‘Abuela Grillo’ and Capitalism

Abuela Grillo is a thoughtful tale about water privatisation and environmental exploitation in Bolivia. Alluding to the water wars in Cochabamba in 2000, it tells the story of “Grandmother Grasshopper” who can bring relieving rain to the arid mountains of the Andes by singing rain hymns in a typical cutesy combination of Quechua and Spanish:

“Ch’illchimullaypuni, ch’illchi paritay
Siempre tienes que llover, suave lluviecita
Yaku, yaku, yakituy, agua, agua, mi agüita”
(You always have to rain, soft rain, my little water…)


However, one day Abuela Grillo sang so much that her whole village is flooded. Angry about the chaos, her grandchildren ask her to leave her village. And so she wanders through the mountains to La Paz, passing dreamy landscapes, windy roads that remind one of Bolivia’s notorious “Carratera de la Muerte” (Death Road) and a llama with its llama headed shepherd. the big sinister city, where two villains force her to sing for them so that they can bottle and sell the water that she generates. Meanwhile, her grandchildren realise that the heatwave that hits their land has been caused by their grandmother’s absence and set out to look for Abuela Grillo to bring back fertility.

The Cochabamba water wars, also narrated more directly in the 2010 drama “También la Lluvia” (Even the rain) by Icíar Bollaín[1], took place in 2000 when peaceful protest against water privatisation turned violent and eventually to the reversal of the privatisation. This animated short-film, based on a autochthonous tale of the Ayoreo community,[2] touches on the topic in an emotional and unconventional way.

The short is a collaboration between eight young Bolivian animators and the Animation Workshop of Denmark, one of Europe’s most important and influential animation schools. The soundtrack was composed and performed by Ludmila Carpio, a well-known Bolivian singer.

[1] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1422032/

[2] http://www.theclinic.cl/2013/10/24/corto-en-su-casa-la-abuela-grillo/

Understanding ‘The Problem with Apu’ Through My Own Experiences

I recently heard about the controversy surrounding the TruTV documentary ‘The Problem with Apu’ that berates animated character from ‘The Simpsons’ cartoon series. I am here to chime into the growing chorus of voices. I see two problems with the character that I will talk about from my personal perspective, firstly the lack of South-Asian representation in western media and secondly my own experiences with traveling to a new place and why this is not represented with Apu.

Firstly like any good reaction to a case of cultural appropriation I should divulge my personal history and background. I am South Asian, having grown up primarily in New Delhi, India. Fathered by primarily Punjabi parents with a religious lineage that mixes Hinduism, Sikhism, Sufism and Buddhism. Yes I know that’s far too many religions, but this comes with how progressive Indians treat religion nowadays, like sticking your hand into a jar of m&ms and picking and choosing the flavours that work for you. I am decidedly agnostic or sometimes atheist. I’d consider myself in the upper middle income group in my country, although my grandparents spent most of their lives in poverty after arriving in India from what became Pakistan during the partition of the subcontinent.

I am telling you all this because the experience of being South Asian is as diverse as can be expected from a fourth of humanity and I cannot claim to speak for all of them as much as you cannot have someone speak definitively for Estonians, Greeks, French, Americans and Argentinian people collectively. Therein lies the problem with Apu.

Growing up in the 90s and the early naughts in India I had the choice of Bollywood, Tollywood, the various regional cinemas, the plethora of Indian channels and K-serials to look for representation. And then with western shows there was only one representation that was definitely known, Apu. To find out that the name comes from ‘The Apu Trilogy’ by Satyajit Ray, a masterwork of poignant filmmaking and a symbol of pride for many Indians, is an awkward feeling.

The lack of representation was something I only came to terms with when visiting the bridge over the river Kwai in Thailand. Having a father that loves war films I was well aware of the American Oscar winning film about the building of the bridge. What was news to me was that most of the people that died in the building of the Kwai bridge and the Burmese railroad were Tamil and Malay bonded labourers and POWs. Then the realisation that British India sent a million people to fight in the First World War and nearly two million in the second, the first decisive victory for the allies being at the hands of South Asian troops, they fought in the battle of the Somme and at Dunkirk and yet we don’t see a single well known world war film that shows troops from the subcontinent.

The lack of representation of people of color in Hollywood as a whole has been a hotly contested topic in the last few years. The #OscarSoWhite campaign highlighted the lack of representation of African-Americans in the country’s premier film awards. The American live-action adaptation and subsequent white-washing of the Japanese Anime ‘Ghost in the Shell’ has garnered considerable backlash. Similarly ‘The Problem with Apu’ points out the number of South-Asian Americans that are visible in the media is growing but is still only a handful.

I will now talk about my own experiences with being an immigrant. I have spent a significant portion of the last few years shuffling between India, the United States and Europe and that has meant contending with how different shifting societies see me.

On the one-side there is the middle-class bubble that I have grown up in, and although this is expanding it still makes up a sliver of the region’s population. India only really started to develop a middle-class in the 80s and early 90s as the country started liberalizing and shook off its protectionist policies. This Nouveau riche is frugal and contained, not yet ready to share in its spoils with those below them. Now the rising wave of religious nationalism threatens to engulf the country. I am diametrically opposed to this having grown up in (possibly the last generation) of Nehruvian secularism. These forces for me have meant managing expectations, nudging the relationships I want to keep from home to be more progressive or cutting people out if I think the exercise is futile.

Then there are the lands I find myself in that are dealing with their own waves of nationalism and search for identity. That has meant being ok with being sent to the back room and questioned excessively at airports, or being told to ‘go back to my country’ by strangers on the streets in New York or London, or more subtle things like people avoiding sitting next to you in the subway or tube. I am a brown guy with a beard after all.

Although I cannot claim to grasp the varied experiences of first generation immigrants traveling from ‘east’ to ‘west’, I can imagine what that might be like from my own. The graphic novel ‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan in my opinion best encapsulates the struggle for belonging many immigrants contend with. I grew up watching the Simpsons in the 90s and loved it, but I don’t think it or Apu are an appropriate medium to capture this experience.

The way you look at me, through your male gaze?

“Come mi guardi tu” (The way you look at me) is a dreamy,  tranquil love song by the Italian indie rock band Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti (Three cheerful dead boys). As many of their songs, it has been accompanied by an animated music video by Michele Bernardi, who has directed and illustrated various clips for bands from the Italian indie scene.

In “Come mi guardi tu”, Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti’s lead singer Davide Toffolo sings about the love and comfort he feels when being with his partner:

“Come mi baci tu
Non lo fa nessuna
Che sia sotto il sole o sotto la luna
Come mi abbracci tu
Non l’ha mai fatto nessuna
Come m’hai visto tu
Non m’ha mai visto nessuna”

(The way you kiss me
Nobody else has kissed me before
Whether under the sun or beneath the moon
The way you hug me
Nobody else has ever hugged me
The way you looked at me
Nobody else has ever looked at me)

The way the animator looks at the female protagonist is less unique, though. In fact, Bernardi’s animation at first sight seems to be yet another example of the “male gaze”, a visual representation that depicts women as an object of heterosexual male desire. This key concept of feminist film theory was introduced by scholar and filmmaker Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”.

During the beginning of the music video, the woman is shown belly dancing in the deep sea surrounded by floating, glowing jellyfish. We then see the protagonist riding a motorcycle through urban landscapes and forests to an abandoned beach where she takes off her clothes and jumps into the water. She dives deeper and deeper, again surrounded by glowing jellyfish, until we see her naked body tucked together in a fetal position in the womb of a giant jellyfish with glaring purple eyes.

Though somewhat objectified one should also consider that the protagonist is portrayed as an independent, determined woman as we follow her on her surrealistic journey to the deep sea.  Besides, she is confidently riding a motorcycle—a stereotypical male object.

Nonetheless, it would be interesting to see how a female animator would have illustrated the scene or how Bernardi would have interpreted the song if the admired protagonist had been male.


‘Isle of Dogs’ and Orientalism

I recently attended the ‘Isle of Dogs’ premiere here in London with a Q&A by some of the animators that worked on the film here at the 3 Mills studio and also went to see some of the puppets on display at an exhibition.

Although, I have for the most part had a great love for Wes Anderson’s work and ‘Isle of Dogs’ was seamlessly animated and executed I had a familiar feeling when talking to my Japanese classmate I had seen the film with about what she thought about it. She mentioned how the main protagonist’s Japanese was virtually unintelligible for her and that she didn’t know how she felt about the film as she didn’t relate to any of it.

The reduction and exoticisation of non western cultures is nothing new. This was a by product of colonialism as European societies expanded out and attempted to find means for justify their occupation of the Americas, Africa or Asia. With India as arriving colonists discovered that North Indian languages had deep rooted connections to their own, they were met with a conundrum. How could these ‘uncivilized’ people be the same as us? It presented a roadblock to the process of ‘other-ing’ and so the Aryan invasion theory was developed. This eventually became the flawed dogma behind Hitler and the second world war. Jain symbol of the Swastic appropriated so far out of context that it cannot be connected to its original meaning today.

With Japanese society much of its relationship to the ‘West’ was formed by the Second World War. The legacy of allied war propaganda was inexerably wrapped in with animation in its formative years. Although many racist ideas have eroded over time, many others became cannon.

Over time western interpretations of the ‘East’ have become simplistic stereotypes. The poor and savage Indians can be seen in the ‘Jungle Book’, the blood thirsty Middle-east can be seen in ‘Arabian Nights’ and the exotic and strange orient can be seen in ‘Isle of Dogs’.

Also, the ‘white-savior complex’ is alive and well in ‘Isle of Dogs’, where a white supporting character who in the end is key to stepping in and saving the day, leaving the protagonist to stand on the side and look on. This would not be a strange element in the film’s narrative were it not a theme that shows up again and again in western film history.

I would have hoped for a more nuanced story and characters from one of the most revered filmmakers of our time but was unfortunately left wanting.

Famous Flying Films

I recently had the fortune of attending a talk at CSM by David Johnson, one of the founders of a stop-motion animation studio based out of Manchester. David went through his work from starting out in the 80s in Australia, to his work on the ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’ and ‘Koala Brothers’ series, to showing us a pilot for another show he is hoping to gather the funding for.

It soon became evident that David was far more humble than the quality of his work spoke for. Getting very quickly into the nitty-gritties of what went into the creation of his work. Talking about artistic decisions such as beads being used to look like bubbles in a pipe or the choices in camera angles and lighting.  He shared backdoor knowledge about the industry, how he handled the studio and pitched ideas in the industry. Probably my favorite takeaway was him talking about how he had realized that viewers paid most attention to the little quirks and gestures of a character and that most tv series studios strapped for time or budget tend to cut these moments out first, but it is something he places most emphasis on.

The next day he returned to the studio with some of the puppets he uses in his work. He talked about their construction, the ideal way he has discovered to make the amateur, the materials used, how he tries to build in a unique movement into many of his characters. He also showed us production stills and clips to better understand the process of post-production. He answered my far too many questions about his work. And finally he looked at the work of some of the students and provided articulate and valuable feedback.

His frank and honest nature hid the through knowledge he has amassed about the animation process and animation industry over the last few decades. It was a pleasure to meet someone whose love for creating animation shows through their work.

55 years of Mainzelmännchen

Since the lauch of the Second German Television (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen – ZDF) in 1963, the Mainzelmännchen have appeared daily on German TV screens. Up until today, they have starred in more than 55,000 (!) episodes, each between 3–6 seconds long.

The Mainzelmännchen, which take their name from the channel’s headquarters in Mainz and the Heinzelmännchen tale about little house gnomes that do all the work of others during the night, appear at the beginning of TV ads as a law requires .

Over time they developed into six distinct characters: the lazy Anton, the industrious Berti (green shirt), the musical Conni (blue cap), the clever Det (glasses), the mischievous Edi and the athletic Fritzchen. Given that they have been on air since the early 1960s, the characters also saw a series of makeovers. While their initially melon-shaped heads that reminded me of a teenage version of Stewie Griffin from Family Guy have become rounder and rounder, they have kept their distinct hats. They seem to occupy a similar place in German society as the Cabbage Patch Kids did in the United States. Given that they have lasted for so long they have come to reflect the aspirations of each successive generation in Germany. I’m curious to see if and how the characters will develop further in the future and if they will continue to be drawn by hand as they still are today.




Expressions and Eggs

Danger & Eggs

On the heels of finishing the facial animation exercise I came across a series on amazon called ‘Danger and Eggs’. The show follows two protagonists, the hyperactive daughter of a local daredevil and a overly careful giant anthropomorphic egg. Their opposite personalities bring them naturally into conflict, through which their friendship endures.

Philip's Expressions
Philip’s Expressions

What sold this show for me was the unique expressions of Philip the egg. The character’s simple design is brought to life by his expressions. The big white shell of Philip becomes a canvas where his entire face shrinks and grows. In a subtler way these are almost reminiscent of ‘The Ren and Stimpy Show’, although this show pushed the boundaries of what is air-able on television a lot more and played more with body gestures and composition. You can tell that Danger and Eggs is made on a far more modest budget and made to be far more pallettable by larger audiences, in contrast the Ren and Stimpy masterpiece ‘Ren’s Invention’ took a year to produce. (Komorowski, 2013)

The show is still promising and its main characters are memorable, that I believe it is worth a watch.

  • Komorowski, T. (2013). Sick little monkeys: the unauthorized Ren & Stimpy Story. Albany, GA: BearManor Media.

Animated Documentaries

Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)
Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)

This is an extrapolation of the second chapter (Recording Reality: Documentary Film and Television) of ’Representation’, a 2013 book by Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon, as seen from an animation student’s perspective.

Initially the word Animated Documentary sounds like an oxymoron, how can animation which by definition is a doctored form of image-making, be used to create non-fictional texts (Bonner, 2013, p. 62). Further reading into the chapter gives us John Grierson’s definition as a ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (Hardy, 1979, p. 11), this clearly focuses on the creator’s hand in the process of documentary filmmaking. This is further explained as a three-step process – the first step is the event in the real world, then the record of it on film, and finally the incorporation of this film into a documentary (Bonner, 2013, p. 62-63). For animation the way the event is recorded becomes important to maintaining a truth claim in the film, this makes the sound and visualization crucial as it can function as a record for the event.

Let’s look at Nina Sabnani’s shorts ‘Mukund and Riaz’ and ‘Tanko Bole Chhe’ that I have discussed in an earlier post, because they maintain some level of truth claim to them. The first provides an account of the experience of the partition of South Asia retelling the experience of Nina’s Father Mukund Sabnani. The title of the film itself gives away the relation to real people. The soundtrack in the film uses a ‘voice-of-God’ narration, similar to what is discussed in Nichols’s definition of Expository Documentaries. Tanko Bole Chhe also has a narrated track but this seemingly comes from one of the people who experienced the event, while the visualization follows animated characters created from the craft community’s work.

Both films are enriched by the use of animation in their visuals, in the case of Mukund and Riaz the event is a painful one to recall for many South Asians with heated opinions in every direction, the use of animation provides distance to the viewer that a graphic photographic depiction would not have done. The use of found cloth and materials helps add another dimension to the materiality of the film while adding to its truth claim. In the case of Tanko Bole Chhe the use of textiles directly from the narrators of the story not only helps fill gaps in places where footage would have been impossible to obtain, it adds value to the artisan community’s craft. In both cases they avoid the problem Bonner puts forth about reenactments (Bonner, 2013, p. 77-78) because viewers clearly knows they don’t represent photographic reality.

Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)
Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)

An arguably better known animated documentary is the 2004 NFB film ‘Ryan’ which tries to relay the characters mental state through literal scars and distortions on their face and body. The film jumps to flashbacks of still images as they are narrated trying initially to relate to the humor tropes of ‘cartoony animation’, when the true nature of the interviewee who was once a successful animator is revealed in a violent outburst it feels all the more real. This film displays a thorough understanding and use of ‘style’ as explained by Bill Nicholas with each of the five points being employed to put forth the filmmaker’s view point. (Nicholas, 2013, p. 102)

Each of these examples use animation not only as a superfluous addition but to add depth to the story.

  • Hall, S., Evans J. and Nixon, S. (2013). Representation. London: Sage Publications, pp 60-119.

ENO: Satyagraha

We were fortunate to have been offered tickets to the dress rehearsal of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the English National Opera. Named after the movement for non-violent protest and self determination usually associated with Gandhi. The Opera talks about his time in South Africa and his formation of the movement based on Ubuntu philosophy, ending with a foreshadowing of Mandela who would take the helm in providing freedom in his country.

The grand performance was a sight to behold and it was nice to see figures who would have been hated by many in the same city a few decades ago taking center stage. What I enjoyed the most about the performance was the grand puppets that seemed to construct themselves throughout the performance. There were parts of the performance that were in Sanskrit which was interesting to hear, being the north Indian equivalent of what Latin is for many Europeans.

This performance however reminded me little of how Indians view the independence movement. For one, Gandhi’s reputation is far more grey in the country these days than how he is seen by outsiders. The far right in power at the moment accuses him of being a British sympathizer and the progressive left accuses him of upholding upper caste Hindu values and reducing the strength of the Dalit movements that formed early in the creation of the country. The opera seems to be bolstering both ideas, with its relating Gandhi’s search for fortitude to passages from the Bhagavad Gita that talk of Dharma, the basis for the Hindu caste structure, and on the other end showing him being protected and led to safety by the British superintendent’s wife.

The fact of the matter is near mythical figures such as Gandhi or Mandela are hard to touch without at least a few people raising eyebrows and Philip Glass’ composition was more than worth experiencing.

Animals in Animation

I came across a video by one of my favorite YouTube channels run by Animal Wonders, an educational outreach organization. The video talks about myths created by cartoons when bringing its animal characters to life.

The video goes on to talk about the harmful consequences of these actions, such as people assuming rabbits eat mostly carrots resulting in many getting sick due to improper diets. This simple video made me rethink the importance of being careful about the design and story decisions we, as animators, make even seemingly harmless ones.

Growing up as a child with a particular fascination for the weird and wonderful  creatures we share our world with. Birds of Paradise, Hoatzin, Boto and Przewalski horses, I was interested in animals that don’t often show up in common discourse as a child. I would enthusiastically explain what Lemurs were before movies like Madagascar (2005) popularized them. While movements like ‘Save the Tiger’ garnered huge interest in India while countless other species go extinct without so much of a notice. The unhealthy obsession with only a handful of animals leads to problems in perspective. For example the video below talks about how our consumption of primarily four fish is causing devastating effects on marine wildlife.

The discourse around representation of non-human animals in animation is nothing new. Adams argues Disney’s juvenile, anthropomorphized, animated NHAs blur the boundaries between fiction and reality and can easily be adjusted to convey desired meanings. The representation of NHAs is further problematized by racial, gender, and speciesist stereotypes which reflect a hegemonic white, hierarchical, anthropocentric patriarchy and organize the world according to a “sex-species system” (Adams, 2007, p. 203). Sebastian’s ‘Under the Sea’ in The Little Mermaid (1989) and its potent stereotypes of Jamaicans has been talked about in many a discourse.

I would also add to the conversation about the subtler effects the representation of NHAs in films also shapes stereotypes about species themselves, such as The Lion King (1994) propounding that Hyenas are conniving or that Meercats are solitary. Then there are more direct consequences, the Harry Potter franchise for example popularized the notion that Owls are intelligent, resulting in a boom in the owl trade industry. (Alexandra, 2017)

Animation comes with certain liberties like any other art form, but because it is a pervasive form of media and as such influences people’s perspectives of the world more and more. We need to be careful about the choices we as animators and storytellers make.

Leventi-PerezOana. (2011). "Disney's Portrayal of Nonhuman Animals in Animated Films Between 2000 and 2010" Thesis. Georgia State University, [online] Pg.64 Available at: https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1084&context=communication_theses [Accessed 15 Jan. 2018].