A scene from Alison Snowden and David Fine’s Animal Behaviour: Victor acts out. (image from National Film Board of Canada)
Alison Snowden and David Fine’s National Film Board animated short Animal Behaviour won for best animated short at the Canadian Screen Awards March 31.
The film also was an Academy Award nominee this year. It is the fourth Oscar nomination for the Vancouver-based husband-and-wife animation duo, who took home the Oscar 24 years ago for the NFB-Snowden Fine Animation-Channel 4 co-production Bob’s Birthday. They were also nominated for their 1987 NFB short George and Rosemary, with Snowden nominated before that for her 1984 student film Second Class Mail.
Animal Behaviour takes viewers inside a group therapy session for animals who grapple with issues not unlike our own. (See jewishindependent.ca/animated-therapy-session.) Produced and executive produced by Michael Fukushima for the NFB’s Animation Studio in Montreal, Animal Behaviour is the 75th Academy Award nomination for the NFB – more than any other film organization based outside of Hollywood. The NFB has received 12 Oscars over its 79-year history, including a 1989 Honourary Academy Award for overall excellence in cinema.
A still from Éléonore Goldberg’s animated short film My Yiddish Papi (Picbois Productions/NFB).
On Jan. 25, the National Film Board of Canada released Éléonore Goldberg’s animated short film My Yiddish Papi (Picbois Productions/NFB). It can be streamed free of charge across Canada on nfb.ca, as well as on NFB’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.
The online release of the film marked the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, which is observed on Jan. 27. With My Yiddish Papi, Goldberg has made a personal short film about filial love, duty and the transmission of memory by honouring a promise made long ago: that of illustrating the adventures of her grandfather, a resistance fighter during the Second World War.
Produced by Karine Dubois (Picbois Productions) and Julie Roy (NFB), the film was presented as a world première at the 2017 Ottawa International Animation Festival, and was also selected for the Sommets du cinéma d’animation de Montréal and the London International Animation Festival, among others.
Goldberg is an award-winning Franco-Canadian filmmaker, animator and cartoonist. In My Yiddish Papi, using ink-on-paper animation, she relates the story of her grandfather, Georges (Josek) Goldberg, who became a resistance fighter at age 20 during the Second World War. “He saved many lives and he and his family narrowly escaped Auschwitz,” said Goldberg in an interview on the NFB website. He died, in Paris, in July 2009.
“He would sometimes share his wartime memories when we dined together during the time I lived in Paris,” Goldberg told the NFB. “He never bragged; he was a humble, shy person. He would have liked me to make a graphic novel or film about his resistance adventures, and I had committed to doing it. But time passed and I did nothing. At his death, my promise came back to me.”
Hart Snider has followed up his award-winning animated short The Basketball Game with Shop Class, one of four National Film Board of Canada shorts selected for the 2018 Spark Animation Festival, which runs Oct. 25-28.
“I wrote and developed Shop Class while editing the TV series Yukon Gold, Klondike Trappers and Ice Pilots – documentary/reality series driven by ‘manly men’ who would run into big problems in remote locations, but then they’d break out some tools, rock music would start playing, there’d be a montage, and the guys would ‘man up’ to fix the problem,” Snider told the Independent. “While they were very successful shows, it made me laugh to be a not very macho guy telling these stories. It reminded me about being 14 and wanting to take home ec, but instead being forced to take industrial arts class, where my teacher tried to scare us into becoming men. I was inspired to write the story, which, yes, felt very cathartic – especially when I shared it with friends who also had him for a teacher.”
Not only does young Hart have to endure the bullying of his shop teacher, but he and his friends are targets for their bullying classmates. In one scene, Hart and his buddies are hanging out at a convenience store, when the friend checking out the latest Supermensch comic receives a punch in the stomach.
“The comic is not just a reference to being Jewish,” said Snider, “but to my first film. Shop Class is actually a sequel of sorts, to my 2011 National Film Board of Canada animation The Basketball Game, another autobiographical story. It’s about being 9 years old and at Jewish summer camp for the first time, when ex-students of notorious Holocaust denier/high school teacher Jim Keegstra come to our camp in Pine Lake, Alta., for a ‘day of fun and fellowship.’ Early in the film, my character is reading a Supermensch comic (which is there mostly because of the unnamed villain in Supermensch, seen fighting on the cover, that ends up inspiring a nightmarish transformation later in the story).
“Shop Class has a documentary-type scene that takes place in a convenience store, so I added a teenager reading Supermensch, issue #18, the same comic, to show that both the stories actually exist in the same cinematic universe.”
Every single character in Shop Class is voiced by Corner Gas and Dan for Mayor star Fred Ewanuick.
“Fred went from listening to me imitating my old teacher’s way of talking,” said Snider, “to stepping into the recording booth and totally bringing that character to life – and he did it just by saying, ‘Sit down, Turkeys,’ over and over until he totally nailed it.”
As for the other characters in the film, Snider said, “I’m still friends to this day with people I met in kindergarten at Talmud Torah in Edmonton, and I included a couple of them in both of my films. The love interest is totally inspired by my wife, Galit Mastai.”
The couple lives in Vancouver and, according to his bio, Snider “can usually be found either in an edit suite or at the park with his wife Galit, daughter Leora and dog Wolfie.”
In addition to writing and directing Shop Class and The Basketball Game, Snider also wrote and directed the animation segments for I Am Sam Kinison, a feature-length documentary about the late comedian that aired on Spike television. “I’ve edited animated short films as well,” he said, “including Lisa Jackson’s The Visit and Elisa Chee’s Lucy. Most recently (outside of animation), I’ve written and edited the theatrical documentary features I Am Heath Ledger and Botero, which will be released next year.”
On the NFB media site for Shop Class – on which he reveals his plan to create a third short “in this trilogy of animated films about growing up in Edmonton in the 1980s” – Snider traces his love of animation “back to being a little kid on Saturday mornings, glued to the TV. I have loved animation ever since,” he says, “but it took attending a screening of adult animation shorts (which included the film Lupo the Butcher by Danny Antonucci) when I was in high school to make me realize I really wanted to write and direct animated films. After interning at Nelvana animation in university, I thought I was on my way, until a job in post-production on a doc series about Cirque du Soleil back in 2001 led me on a totally different path as a documentary editor and writer.”
So, while he still loves animation, he doesn’t do the art for his films. “I just love telling stories using the medium,” he told the Independent, “and I’ve gotten to work with some brilliant artists – Sean Covernton animated The Basketball Game and the team at Jesters Animation, led by animation supervisor Brad Gibson, brought Shop Class to life.”
Shop Class screens Oct. 26, 11 p.m., at Vancity Theatre (19+). The NFB’s Animal Behaviour, by Jewish community member David Fine and Alison Snowden (jewishindependent.ca/animated-therapy-session), screens Oct. 25, 7 p.m., at Scotiabank Theatre. For the full festival lineup and tickets, visit sparkfx.ca.
David Fine and Alison Snowden wrote, directed and animated the National Film Board of Canada animated short Animal Therapy. (photo by John Bolton)
They’re baaaack! And with another funny – and thought-provoking – National Film Board of Canada animated short. Jewish community member David Fine and wife Alison Snowden, who co-created the NFB’s Oscar-winning Bob’s Birthday 25 years ago, have returned to the genre with Animal Behaviour.
Animal Behaviour, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, will be part of the Vancouver International Film Festival’s True North Shorts program, The Curtain Calls, on Oct. 1 and 8. There are further screenings scheduled for other festivals across Canada.
The 14-minute short, produced by Michael Fukushima, executive producer of the NFB’s animation studio, is written, directed and animated by Fine and Snowden, who are currently based in Vancouver. In addition to countless other projects, the pair also created, and contributed in many capacities to, the adult animated series Bob and Margaret, which was based on Bob’s Birthday.
“We had worked in series and missed making a personal film and doing the animation ourselves, directly,” Fine told the Independent about what motivated Snowden and him to make another animated short. “We really thought it would be nice to get back to the type of filmmaking we started our career with and our producer, Michael, had suggested that he would be keen to see any ideas from us and we happened to have one, so we thought, why not have a go. It’s very different to make a personal film like this than a series.”
The couple humorously tackled some of the issues of being middle age in Bob’s Birthday. In Animal Behaviour, they explore – also with much humour – some of the pros and cons of following our natural instincts versus doing what is socially acceptable. They do so using the vehicle of a weekly group therapy session led by Dr. Leonard Clement, a Labrador retriever.
Lorraine, the leech, has attachment issues and experiences panic attacks; Todd, the pig, has an eating disorder and suffers from insecurity; Cheryl, the mantis, hasn’t had a lasting relationship, and the fact that she has 1,000 kids is the lesser of her two main problems; Linda, the Tabby cat, has obsessive compulsive disorder and doesn’t ever feel clean enough, despite constantly licking herself; and Jeffrey, the blue jay, has some serious guilt issues as a result of something he did when he was a very young bird. The members of the group seem to know one another well and there is a rhythm to their session. Then walks in Victor, the ape, with his anger issues, who believes that everyone else is an idiot and that people in therapy are navel-gazers who just need to get on with their lives.
“The notion of going to therapy to change seems like a tall order, so we thought it would be fun to look at therapy and have a character who comes in and questions its validity,” explains Fine in an NFB interview online. “At the same time, we’re careful not to go for the low-hanging fruit or make fun of the process. We don’t want to answer the question (‘Is therapy valid?’), we want to pose the question and start the discussion.”
“It was quite a difficult script to write,” says Snowden in the NFB interview. “We thought it would be easy, because it’s in one room, there’s one conversation, but there are so many possibilities with all the animals, and if we did it wrong it would get boring.
“At first, there were a lot of characters, but you couldn’t get attached to any of them, so we honed it down. Really, it’s about the ape and Dr. Clement – that’s the showdown. Then they all came together. The others are in the room, they’re observers, and they’re there for comedy. But the key characters are those two and their drama.”
“From idea to final film was probably about five years,” Fine told the Independent, “but there was a development period, which was sporadic and took time to get to the green light. Once in production, it took about 2.5 years to make, in terms of pure working time.”
About working in animation, Fine said, “We like controlling every frame and effectively being both directors and actors, because we pose and make the characters act. We also love working with voice actors and then being able to edit the track in a way you can’t really do in live action. It’s really about all the nuance and control, which is so much fun.”
The creative process starts with the writing, he said, “with the idea and the script,” which they “work to refine…. After that, the voice record was key. We interviewed about 300 voices to cast this group. All the actors are Vancouver-based, which we are very proud of.”
Among the credits, thanks are given to the animation programs at Capilano and Emily Carr universities, and the film is dedicated “to the wonderful doctors, nurses and staff at Vancouver General Hospital.”
“During the production, near the end, Alison was struck with a very sudden, serious health crisis and was in intensive care and recovery for five months,” explained Fine. “VGH saved her life, so, when we were finally able to finish the film together, it was very important to us to make that dedication to show our appreciation.”
For tickets to The Curtain Calls and the full film festival schedule, visit viff.org.
Lili Tepperman is one of five kids featured in Beauty. (photo from NFB)
It’s fine to be who you are,” says Bex Mosch, who turned 9 years old last year, when Beauty was released. Since the age of 3, Bex – formerly Rebecca – says he has known that he is a boy. He and the other “gender-creative” kids interviewed in Christina Willings’ 23-minute documentary have been forced by circumstances to become more mature than most kids their age. And they have more nuanced views on what it means to be human than many adults.
Beauty has its local première during the Vancouver Queer Film Festival’s first short film program, called The Coast is Genderqueer, which takes place Aug. 17. In addition to Bex, Fox Kou Asano, Milo Santini-Kammer, Montreal Jewish community member Lili Tepperman and Tru Wilson are interviewed. Interwoven with the interviews, footage of the kids being kids and meeting their families briefly, parts of Beauty are animated. These illustrations depict some of the kids’ favourite interests and tie together some of their common experiences. None of the parents is interviewed.
“In a way, the concept of this film came to me in the early ’80s,” says Willings in an interview on the NFB media site. “I was thinking a lot about the deconstruction of gender at that time, as were many others. We examined it from every angle, but what’s new now is that it’s children who are leading the conversation, who are saying, ‘Hey! Something’s wrong here!’ Some compassionate, and I would say enlightened, parents are hearing them. The new conversation isn’t ideologically driven, it’s experiential, and there’s a profound purity about that. It’s a breakthrough that I have felt very moved and honoured to witness and, by 2012, I realized this shift was going to be the subject of my next film.”
All of the five interviewees have had to face serious challenges, from being laughed at to being bullied. And, of course, they have had to talk with their parents about how they see themselves, versus how their parents initially viewed them.
“Sometimes, it’s easy to think it would be less stressful just to fit in,” says Lili in the film, “but then I’m not really being myself, and I find that’s an important part of living life because, if everybody’s trying to be like everybody else … it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Another NFB film being screened in Vancouver next month is Wall, which is based on British playwright David Hare’s 2009 monologue on the security fence/wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Wall is not the first extended exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Sir David, who was knighted in 1998. Written in 1997, his Via Dolorosa monologue premièred in London in 1998.
The film Wall has been a long time in coming. According to the NFB media site, in 2010, NFB executive producer and producer David Christensen “had a three-hour drive ahead of him when he chanced upon a podcast of Wall.”
“‘Listening to David Hare’s take on this wall Israel had put up gripped me visually,’ recalls Christensen.
“Riveted by Hare’s reframing of the issue and struck by how he could visualize the piece as an animated film, Christensen immediately called his producing partner Bonnie Thompson, who had the same reaction he did upon listening to Hare’s piece.
“‘For many of us, the issues around the Middle East, Israel and Palestine are complex and polarizing,’ says Thompson. ‘We thought making an animated film was a way to better understand this wall.’”
Canadian filmmaker Cam Christiansen is the animator who brought the concept to life visually, using 3-D motion-capture footage and other “cutting-edge animation tools.”
Wall has been the official selection of six film festivals to date, so it has captured critics’ imaginations. However, most Jewish community members will find it hard to watch, as Hare pays lip-service to the complexity of the situation but never veers very far away from blaming Israel for pretty much everything. When he says, “words become flags. They announce which side you’re on,” anyone with a basic knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only has to look at the title of this work to know on which sides he falls. But then he goes on for 80 minutes about it.
There are a few instances when Hare seems about to offer the Israeli side, or at least condemn Hamas, but then he retreats. When he is told about a Hamas torture tactic, he is at first repulsed but then suggests it’s a metaphor for how Palestinians must feel at the hands of Israel. When he sees a poster of Saddam Hussein in a Ramallah café, he wonders about the appropriateness of such a man as a hero but then concludes it’s OK because Israel put up the wall, after all. And, then there’s his exchange with a Palestinian who says that Britain is to blame for all the problems: “Of course it’s your fault. The British were running Palestine in the 1940s. When they ran away and left everything to the Israelis, they didn’t care what happened to everyone else. There was a life here – a Christian life, a Muslim life, a Jewish life – and that life was destroyed.”
This ridiculous statement – and so many others – is not only left unchallenged by Hare or any of the filmmakers, but gets nods or words of understanding. With Israeli novelist David Grossman as the predominant voice defending or explaining Israel’s motivations and actions in Wall, most Jewish movie-goers will know before seeing it just how limited are the views expressed in this film, no matter what complexity it proclaims to convey.
Wall screens four times between Aug. 17 and 21 at Vancity Theatre. For tickets, visit viff.org.