DOCS TO WATCH: ANIMATED DOCUMENTARIES
To whet all of our appetites, we've compiled this list of some of our favourite examples of this now relatively well established (but constantly surprising and innovative) form.
These selected films (all available to watch online) show a range of animation styles - from stop motion to rotoscoping - and also run the gamut from completely animated films to those that include just a little, perfectly placed animation.
My favourite War / ILZE BURKOVSKA - JACOBSEN / Norway, Latvia / 2020 / 82 min
An animated coming-of-age tale about growing up in an authoritarian state, Ilze Burkovska-Jacobsen's autobiographical film won the Contrechamp Competition at the prestigious Annecy animation festival on its World Premiere in 2020.
Combining distinctive cutout animation with archive footage and family photographs, My Favourite War draws out the clash for young Ilze in Cold-War Latvia between the propaganda she is taught and the Soviet reality around her.
Learn more about the process of animation in this director interview in Cartoon Brew.
You can watch the film on Vimeo On Demand
Tower / Keith Maitland / United States / 2016 / 82 mins
On August 1st 1966, a gunman opened fire at the University of Texas, holding the campus hostage for 96 minutes in what was a previously unimaginable event; this was America's first mass school shooting.
In Tower, director Keith Maitland combines archival footage with detailed rotoscopic animation of the events of the day, based on first-person testimonies from witnesses, in a seamless and suspenseful retelling of the unfolding tragedy.
You can watch the film on iTunes and Amazon Prime.
Waltz with Bashir / ARI FOLMAN / UK / 2008 / 90 mins
Ari Folman's much-lauded Waltz With Bashir was the first animation ever nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Described as an act of remembrance, it's an impressionistic film uncovering Folman's forgotten memories from Beirut at the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
In this Studio Daily article, Folman explains his animation process and his budget constraints. In contrast to the factual retelling of events in Tower, above, Folman explains why he avoided rotoscoping for his very subjective film: "for me, rotoscoping has a big problem in conveying emotions. You see the technique, you see the drawings, and that takes your focus. If this film had been rotoscoped, it would have been hard for the audience to get emotional with the characters.”
The most powerful moment in Waltz With Bashir comes in the final scene, when the animation quite suddenly gives way to video footage from Shatila; a startling and unforgetable reminder of the realities of the massacre.
You can watch the documentary on Amazon Prime.
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy / MICHEL GONDRY / France / 2013 / 88 Mins
Would you like to see inside Michel Gondry's mind? Would you like to visualise Noam Chomsky's thoughts? Would you like to see Noam Chomsky's thoughts visualised by the mind of Michel Gondry? Welcome to Gondry's 2013 animated documentary Is the Man Who is Tall Happy.
The film is based on a series of conversations between linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and the ever-inquisitive director Michel Gondry (Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, The Green Hornet). Gondry brings Chomsky's musings on science, philosphy and humanity to life through his own hand-drawn animation.
In this in-depth Indiewire review, Eric Kohn calls it Gondry's best film since Eternal Sunshine, describing it as "as much Gondry as Chomsky; the contrast between them wryly juxtaposes measured and chaotic introspection. By extension, its real topic is the elusive nature of all thought processes, and it effectively shares the dual speakers’ collective journey without revealing any tangible destination."
Online watch options here.
The Missing Picture / RITHY PANH / CAMbodia, France / 2014 / 92 min
In The Missing Picture, world renowned filmmaker Rithy Panh explores the horrors of his childhood under Cambodia's Khmer Rouge.
The film, which won Cannes' Un Certain Regard section, juxtaposes archive of the Khmer Rouge with extraordinary, detailed diaromas featuring clay figurines, and a haunting personal narration by the director.
The regime destroyed images and in doing so erased the history of survivors like Panh. This film is a cathartic act of reclaiming memory, and restoring history.
Read more in Nick Bradshaw's article and interview for Sight and Sound.
THE WANTED 18 / AMER SHOMALI, PAUL COWAN / Canada / 2014 / 75 MIN
Here we come to stop-motion animation, used by directors Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan, along with interviews, recreation and sketches. These techniques come together to tell the tale of how 18 cows became fugitives when the residents of Palestinian town Beit Sahour tried raising their own dairy cows as part of a 1980s boycott of Israeli goods.
There is wry humour and a certain charm in the characterisation of these cows - effective tools for highlighting the absurdity of Israel declaring the dairy project a threat to its national security.
Find out more in this Guardian interview with co-director Amer Shomali, who says: "I’m a cartoonist and humour is part of the way I see things. I believe that a nation that can’t make fun of its own wounds will never be able to heal them. So first recognise the shithole you are in... then make fun of yourself.”
You can watch it on Amazon Prime.
Advocate / Rachel Leah Jones & Philippe Bellaiche / Israel, Canada, Switzerland / 2019 / 108 mins
The films in this list use animation for any number of reasons, from recreating historical events for which there's no remaining footage, to visualising memories or otherwise intagible ideas, and of course just for artistic reasons alone. Here's another use...
Advocate follows Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel as she defends Palestinians in the notoriously harsh Israeli courts. Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche interweave animation with archive and live footage, which allows them to conceal the identities of Tsemel's clients while keeping the immediacy of observational storytelling.
But Paul O'Callaghan points out, in this Sight and Sound review, that their rotoscoping technique accomplishes more than just the function of protecting their subjects: "It’s a canny flourish that neatly reflects both the ambiguity of their crimes and the way in which they’ve been reduced to cartoonish villains by the Israeli establishment."
You can watch the film on Vimeo On Demand.
Life, Animated / Roger Ross Williams / United States, France / 2016 / 92 mins
Life, Animated tells the story of how Owen Suskind, a young boy growing up with autism, found in Disney animation a pathway to language and a framework for making sense of the world. It explores how identification and empathy with characters like Simba, Jafar, and Ariel forge a conduit for him to understand his feelings and interpret reality.
As well as interviews with Owen, now a young adult, observational footage of Owen and his family, and clips from the animated Disney films themselves, director Roger Ross Williams went to great lengths to create animations from Owen's own hand-drawn illustrations. As he explains in Saskia Baron's Sight & Sound article, a team of ten at the French visual effects company Mac Guff turned Owen's quasi-autobiographical illustrated screenplay into a full animation, which is woven through the film.
Irene’s Ghost / Iain Cunningham / United Kingdom / 2018 / 82 mins
This British indie gem shows the incredible power of animation in doing justice to the experiences of mental health that film can't always capture.The judicious use of beautfiul animation throughout brings out a moving account of the effect that repressed truths can have in a family and shines a light on a post-partum psychosis, a hugely under-addressed aspect of mental health.
Watch the Q&A with director Iain Cunningham hosted by Bertha DocHouse on our Hub here.
Watch the film on YouTube or Amazon Prime
Chicago 10 / Brett Morgen / UK / 2007 / 110 Mins
Cobain: Montage of Heck / Brett Morgen / United States / 2015 / 132 mins
We finish the list with a pair of documentaries directed by Brett Morgen, both groundbreaking at the time they were made, and both still feel fresh today.
Telling the story of the trial of a group of anti-Vietnam activists (more recently told in Aaron Sorkin's 2020 The Trial of the Chicago 7), Chicago 10 mixes animation with archival footage to explore the build-up to and unravelling of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial in which the “Chicago Seven” were accused of inciting riots during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Brett Morgen created an animated reenactment of the trial based on original transcripts and audio recordings.
2015's Cobain: Montage of Heck brings Kurt Cobain's personal archive of drawings to life through animation, along with his writing, music and home videos, to create an intense, cinematic portrait of one the twentieth century's most important musicians; an artist who craved the spotlight even as he rejected the trappings of fame.
Montage Of Heck online watch options here.