In politics, the “special relationship” is found between the United States and the U.K. And in film—when February rolls around—the relationship between the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and America’s Academy Awards could be an easy equivalent.
In its 78-year-history, the NFB has garnered 74 Oscar nominations (winning 12). In 1989, the Academy presented the NFB with an honorary statuette for its 50th anniversary and, a decade later, hosted a special celebration for its 60th, screening clips and highlighting the NFB’s “animation achievements.”
Animation began at the NFB two years after its founding, when Norman McLaren arrived. Of its total Oscar nominations, 57 have been for short films and 29 for Best Animated Short (winning 6). One of cinema’s first CGI-animations, Hunger, was released by the NFB in 1974. Thirty years later, Chris Landreth and students at Seneca College used CGI-rendering, algorithm-modelled hair, and other techniques for Ryan, a film about former NFB animator Ryan Larkin, living down-and-out in Montreal after a brief, but brilliant career. Larkin’s ink-wash short Walking was nominated for an Oscar in 1970; Landreth’s short about Larkin won the Oscar in 2004.
For the 89th Academy Awards happening on Feb. 26—reflecting our country’s rich animation culture nurtured by the NFB—Canadians are behind the drawing boards of three of the five Best Animated Short contenders. Alan Barillaro, a Markham, Ont. native and Sheridan College graduate, wrote and directed Pixar’s Piper; Vancouver’s Robert Valley developed the 30-minute Pear Cider and Cigarettes from two of his graphic novels, and then there’s the socio-politically-inclined animator Theodore Ushev.
A Bulgarian graphic-designer, Ushev moved to Montreal in 1999 and quickly earned a reputation as an animator with the NFB. Tower Bawher (2005), his second short —and the first of his 20th century trilogy, exploring the not-always-so-special relationships between art, ideology, and power—is Soviet constructivist-style, its shapes and forms surging to the tune of Georgy Svridov’s “Time, Forward!” (1965) even as it questions the state control of art.
Ushev’s Blind Vaysha, an Oscar nominee this year (and free to watch at the NFB’s site up to Awards day), is folk tale-meets-myth done in a woodcut-like, expressionist style, much like his trilogy’s last film, 2013’s anti-war Gloria Victoria. The look’s as deceptively simple as the idea—a girl sees the past out of her left eye and the future out of her right.
After the opening gorgeously establishes the setting, mood, and aesthetic (the narration remains a tad too verbose), we see from baby Vaysha’s point of view. Her binocular sense of the world is startling: the sky’s both a bluish-black shroud punctuated by a partial solar eclipse (on the left/in the past) and a bleached-white canvas scorched by a full, blazing sun (on the right/in the future). This split sense of things (before/after, young/old, origins/fate, nostalgia/doomsaying, etc.) is fascinating. It can also be seen as an allegory for skewed emotional perspectives or too-polarized political views. And then, with a few questions that seem to be about art but soon become about life, Ushev sharply and brilliantly turns his film’s gaze on us in the end.
Directed by Theodore Ushev
Free at nfb.ca until Feb. 27