people on both sides of the Serbian border who are doing the opposite. In inviting Serbian film critics and animators to the festival, Anibar is encouraging their guests and attendees to open their minds to new ways of being and coexisting that move away from the partisan politics of the past.

Nedeljkovic opened her edition of A Balkan Tale, a daily seminar showcasing Balkan animators, by giving thanks to her homeland for inspiring two award winning dystopic fairy tales. The Claymation classics Rabbitland (2012) and Untravel (2018), both co-directed by Nedeljkovic and Nikola Majdak Jr, explore different dimensions of dictatorships. After completing her PhD on utopias and dystopias in contemporary art, Nedeljkovic discerned that artistic depictions of these worlds don’t stem from the imagination. They emerge from lived experiences and materialize from the visceral in lieu of the theoretical. Rabbitland showcases the best that warzones have to offer, namely slums and ghettos. In a city populated by pink rabbits, with holes in their heads instead of brains, they vote in democratic elections on a daily basis. Every night, they await the televised result, then repeat the next day despite there only being one party on the ticket. The spectacle is relevant to performative democracies everywhere, but in this instance signals Miloševic’s affection for democratically re-electing himself throughout the 90’s. Untravel explores how political boarders shape personal identities. Armed conflict has fortified border control, and in the absence of the opportunity to travel the leading puppet-lady dreams of leaving for a perfect world called “abroad.” Internationally enforced isolation, an experience Nedeljkovic acknowledged Kosovar people will be familiar with, draws on the psychiatric aspects of ghettoization. While some choose to never leave their homelands, when that choice is taken from them (and transnationally ratified) it undermines agency and the capacity to grow in relation to the modern world. Nedeljkovic reassured audiences that the situation in her country is now much better, they have a new dictator and they can travel.

In news from another formerly communist country, Polish academic and co-founder of Stoptrik[ix] Michal Bobrowski presented his latest book: Propaganda, Ideology, Animation: Twisted Dreams of History[x], a co-edited collaboration with Olga Bobrowska and Boguslaw Zmudzinski. After giving an overview of the books objectives, methodologies and geo-politically specific content, Bobrowski elaborated on his chapter; Ideological Hall of Mirrors. Reflections of Soviet Propaganda in American Propaganda of the 1940’s and 1950’s. It’s a comparative analysis of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States of America (USA) cold war propaganda, that uses the Nash Equilibrium[xi] as the basis for understanding their relationship. The Nash Equilibrium is one of the central tenants of game theory, which describes a set of strategies that are all best responses to each other. For example, in a game of chess each player makes their move in accordance with the anticipated best subsequent move of their opponent. The relevance to the USSR and USA propaganda machines is that they had a co-dependent relationship. Like Siamese twins, there was a symmetry in their tools of indoctrination and one could not survive without the other. In a quote worth repeating; “opposites come together, look at one another; are reflected in one another, know and understand one another.”[xii] This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Frank Capra’s agitprop epic Why We Fight[xiii] literally used excerpts from enemy propaganda, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). This footage was appropriated, re-edited and interrupted with animations supplied by Walt Disney Studios. The result; a 180-degree ideological pivot to service American objectives.

Frank Capra’s Why We Fight. Part 1: Prelude to War

It’s one thing to explain in words how ideological indoctrination and misinformation works, but it’s a lot easier to understand when articulated in images. The genius of Capra and Disney, that would be reproduced throughout the 50’s, was that in making a piece of propaganda they would persuade their audience that independent reasoning was the characteristic strength of American consciousness (unlike the Soviet sheep). Yet their audiences would always arrive at the same conclusion: everything they claim to be true is a lie and everything they claim to be a lie is true[xiv]. Soviet propaganda would replicate this zero-one logic, and both sides of the iron curtain would claim that the other was a continuation of the Third Reich[xv]. Opposing factions in Balkan nationalist rhetoric operate in a similar fashion, but that’s a subject for another article.

The Monty Python-esque parody politician Visar Arifaj introduced himself as a politician, designer and animator at his appearance on A Balkan tale. His official title is Kryetar Lexhendar (Legendary Chairman) of the Partia e Fortë (Strong Party), which uses soft powers of persuasion on social media to satire corruption and dysfunction in the Kosovar political theater. For instance, in some areas the turn out for elections was 119%, so the Strong Party announced that the dead were among their keenest supporters[xvi]. Their party program is called Lorem Ipsum, which is a publishing term for filler text used to present a font or design without the distraction of meaningful content[xvii]. Nedeljkovic’s braindead rabbits speak the same language, as she made them Facebook profiles that speak through copy and paste.

Status updates from Rabbitland

Arifaj elaborated on how illustrations can materialize the abstract and make it palatable and easily understandable for the general population. Much like the still from, Why We Fight. Part 1: Prelude to War. The Strong Party uses verbal, written, cinematic and musical[xviii] vernaculars to articulate their ideas, which may explain why their Facebook page currently has more likes than any legitimate political party in Kosovo[xix]. While the pedagogical potential of still and animated images make the medium well suited to propaganda, The Strong Party embodies and exaggerates that, therein creating satire and encouraging critical thinking. The Albanian flag was a symbol of resistance in the 90’s, as national pride was a healthy response to oppression and disenfranchisement.

Left, the Albanian flag. Right, The Partia e Fortë logo

Now that the nation is run by Kosovar Albanians, albeit corrupt ones, what function does recalling past symbols of resistance serve? How are they being used in contemporary political spheres? Peja, in particular, still has a fairly deeply ingrained affection for the Albanian flag. It proliferates street sides and shop fronts, while the legitimate Kosovar flag is restricted to government buildings. The Strong Party logo alludes to an existential crisis in Kosovar collective consciousness. Arifaj explains that their logo’s color scheme draws on the idea of a flag that’s been left in an attic, time has washed out its hue and changed the nature of the emblem. In a fairly avant-garde maneuver, Arifaj showed audiences fragments of an unfinished film called nc-nc-nc. It’s a film about insomnia. What keeps a man awake at night is embodied by figures that enter his room, uninvited, as the noise builds and seems to be reaching its crescendo. Given that independently animated 2D images means drawing a frame by frame recount of what you want to say, I asked Arifaj if this leads to a more intense dialogue within oneself. About why you want to say this. Arifaj replied that, “Yes. And sometimes that is what keeps you from finishing, because you start disagreeing with yourself.”

The dense texture of reality isn’t subject to a singular, absolute truth. In pursuit of the realist realism, José Ortega y Gasset hypothesized a wife, a doctor, a reporter and a painter in a room, looking on at a dying man. The figures represent the spectrum of emotional depth that ranges from intimacy to (in)sensitivity. The wife lives within herself the experience of the dying husband. Her intimacy with the object of everyone’s gaze, according to Ortega, situates her reality as being in closest proximity to the real. The doctor and the reporter are only sympathetically or egocentrically aware that there is a dying man in the room. The painter, whose attention is on the chromatic values of light and shadows, is what Ortega argues as being the most dislocated from the veracity of that moment[xx]. While I wouldn’t order these experiences into a hierarchy, this underlines the temperamental nature of truth. Of authenticity. Deepness of the Fry (August “Poul” Niclasen’s, 2019), screened in Wednesday’s Student Competition, explores an existential crisis unfolding from the fear that we might not be unique. Rendered in traditional 2D animation, 3D animation, 3D simulations, Claymation, painting on glass, rotoscoping, puppetry, live action footage over painted backgrounds, animation over live-action footage and stop-motion (among other techniques), the violent and chaotic collage of film form in the four-minute exposition can be read as a dramatization of the conflicting and coexisting realities that cohabit the same space. Much like the dichotomies alluded to in Saey’s festival trailer. Having multiple equations with different values, that in the end add up to the same reality, is disorientating and confusing.

The bottomless well of knowledge is a daunting spectacle to behold. We can either alienate ourselves from, or embrace the unknown. In favor of the former, Lebanese filmmaker and recent Gobelins graduate Mohammad Houhou’s The Ostrich Politic (screened on opening night and in Student Competition), reveals an ostrich metropolis. After the discovery that there is no logical nor biological imperative to bury their heads in the sand, chaos ensues. Confronted with the void of not knowing how to act, they choose to revert to obscuring their heads from sunlight.

The Ostrich Politic (Mohammad Houhou, 2018)

Fokion “Fox” Xenos offers us an alternative with Heat Wave (2019), screened in Tuesdays Student Competition. It’s a film about hysteria. On a hot day at a beach in Greece, no one enters the water. A boy dips in a toe, but worries the water will be too cold. A man attempts to modestly put on his bathing suit, and unintentionally keeps flashing his testicles. A young woman endeavors to take a selfie, but her make-up keeps melting off. The petty grievances with the beautiful day accelerate into a loop, as beach-goers become bound by repetition in an increasingly grotesque aesthetic as they repeat the same mistakes. The solution comes from within the crowd. A young girl escapes the grasp of her mother (who is attempting to embalm her with sunscreen), grabs the hesitant young boy and jumps in the sea, creating a tidal wave that cools everyone down. As we witness the global rise of right wing nationalism and await the climate apocalypse, the best course of action may indeed be to just collectively chill out. From a renewed place of peace, we may be inspired to take part in civic activism. Without trigger-happy hysteria.

When asked if he has hope or fear for the future, executive director Vullnet Sanaja replies, “Both. I have constant hope. And constant fear. The balance of those two brings change.” That the beholder of the way forward in Xenos’s Heat Wave are young people is no minor detail at a Kosovar film festival. With 53% of the nation under the age of 25, Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe[xxi]. It’s also no coincidence that most of the films that I’ve discussed in this report are from the Student Competition. Put simply: this field had a stronger suite of films. That’s not to say that the International Competition wasn’t of a high-quality caliber, it was, the student films were just better. This isn’t the first year a journalist has arrived at that opinion[xxii]. While it’s incredibly cliche to say that the youth are the future, when asked if he believes that to be true Arifaj states that, “They better not be. The youth are the present and that’s why they should be put to work.” To conclude, I asked Sanaja what he would like to say to the international community about Anibar: “It’s fun. Come. Visit us. Come to Kosovo, it will change your ways of seeing it. I would also say that Anibar is being an agent of change for people in this community but also for those whose lives are affected by it. By supporting it, by coming to see the screenings and so forth, you’re making things happen and effecting change for a little place hidden in the Balkans.” I can vouch that it’s a very fun festival. See you next year.

 

Amanda Barbour is a film critic, translator (French/English) and artistic director of intersectional feminist film festival: FEM&IST Films. Her work has appeared in cléo, Senses of Cinema, Screen Education, Metro, the Australian Centre of the Moving Image and more.

 

[i] Saey, A 2019, Anibar Animation Festival Trailer,” Vimeo, accessed 31 July, 2019.
[ii] Email correspondence with Saey, 17 July, 2019.
[iii]ibid.
[iv] McGeary, J 1999, “Crimes of War,” Time Magazine, accessed 29 July 2019.
[v] 1999, “Under Orders: War Crimes in Kosovo,” Human Rights Watch, accessed 28 July 2019.
[vi]ibid.
[vii] 2004, “Nasilje Na Kosovu” trans: Violence in Kosovo, B92, accessed 27 July 2019.
[viii]ibid.
[ix] Slovenian stop motion festival; https://www.stoptrik.com/
[x] Bobrowska, O, Bobrowski, M and Zmudzinski B 2019, Propaganda, Ideology, animation: Twisted Dreams of History, Wydawnictwa Agh, Kraków. The book can be downloaded for free at the following address: http://fundacja.etiudaandanima.pl/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Propaganda-Ideology-Animation-Twisted-Dreams-of-History.pdf
[xi] American mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. was played by Russel Crowe in Ron Howard’s 2001 biopic; A Beautiful Mind. The Nash Equilibrium was dramatized, albeit incorrectly, in a bar scene when Nash and his peers discuss strategy for chatting up women.
[xii] Bakhtim, M 1984, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London 1984, p. 176. Cited in Bobrowski, M 2019, Ideological Hall of Mirrors: Reflections of Soviet Propaganda in American Propaganda of the 1940’s and 1950’s in (eds) Bobrowska, O, Bobrowski, M and Zmudzinski B 2019, Propaganda, Ideology, animation: Twisted Dreams of History, Wydawnictwa Agh, Kraków.
[xiii] A series of seven propaganda films to justify US involvement in World War II; Prelude to War (1942), The Nazis Strike (1943), Divide and Conquer (1943), The Battle of Britain (1943), The Battle of Russia (1943), The Battle of China (1944) and War Comes to America (1945).
[xiv] Bobrowska, O, Bobrowski, M and Zmudzinski B 2019, Propaganda, Ideology, animation: Twisted Dreams of History, Wydawnictwa Agh, Kraków page 49.
[xv] Bobrowska, O, Bobrowski, M and Zmudzinski B 2019, Propaganda, Ideology, animation: Twisted Dreams of History, Wydawnictwa Agh, Kraków page 55.
[xvi] McDonagh, M 2013, “’Why are you in politics?’ ‘To get rich!’: Kosovo’s local poll is being enlivened by the satirical Strong Party,” The Independent, accessed 25 July 2019.
[xvii] Gashi, Z 2013, “Kosovo’s ‘Strong Party’ Attracts Cynical Votes By Mocking Everything,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, accessed 24 July 2019.
[xviii] They made a song entitled, “Do të bëhemi milionerë,” trans: We’re going to be millionaires, YouTube, accessed on 20 July 2019.
[xix] Pakovic, I 2013, “Meet the ‘Legendary President’ of Kosovo’s New Satirical Political Party,” Vice, accessed 23 July 2019.
[xx] Ortega y Gasset, J 1968, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature, Princeton University Press, Princeton. Pages 20 – 24.
[xxi] Sassim, L and Amighetti E 2018, “Kosovo: A young country, being shaped by its youth,” Politico, accessed 23 July 2019.
[xxii] Wrate, J 2016, “Student Films Eclipse International Competition at Anibar,” Kosovo 2.0, accessed 23 July 2019.