The London International Animation Festival is an annual celebration of spectacular shorts, featuring innovative visual design from underrepresented filmmakers across the globe. Animate Projects' Abigail Addison's selection for the 2017 'Female Figures' screening at the Barbican celebrated independent female artists and their radical approaches to filmmaking, hosting a diverse selection of insightful, socially-driven films. The event was a necessary voyage into undervalued female experiences, presenting intimate explorations of complex characters confronting notably taboo or silenced concepts through poignant, humorous and captivating narratives. Masturbation, breast cancer, pregnancy and motherhood are examples of the multitude of topics, each deconstructing damaging stereotypes continually perpetuated by commercialised animation platforms. Women are not aestheticised, fetishised, objects of consumption and, to borrow from the inspiring advocate for female sexual freedom, Gabrielle Union, "we're not just the vessel for someone else's pleasure." We have our own stories, our own forms of pleasure and pain. Our bodies belong to us. With such positive portrayals of both female filmmakers and their animated content, the LIAF simultaneously reclaims an off-screen feminine space for audacious creativity whilst highlighting the regressive on-screen representation of female bodies in mainstream cinema. Amid the incessant revelations of abuse and mistreatment both within and outside the creative industry, through brave women publicising their experiences via the #MeToo movement, such events are a small but promising reminder of our ability to regain our female bodies and our global space.
Never more apparent than in today's cultural climate, female pleasure in film has undeniably existed within the tight group of white, cisgender, heterosexual Hollywood officials. Our bodies, sensuality and sexual enjoyment are manipulated and contorted into mediums that only service the male majority. Several shorts in 'Female Figures' retrieve pleasure from unbefitting hands by expressing women's sexual enjoyment through female perspectives. The objectification of women's bodies, unrealistic or over-sexualised reenactments of sex and tiring narratives depicting women (and their physique) as tools for men's pleasure is notably absent. The shorts are not for men, but for women by women, composed of beautiful, comforting and inspiring imagery. Kim Noce's abstract adaptation of Titania and Bottom's relationship in 'Love in Idleness' explores acts of love-making through a unique visualisation of pleasure. Featuring experimental animation, created through the laborious process of repeatedly redrawing charcoal sketches, the culmination is a mesmerising visualisation of infinite feminine shapes. Sounds and imagery create a sensorial form of pleasure centered on women, and despite its fleeting two-minute length, is an all-encompassing experience. Animation student Renata Gasioroaska humourously displays the difficulties encountered during masturbation in 'Cipka' (Pussy), a quirky look at the importance of self-love and care. The protagonist attempts to mastubate during her solitude, but is rudely interrupted and distracted by various events (including a voyeristic male neighbour). To the woman's bemusement, the frustrated vagina morphs into a rather adorable creature who banishes outside distractions and pleasures itself around the apartment. In mainstream media, masturbation continues to exist as an unspoken and shameful topic of conversation or pornographic experience. Yet here, Gasiorowska's short is a delightful illustration of how independent animation can defy such two-dimensional paradigms through sincere, complex and positive narratives.
Other shorts utilise images of crudeness, perversity and surrealism in their animation to challenge socially ingrained ideals of womanhood. Swedish filmmaker Joanna Rytel's stop-motion animation, 'Moms on Fire', presents a satirical commentary on motherhood, using hyperrealistic puppets and lewd dialogue to both disgust and intrigue. 'The mother' in historic fiction, reinforced through centuries of manufactured literature and visual imagery, is a highly romanticised notion pertaining to purity and nurturing - women as vessels of new life. The concept is intrinsically linked to womanhood and thus rejections of maternity are considered as tampering with our inherent femininity. Rytel rebels against such projections of woman to cleverly challenge archaic, misogynistic stereotypes. Two young woman are dissatisfied with the mundanity of their lives; they do not like their 'fucking boring' boyfriends, they find motherhood a chore and they are too fat to enjoyably masturbate. And, worse yet, they are heavily pregnant - yuck! Disgusted by their impending due date, the females place their children in charge and begin a salacious affair, pleasuring one another in vulgar fashion and discussing their flight-plan for afterbith. Rytel is neither reserved nor subliminal in her approach to filmmaking and blatantly visualises the film's controversial intentions, with one woman snorting a white substance spelling 'motherhood' in Swedish. This canididness in turn produces an ingenious, memorable deconstruction of maternity which would be inconceivable in commercialised forms of animation.
Another distinctive reimagining of femininity occurs in Hungarian director Luca Tóth’s 'Superbia', which uses vivid colorus and surrealistic animation to create a dystopian landscape that confronts notions of gender equality. A lack of dialogue and complexity in narratives means the film relies heavily upon visual signifiers to communicate meaning. Tóth uses the artistic medium to explore feminist imagery in unimaginable ways, designing women's bodies in relation to the unequal state of their society: miniature arms are obscured by unnaturally large, disfigured breasts - a necessary visualisations of gendered inequality. Alongside humorous shorts, many of the films confront hard-hitting topics with both consideration and utmost respect. The British film, 'Lying Belly', by Alice de Barrau, who recently passed away, was included in the programme as a commemoration of the outstanding animator's work. In this piece, de Barrau uses fragmented and minimalist drawings to visualise a woman's difficult relationship with her body, evoking concepts of dysmorphia as the character pushes and pulls at her expanding and contorting stomach. Similarly to Noce, the sketches of the female form are realistic and portray the intricacies of women's bodies with honesty and compassion.
South Korean short, 'Before & After', is an uncompromising study of the pernicious 21st century beauty standards inflicted upon women. A young female endures many surgical procedures to cultivate the 'perfect body image', born from a desire to be successful in her work life. Incorporating the combined techniques of pencil sketches and pixelation, Minji Kang's hands tirelessly redesign and redraw the female animation to align with the media's notion of 'perfection', as the character travels through the state of 'Before' and 'Between' to achieve her goal of the 'After'. Unfortunately, the woman does not reach her desired destination of happiness and her journey terminates in the harrowing state of 'Now', a personified conception of a world where women constantly desire something better and more attractive, a state of perpetual comparison.
Award-winning director Mahboobeh Mohammadzaki's 'Pink' likewise explores medical procedure endured by women's bodies, but through a different lens. Using animation and sound to convey a mesmerising world between reality and imagination, the short narrates a woman's physical and mental relationship with breast cancer. In reality, she lives in clinical environments desperately clinging to the hope of escaping the fear of death. In her dreams, the cancerous illness is anthropomorphised as dozens of pink fish, swimming within her in a vast ocean of restlessness, raging monsters growing in size until one aggressively engulfs her beast. Although harrowing, the animated sequence approaches breast cancer with authentic emotion, neither sensationalising nor undermining the traumatic experience.
British filmmakers Yero Timi-Biu and Jessica Ashman's short 'Beneath the Surface', created for Channel 4's Random Acts, is a poignant look at female friendship through the lens of race and colourism set in South London. In an interview with Skin Deep Magazine, Timi-Biu describes the film as "explor[ing] the characters' access and agency as black women of different skin tones", a topic of conversation largely undiscussed in film and television. Although brief in duration, the animation perfectly summarises Cherelle and Miniomi's 25-year-long friendship since school, narrating the challenges, complications and complexities they encounter throughout their lives. The racial discrimination they initially experience throughout childhood forms a powerful bond, as they come to rely on each other for comfort and understanding. Yet, their bond is gradually dismantled during adolescence through their different experience of education and romantic relationships and their ethnic appearance. Using both comical and frank dialogue, this beautifully simplistic animation becomes a socially conscious portrait of a black girl's experience within British culture.
Both the opening and closing shorts, Diane Obomsawin's 'I Like Girls' and Chloé Alliez’ 'Toutes Nuancées' (All Their Shades) respectively, offer endearing insights into queer romance, bookending the programme with unashamed, authentic declarations of love for women. The former includes a selection of brief but intimate stories about relationships, visualising tales of first love and heartbreak. Narrated by different Canadian women, each offer a personal anecdote about discovering their sexuality, facing adversity from friends, family and society and their experience of embracing their sexuality and entering the LGBTQ community. Ranging from comical to heartbreaking in tone, the animation is an affective retelling of queer love made all the more wonderful by Obomsawin's unique characterisation. Although her design is peculiar in style, woman's bodies comically combined with animal heads, the technique of rotoscoping provides a tenderness and realism to their intimate movements. The latter film is a 'love-letter' to women, narrating the many contradictions apparent in femininity through an entertaining stop-motion animation that embraces the very essence of women in their complex being. Incorporating a multitude of household objects (light switches to retro children's toys) to comically visualise women, Alliez targets negative stereotypes plastered onto women. Reversing 2D concepts apparent in society which categorise women as one or another, 'Toutes Nuancées' deploys humour to publicise our ability to be both. Introducing and concluding the screening with animations that offer perspectives on the nuances of love and sex in the LGBTQ experience is an essential reminder to mainstream animation on how love, pleasure and desire exist outside the heterosexual canon and deserve our undivided attention.
Unfortunately, the event faltered during its subsequent panel discussion between creatives and academics from the European animation scene. The group attempted to interrogate the plethora of issues faced by women in the film industry. With the #MeToo movement at a critical stage of importance, such discussions are vital in sustaining topics of conversation around the inherent mistreatment of women in cinema. It is a movement we must never allow to be silenced or forced back into secrecy. As such, at this pivotal moment, the tone of the discussion was frustratingly subdued and a betrayal to the radical nature of each short. Addison rightfully stated in her introduction to the films, "you won't find any silent women being relentlessly pursued, no women being violently assaulted, no fragmented female bodies, all of which is rampant still in contemporary animation." Yet, the panel appeared to avert a direct interrogation and critique of such representations, focusing instead on reiterating the importance of all-nclusive art spaces. Whilst relevant, women in the film industry are painfully aware of the need for an equal creative environment. What needs to be discussed and vocalised across all platforms is how to navigate, deconstruct and rebuild in the face of inequality and how to overcome the marginalisation of women filmmakers (especially women of colour and the LGBTQ community). Voice actress Sarah Ann Kennedy even stated women do not have to react through aggression or in anger towards their abusers, insinuating that there are better ways of approaching such situations. Unfortunately, in the wake of a feminist movement standing up against women being continually silenced, the concluding comments were bathetic, reductionist and aligned with women's conditioning into politeness and agreeableness. This is dangerous.
The international scale of shorts featured in the programme, including artists from Iran, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Canada, is an encouraging reminder of diversity apparent in independent animation filmmaking and the opportunities available for women. Yet, it also attests to the scale of the problem. There is still enormous change necessary in confronting widespread sexism in the arts industry, and rather than just seeing it on screen, we need a wholly empowering, inclusive and intersectional experience once the credits roll; a more radical and encouraging discussion would be one step closer towards this.
Words by Jessie Alex Carpenter