Something completely different

A retrospective of Iranian animation shows there’s more to life than what you see on MTV.

Gabriel Shapiro

There are certain combinations that just go together. Peanut butter and jelly, Astaire and Rodgers, Ahriman and Ahura Mazda. Likewise, there are some places known for certain forms of art. Renaissance painting and Western Europe, batik and Indonesia, that sort of thing. This festival is nothing like that.

Iran might conjure up many images, but rarely is animation one of them. When we hear the words “animation festival” we think of Japanese anime, eclectic American cartoons, English Aardman-type stuff or something else, but almost never Iranian animation. In this case, our perceptions, while correct to some extent, are simply inadequate.

Iran actually has a long and varied animated film history. Perhaps this should be less of a surprise than it is, given the cinematic verve displayed by both stalwarts of Iranian film such as Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi and Moshen Makhmalbaf, and relative newcomers Samira Makhmalbaf and Babak Payami. These directors have blown away international audiences and festival juries alike over the past several years.

Dramatic cinema from Iran has traveled far and wide, but the animation seems to have stayed under the radar for the most part, and that’s too bad.

The examples on display include classic drawn animated cartoons, paper cutouts and stop motion with clay and puppets. Story lines seem to follow a course akin to Aesop’s fables, with a clear moral aimed at the children they’re designed for. They are often very colorful, featuring a dizzying array of vibrant visuals.

The biggest drawbacks, and they’re nothing that should put you off, but just something for the back of your mind, are that many of the visual cues that would be accessible to any Iranian child are lost on those of us unfamiliar with the culture, and that this is animation for children.

To the first point, there seem to be a number of times in the films in which unexplained imagery conjure reactions that seem unusual. This might be because the films are animated renditions of Iranian fables, or perhaps simply contain elements unfamiliar to American audiences. As with any foreign film, the cultural differences that are sometimes very subtle and even just the slightest nuance can render scenes from another culture difficult to understand.

The second drawback, that these seem mainly aimed at children, is one for each potential attendee to evaluate on his or her own. If the idea of watching a Disney marathon, a bunch of Bugs Bunny or any kid’s programming makes you nauseated, then this probably isn’t for you. But beware this is certainly not a one-to-one correspondence. That familiarity with Disney, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera, which might breed contempt, is utterly absent here.

The fact that the festival covers more than 30 years of Iranian animation is, in itself, a draw for audiences. The films serve as a sort of time capsule, a reflection of different stages of a specific art form. And in some of the more politically tinged movies, there are questions raised for anyone who might have thought they knew something about Iran. In that sense, these animated movies fit right in with the rest of the Iranian cinema that makes it to the United States. Concepts of “what Iran is” and “how Iranians are” are often completely destroyed when people are exposed to the depictions of life in Iranian movies.

The stories in this festival share many traits with their Western counterparts. They are often touching, simple stories about growing up or parables that illustrate a cultural or social value. There are even some stylistic similarities, especially in some of the stop motion films that are reminiscent of the Rankin-Bass TV shows, particularly “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and the claymation films that look like somewhat more basic, but also more fantastic Aardman Animations films.

Recapturing the innocence of childhood through another culture’s products is a strange sensation. It feels like you are connecting to other people in the world that you’ve never met, but somehow identify with, through the viewing of these films. That weird and wonderful feeling is the hallmark of worthwhile cinema, and it has a life-affirming residual effect that could have you smiling for days.