Composing Reality: The 2014 Ottawa International Animation Festival

Seth’s Dominion, dir. Luc Chamberland, 2014 / © 2014 National Film Board of Canada

By Patrick Mullen

How does one compose reality? A camera does the trick just fine in most documentaries and dramatic re-enactments might find a kind of truth in a meta-documentary like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. Some docs, however, literally compose the truth as if it were a drawing. These animated documentaries, ani-docs for short, blur the line between truth and fiction to great effect as creative genius finds an original vision with which to tell the truth.

Two animated documentaries that recently premiered at the 2014 Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF) showcase diverse facets of animation in documentary form. OIAF, the largest film event in the national capital and, indeed, animation festival in North America, offers an eclectic range of programming for casual filmgoers, serious animation fans, and industry types alike. The range of impressive work highlights everyone from independents to Disney (which screened its excellent new short film Feast), yet the two documentaries in the feature competition, Truth has Fallen and Seth’s Dominion, display the full range of ingenuity one may find at Ottawa’s most popular film festival.

“Truth Has Fallen” short trailer with director from Sheila M. Sofian on Vimeo.

Truth has Fallen, an American film directed by Sheila Sofian, and Seth’s Dominion, a National Film Board of Canada production directed by Luc Chamberland, share truly innovative approaches to capturing an essence of truth unique to documentaries and animated films alike. Both films mix live action footage with animation, but they interact with the forms in different ways that best serve their subjects. Truth has Fallen, for example, interrogates the American penal system by taking aim at wrongful convictions for inmates on Death Row. The film features animated sequences that accompany audio interviews from three inmates as well as experts in the field crusading for change. Seth’s Dominion, on the other hand, offers on-camera interviews with Canadian cartoonist Seth (he keeps his last name a secret!), which are intercut with original animated sequences. Animation, in both cases, draws out various complexities highlighted in the interviews.

Truth has Fallen makes striking use of animation to fill the screen and convey a sense of absence. Sofian interviews three wrongfully convicted persons—Eddie Baker, Joyce Anne Brown, and Jimmy Landano—who recall their experiences facing a trial in which false eyewitness testimony and misguided evidence and prosecution landed them in prison. The animation, which acts as the visual presence for the subjects until the end credits, stresses the removal from which the subjects speak to the interviewer: they are not present in society, they are not able to reveal themselves, and they are not permitted to be present in their own story.

The melancholy feelings evoked in the animation, which Sofian offers in sombre neutral hues, serves to further the testimony of the subjects: there simply does not exist any factual evidence with which the director may complement the story. The animation reveals the fabrication of the stories that put the subjects in prison. Animation serves as a substitute for the subject’s own record of the truth in the absence of the proof that brought guilty verdicts against them. Truth is Fallen thus shows creative licence as both a dangerous weapon and a tool for freedom.

Seth’s Dominion, which unanimously won the OIAF jury prize for feature animation, favours the latter argument that animation serves as a tool for creative freedom. Chamberland’s alternatively hilarious and moving documentary invites audiences into both the world and mind of its subject using animated interludes dispersed throughout Seth’s story. “I actually think it’s better for portraying interior life,” Seth says as he reflects upon his cartoon alter ego’s ability to reflect and comment upon everyday life. The interviews, shot with Chamberland from 2006 to 2013, offer effective springboards for exploring both the man and his work. Seth, an offbeat and instantly likeable character who looks a bit like Steve Buscemi meets James Joyce, opens himself up to the audience with the same candour and personable charm of his cartoons. Seth’s Dominion thus remains faithful to its subject by favouring a reality composed of cartoonish worlds and figures.

The animation also serves a practical purpose of providing audiences a greater sense of the work by this prolific artist. Still images of Seth’s work show the wonderful insight and quirky characters that make his illustrations so popular, but the sequences, which are unique to the film (note the NFB copyrights at the bottom of the screen!) bring Seth’s cartoons cinematically to life. The doc serves as both homage and an extension of his work. The sequences similarly provide visual complements in the vein of Truth has Fallen, although Seth’s Dominion lets the animation enjoy a meditative quality as Seth’s narration leads cartoon forays into his innermost thoughts.

Seth’s Dominion, dir. Luc Chamberland, 2014 / © 2014 National Film Board of Canada

“A memory is like a photograph of a sensation,” Seth says. Seth’s Dominion lets the visual power of the image convey moods, feelings and emotions, and offer intuitive access points to which the audience may relate. The elegiac palette of Seth’s Dominion offers a grey-blue rendering of Seth’s imaginary world that follows his own outlook on the creative process: “Memory is like a blueprint,” he says, “and composing a panel is like composing a blueprint.”

Seth’s metaphor for seeing a cartoon panel as a blueprint with which one may compose a memory perfectly captures the function of animation in both Truth has Fallen and Seth’s Dominion. Whether animation works as a corrective to faulty memory in one or as a complement to creative memory in the other, the schematic role of drawing a life like a blueprint allows for various angles of life to enter and support the film like girders and panels of a building. The compositions of Truth has Fallen, for example, contrast strongly with the overwrought dramatic re-enactments and cutaways that Sofian peppers throughout the film. Fists pound, gavels bang, and jurors scowl, yet these real-life images convey the heavy-handed overzealousness that drives wrongful convictions. Alternatively, the animation offers a more coherent schematic for the truth. Seth’s Dominion, on the other hand, layers live action and animation fluidly, like a contemporary piece of architecture that fuses new-age steel and track lighting with exposed brick and reclaimed wood. Each piece of the design serves a function and comes together in harmony.

The juxtapositions of life and art let the fictional element of animation play like a greater reality than the lived images captured on film. Animation serves as both the form and the content of either film. The fabrications of truth in Truth has Fallen underscores the fallacy of a penal system that permits capital punishment when truth is as subjective and malleable as a cartoon, and Seth’s Dominion revels in the emotional and cathartic freedom afforded by the creative mind and the escapist wonder of animation. These two playful yet provocative ani-docs take both animation and documentary form to new heights.

For more on live-action/animated hybrid documentaries, read about cows on the lam in The Wanted 18, which premiered at TIFF 2014.