Funan by Denis Do
Funan by Denis Do

Building on its wildly successful inaugural year, the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) announced the 2019 Animation First festival,  showcasing the vast history, enduring ingenuity, and diversity of France’s renowned animation studios and schools. This year’s schedule includes 17 premieres, provoking feature-length films, exciting shorts, immersive exhibits, video game demonstrations, panels with filmmakers, a special spotlight on the City of Bordeaux’s animation industry, and much more. It will take place from Friday, January 25 through Sunday, January 27, 2019, at FIAF in New York City.

Legendary director Michel Ocelot is this year’s guest of honor, and the festival will open with his groundbreaking feature, Kirikou and the Sorceress, celebrating its 20th anniversary. When it was first released in 1998, this enchanting film fusing African myth, stunning imagery, and a sophisticated sensibility that attracted both adults and children, broadened the scope of what animation could accomplish on screen.

Ocelot’s work will be surveyed through screenings of two other feature films: Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest (2006) and Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess (2016). In addition, Ocelot will pay homage to the filmmaker Isao Takahata, a co-founder of Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli who passed away earlier this year. He will introduce a screening of Takahata’s feature film Only Yesterday (1992). Ocelot will also curate a program of influential shorts and participate in a discussion about his body of work.

Denis Do’s Funan, which won the Cristal Award for best feature at the 2018 Annecy International Animation Film Festival, will receive its anticipated New York premiere. This harrowing and semi-autobiographical film, set during the Khmer Rouge uprising in Cambodia, follows a young mother whose 4-year-old son was taken away from her.

Animation First will also present a selection of notable and award-winning shorts from Annecy, the most prestigious animation film festival in the world, as well as a program featuring all of the animated shorts nominated for the 2019 César Award in that category.

Several programs will showcase the breadth of French animation, including provocative works geared toward more mature audiences. Erotic shorts return after a sold-out screening in 2018. In addition, the Late Night Chills program looks at the wealth of science-fiction and suspense shorts currently being produced. 

Animation First will also look back to France’s historic contributions to the form with a special focus on the pinscreen instrument. Developed by the husband-wife team of Alexandre Alexeïeff and Claire Parker starting in the 1930s, the pinscreen is a device composed of thousands of holes in which pins slide back and forth. As they slide in and out of their holes, the pins cast shadows of varying length on the screen, which create unique and exquisite textural effects that cannot be reproduced digitally. Traditional stop-motion techniques are then employed to animate the images. A screening of short films, from 1933’s Une Nuit sur le mont chauve to 2018’s Etreintes, demonstrate the striking effects produced by this painstaking method. Further exploring this medium, Animation First will present a panel discussion with pinscreen artists as well as two workshops demonstrating how the device works.

In conjunction with Animation First, Times Square Arts will present the short film I was crying out at life (2009) by artist Vergine Keaton as its nightly Midnight Moment throughout January. Keaton is one of at least 16 female filmmakers whose work will be screened throughout the festival.

In addition to the film screenings, FIAF will explore myriad facets of France’s prolific animation industry through exhibits, panels, discussions, and hands-on workshops. Visitors will be able to play a selection of French video games, including a demonstration of Assassin’s Creed organized in partnership with the City of Bordeaux, and experience an augmented reality exhibit through a special app in FIAF’s first-floor gallery.

In a special program, co-directors Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec will present an exclusive look at the work-in-progress The Swallows of Kabul, based on Yasmina Khadra’s novel about life under Taliban rule, and discuss their collaboration on this upcoming feature.

Feature films

Young Audience Program: Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest
Dir. Michel Ocelot, 2006, 99 min

Jénane, a wet nurse to noble-born child Azur, raises him alongside her own son, Asmar, as if they were brothers. She tells them stories about the Djinn Fairy, waiting to be released from her confinement by a heroic prince. When Azur’s father discovers their friendship, he separates the boys, sending Azur to be tutored in the city and banishing both Jénane and Asmar. Years later and living on opposite sides of the sea, both Azur and Asmar dream of rescuing and marrying the Djinn Fairy. The two embark on independent journeys to find her, setting in motion a reunion as well as a contest for her favors. This special screening will be offered to school groups throughout the tristate area.

Opening Night Program: Kirikou and the Sorceress
Dir. Michel Ocelot, 1998, 70 min

Animation First celebrates the 20th anniversary of the beloved Kirikou and the Sorceress, which enchanted audiences worldwide and marked a turning point in the industry, unleashing a renewed interest for original and audacious animated filmmaking in France.

Steeped in popular African folktales, director Michel Ocelot—who spent his childhood in Guinea— brings to life the exquisite adventures of little Kirikou, a smart and courageous boy who must save his village from a flesh-eating sorceress and her terrible curse. As he sets on this journey, Kirikou encounters friends and foes including a monster, a skunk, squirrels, wise men, and the sorceress Karaba’s army of watchmen. The film’s stunning animation is accompanied by an original score by acclaimed musician Youssou N’Dour.

Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess
Dir. Michel Ocelot, 2016, 53 min

Using his gorgeous trademark silhouetted style, Michel Ocelot conjures far-away lands of Indian palaces and Slavic castles in this film, named after a figure from Russian folklore. Two children meet nightly with an old cinema projectionist, and together they let their imaginations run wild, becoming adventurers in their own fairy tales. With delightful and delicate images, Ocelot plays with the traditional codes of fairy tales and re-invents them, subtly probing gender stereotypes. Whimsical and beautifully crafted, Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess possesses both a childlike sense of wonder and striking sophistication.

Only Yesterday
Dir. Isao Takahata, 1991, 120 minutes

Animation First’s guest of honor Michel Ocelot presents Only Yesterday, one of his favorite films by Isao Takahata, co-founder of the famed Studio Ghibli, who died earlier this year. Only Yesterday follows Taeko, a 27-year-old unmarried woman who has spent her whole life in Tokyo. Taeko decides to visit her relatives in the countryside to take part in the safflower harvest. As her train travels through the night, memories of her childhood rush back. Upon her arrival in the countryside, she is met by Toshio, a young farmer, and her stay turns into a time of longing and questioning as Taeko is consumed by memories of growing up and events that have shaped her as a woman. Switching between past and present, Only Yesterday is a beautiful and subtle film, emotionally honest and rich with humor.

NY Premiere: Funan
Dir. Denis Do, 2018, 84 min

Inspired by the life of his mother, Funan by Denis Do is a beautiful story of resilience in the face of unspeakable hardship. Set in 1975, under Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Chou, a young Cambodian mother, searches for her 4-year-old son who was taken away from her. Facing the same fate as millions of ordinary Cambodians, Chou and her family live through years of separation, starvation, and forced labor. Despite her circumstances, Chou finds the strength to survive and remains determined to find her son thus reuniting her family. Chou’s harrowing path is set among the sweeping beauty of Cambodia’s countryside, lending a powerful backdrop to this wrenching ordeal. Winner of the Cristal Award, Annecy International Animation Film Festival’s top prize, and the Grand Prize and Audience Award at Los Angeles’s Animation is Film, Do’s first feature turns a harrowing story based on his mother’s life into a deeply personal and emotional journey.

Robinson et Companie
Dir. Jacques Colombat, 1991, 73 min

To fulfill his dreams of traveling around the world Robinson joins the crew of a majestic ship departing London. When a storm causes his boat to capsize, Robinson finds himself the sole survivor on a deserted island with only a tight-lipped dodo bird at his side. As Robinson settles into his new surroundings, he comes across a motley crew of pirates, a tribe of cannibals, and other odd characters, including his eventual companion, Friday. Made with traditional 2D techniques such as lush painted backgrounds and celluloid characters, Jacques Colombat’s film offers a poetic, whimsical, and original take on the Daniel Defoe classic, Robinson Crusoe.

White Fang directed by Alexandre Espigares
White Fang directed by Alexandre Espigares

White Fang
Dir. Alexandre Espigares, 2018, 85 min

Based on the eponymous 1906 novel by Jack London, this elegantly-animated adaptation follows White Fang, a young wolf-dog pup, through a series of encounters with animals and humans in the Yukon Territory during the 1890s gold rush, where men and animals were left to fend for themselves. For his first feature film, Alexandre Espigares, who co-directed the Oscar-winning short Mr. Hublot, captures the essence of London’s rugged tale but softens the edges for a younger crowd. The detailed oil painting-textured visual technique make for a strikingly beautiful and vivid retelling of White Fang’s story.

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