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Animac: 25 Years Animating Lleida

2012. The emblematic Ricard Viñes auditorium pulls out all the stops to begin the 16th year of Animac: the premiere of The Rabbi’s Cat is a stylish opening, as the film adaptation of the cult comic is by Joann Sfar himself. But before the inaugural screening, the main hall of La Llotja – with its thousand-strong audience and a design that seems to have sprung from the mind of Tim Burton – also boasts a wonderful little premiere, the music video that the Barcelona-based production company nueveojos has made for the song Els vespres verds by the band Mishima. With the energy typical of a special night filling the auditorium, the joy turns electric when the curtain opens and reveals the Catalan band, appearing by surprise to accompany the screening live, a band that sells out at the Sala Apolo and today is providing the soundtrack to a lo-fi video at Lleida Congress Hall. And opposite, a packed theatre with a thousand people celebrating the concert that brings animation to life. This is no exaggeration: the piece, curated by Animac itself, is made up of sketches that follow one another in a notebook, drawings that one would say “become animated” as the music brings them to life. A few years later on that same stage, Mishima's delicate indie pop will give way to the folkloric garrotín of the group La Violeta to applaud the commitment to Roma culture of the Finnish filmmaker Katariina Lillqvist, who responds in kind with some dances. And from there to the SpongeBob theme sung a cappella by 100 singers of the children's choirs of the Orfeó Lleidatà as a posthumous tribute to its creator, Stephen Hillenburg. Moments that show how in Animac independent and mainstream creation are mixed in a palette whose brush paints a fresco of animation that crosses all its forms of expression by relating animation to photography or art, to documentary or experimental creation, instinctively dancing to the rhythm of the music or listening to the philosophical reflections of a Jewish cat, from Lillqvist’s stop motion or the hyperpopular cartoon of a yellow sponge that lives in a pineapple under the sea. And this is how Animac has been celebrating animation for 25 years.

Seen from the outside, these scenes can seem like the great open-house themed party of a very particular "lodge", as defined by Guillermo del Toro. A barely secret club for lovers of animation whose only entry requirement is to open their eyes. However, that inclusive spirit that invites you to enjoy animation in all its forms has already been part of the Animac DNA since its own founding document, twenty-five years ago. “From the outset, says Carolina López, its current director, “we knew that Animac had to be a showcase and not a competitive festival,” a distinguishing factor that means that films that participate in Animac do so to be seen, shared, thought about, debated and celebrated, but not to compete with each other. "It is a way of understanding the festival as a party." A raison d’être already present even when Jordi Artigas drew the first lines of Animac back in 1996, when the City Council and the painter agreed that in the cultural life of Lleida, spurred by the Art Biennial, La Panera, the School of Fine Arts or publications such as the journal Transversal, there was room for an animation film festival. At that time it had another name, Animagic, held at the CaixaForum, but it was always about making a cultural event for the public and not a market or industry event. For this reason, for Isabel Herguera, one of the three directors together with Carolina and Marigel Alonso who have been in charge of the festival, “the management activity from within Lleida was very important to connect all of that creative artistic bubble that comes from another planet and anchor it in reality and the people of Lleida. It is essential to involve them and make the festival feel like their own. And this was achieved: during Animac, Lleida is a party.” Herguera, who in 2003 took over from Carolina until López returned to the post in 2011, mentions Alfred Sesma, Margot Besora and Antoni Llebot as some of the key figures who, behind the scenes, managed to root the festival in the city. The Lleida artist Carles Porta has also been an important part of this team, the constant that has given the festival a "graphic identity" since its inception. This year he hands over the baton to the Norwegian artist Gina Thorstensen – also here this year as the art director for the filmmaker Anca Damian – but not before receiving a Lifetime Award and being the subject of an exhibition that will include all the fabulous posters he has made for the International Animation Film Festival of Catalonia.

This is not the only review of the history of Animac for its 25th birthday, because to commemorate the quarter of a century some lists have been compiled with the votes of prominent critics, writers, historians, academics and directors of film institutes and festivals. At the top of the 50 best feature films of the last 25 years, we find a good example of the golden age that animation is currently experiencing, one of the aspects that has allowed Animac to grow a little more every year. In Carolina's words, “We are living in a golden age. I remember that Ian Mackinnon, one of the technical people responsible for Corpse Bride, who visited us in 2017, told us that they made the film thinking that it would be the last time they would make a stop motion feature film. And today, almost twenty years later, we have Guillermo del Toro or Wes Anderson using it. All those techniques that seemed obsolete or exclusive in more independent and minority formats have ended up in commercial cinema. Fortunately, the richness of different animation techniques is being recognised.” Thus, from the absolute dominance of the Disney model and dismissal of any alternative (the cartoon, UPA, Soviet animation...), we have been able to advance hand in hand with Animac with the anime boom of the 1990s and the consolidation of the Japanese industry as a prestigious alternative (Spirited Away, which tops the list, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Paprika ...), the unfolding of the particular sensitivity of European animation (La tortue rouge, Les Triplettes de Belleville, Kirikou et la sorcière…) and the emergence of a plurality of voices from the most independent productions (Little Otik, Rocks in My Pockets, Psiconautas or Mary and Max, whose director, Adam Elliot, is recognised this year), a list of films that also reflects how this boom has gone hand in hand with a technical "democratisation" that has made the task easier for creators to the point of the rise of what Carolina describes as "films made by the sweat of one’s brow." "Last year we screened Away, a film by a young boy from Latvia who had made it entirely on his computer, and this year we have Kill It and Leave This Town, a Czech film made the same way; it's amazing." An "R&D revolution" that has also been seen in the festival's own idiosyncrasy, since the advent of digital has left behind the era in which the shipment of cans loaded with film reels was a determining factor for the festival, even in its programming. Isabel recalls with epic nostalgia how the renowned South African artist William Kentridge sent her a real treasure in the first edition that she directed: "a trunk full of his 16 mm films."

Celluloid, digital, feature films, shorts, narrative or abstract, filmed episodically or as a simple commercial spot, in 2D or 3D, in watercolour or with puppets... The forms and formats that have passed through Animac are as many as its creators have been able to come up with to make “the dreams of the imagination visible,” citing the beautiful definition of animated cinema by the pioneer Ladislas Starewitch, to whom Animac paid tribute in 2019. But how do you get a thousand people together to watch an experimental animated documentary about the slaughter of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon? Both Carolina and Isabel are clear: in the absence of magical formulas, one can only have faith in "honesty, absolute conviction in the films we present." That and “total confidence in the audience.” Accompanied, of course, by effective communication and the challenge of explaining these filmmakers’ creative processes to the general public through workshops, talks and master classes that help to understand the production of animated films. Even dedicating Under construction, one of the sections that the Animac team feels most affection for, to focus on the work in progress of a film. “The 'process' stage is very important. Although I am no longer an animator like Isabel, I come also from that world, and I know that it’s invaluable to understand what is behind each creator, what his or her ideas and thoughts are when making a film. That has been a hallmark of Animac.” Because nowhere is that famous leitmotif from Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book that "the true condition of man is to think with his hands" exalted as much as in this Lleida Festival, a firm emphasis on bringing the work closer to the public and keeping the flame of creation alive at all times: before, during and after the making of the film. And from there came one of the most exciting moments of Animac's twenty-five years, when in 2018 the brothers Elena and Fernando Pomares premiered their short Morning Cowboy at the festival in their city and said from the stage: “If we are here, it is because of Animac.”

Indeed, when animation festivals in Spain could still be counted on the fingers of one hand, Lleida opted for a single criterion: "giving a voice to creators" who, from anywhere in the world and through any prism "share a personal universe.” Placing the filmmaker at the centre of the story, Animac is shaped by an “incorruptible” criterion and a “radical” point, but above all by a genuine commitment to share what excites the team of programmers. Because there is no more convincing way to welcome the public than to do it from the contagious enthusiasm with which you share an exciting discovery with a friend. "There are two ways of making a festival: one is pursuing trends and big names, and the other is with a lot of effort, judgment and affection," confesses Carolina, who smiles as she points out how this direct and close relationship with creators has helped to establish a network of "friends of the festival" who come with each new film, prioritising the Lleida event over other competitive festivals. Hence, for example, the prestigious Cartoon Saloon studio knocked on Animac's door at the height of its popularity to premiere a production as powerful as The Breadwinner. Or, years after sending his trunk full of films, William Kentridge responded to the award that Animac gave him in the last edition by sending an entire five-minute creation made expressly for the occasion in which he explained what animation meant to him. Two milestones that still pale in comparison to the one Isabel describes: “One year we invited the Cucinema group of Italian artists to do a workshop on cooking and painting films. There I met… my husband!” An endearing anecdote that serves as a barometer of the close and human environment that dominates Animac, whose team does not seem to be joking when they warn that going to Animac is like falling in love.

Having reached its 25th year, only one question remains: How can we celebrate the anniversary of a film festival in the midst of a pandemic that makes it impossible to hold under normal conditions? Just as Animac has always done: by reflecting the reality of the moment, without fear of innovation, embracing the more or less sudden irruption of technological advance. Thus, this year Animac will combine some onsite activities with the showing of various sections of its programme through Filmin, “the great saviour of festivals, a platform that, in addition, naturally already had almost all the films that we have selected in the Top List Animac 25,” and the YouTube platform, which will host some of the talks. So although this year we will not be able to see one of the most beautiful images of each Animac – the arrival in La Llotja of buses loaded with thousands of children from schools to see programmed shorts, according to Carolina, “with a double or triple sense of the responsibility I feel when I programme for adults” – the festival has already prepared some educational dossiers for teachers of the almost ten thousand children who are going to enjoy Animac films online in class. Because, like traditional board games, Animac can be enjoyed by everyone aged from 0 to 99. So while some are watching the shorts at school, others can tweet their impressions with the hashtag #Animac25 until we can hug each other again in the corridors on the way to the Ricard Viñes auditorium. Because the best definition of Animac was probably left by the creator of The Amazing World of Gumball, the series that with energetic joy shakes different techniques (traditional animation, CGI, collage, photographs...) in a fun, surprising and nutritious cocktail, when, after his visit to Lleida, he tweeted "Thanks @Animac_Lleida, it was like being run over by a freight train loaded with love." Happy birthday!

Alberto Lechuga


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