GOPO: The Portrait of the Artist as an Icon

8 July, 2021

Each new edition of the Gopo Awards brings together the top crop of the Romanian film industry, along with representatives of the celebrity world, who are trying their best to face the ceremony at their peak (in terms of outfits, hairstyles, and styling). Even when the event took place in an open-air setting, as was the case last year, the participants kept up with these requirements even as they were forced to wear a mask due to the sanitary rules imposed by the pandemic. Intensely cultivated by the promo strategy, the analogy with the Oscars continues to survive. Even in terms of interpreting the trophies’ etymology: for some, “a Gopo” is a little chubby and golden man, whose name is probably traced, as in the case of the shinier Oscar (according to legend which goes along the lines of “Oh, but he looks like my uncle Oscar!”), to some relative or another of the organizers.

Of course, most of them know that Gopo is the nickname of filmmaker Ion Popescu Gopo (1921-1989) and that he was the very first Romanian winner of a Palme d’Or award at Cannes, in 1957, with A Brief History. They also might know the “secret” of the pseudonym which the artist used at the beginning of his career in the field of caricature and graphics (formed from the first two syllables of his parents’ names, Gorenco and Popescu). It could be that many of them remember, alongside his Little Man animations, his non-conformist adaptations of Ion Creangă’s works in If I Were to Be Harap Alb or Maria Mirabela, films that were shot with actors, but which also featured animated sequences and illustrations. Even Gopo himself remembered that “by the time I started doing cartoons, I was already an established graphic artist in the field of the press”.

Even if some make passing reminders of the by-then future filmmaker’s collaborations with newspapers such as România liberă (Free Romania) or magazines such as Rampa, few commentators of Gopo’s oeuvre have seen his works from the Interbellum years and the ones created shortly after, as the only chance to see them is within the “Gopo Fund”, a study which was bought by the National Film Archive in 2001 from Anamaria Popescu, the filmmaker’s widow, who took care of the item’s conservation until the moment she turned it over to the Archive. For me, accessing the materials hosted in the six folders curated by the filmmaker (comprised of drawings, manuscripts, synopses, storyboards, sketches, cartoon comics, photographs, articles, all of them from various periods of his creation) was the first chance to discover certain unguessable dimensions to his work, his influences and the degree of his international recognition. I thought that I already knew the essentials about his works when I wrote a little monography of his in the series “The Centennial of Cinema”, initiated by professor George Littera at the Filmmakers’ Union (Gopo, 1996, Meridiane Publishing). But it was not until the new millennium that I grasped a precise image of his activity as a graphic and comic book artist, which started in 1938 in the pages of Realitatea ilustrată (Reality Illustrated). Some are clip-outs from the newspapers they had been published in, some were kept in their initial form, drawn on transfer paper, yet these materials do not reveal yet another striking personal line, and they’re not distinguishable from the era’s journalistic graphics (in the ‘30s and ‘40s). His caricatures approach regular subjects and are usually jokes about household conflicts or quotidian aspects of daily life, portraits of some universal moral departures. But his own personality starts to take shape in the cartoons where Gopo parodies (or borrows from) American cinema, which was very well-known, given his parodic treatment of some well-defined Hollywood genres. The author invents a character that he often reprises, Billy Boy, which descends from this influence, turning him into the protagonist of a series of weekly cartoons (with titles such as The Wedding of Billy Boy, Billy Boy the Philosopher, Billy Boy’s 18th Wife, Billy’s still Billy, and so on). Gopo thus learned the art of telling a story through images, taking his first steps toward cinematic storyboarding and towards the type of serialization which, in cinema, was to take the shape of his stories with the Little Man. Starting with 1947, he created the A Film per Week series for the Piţigoiul magazine (The Chickadee), with some of its more successful episodes being Caesar and Cleopatra, Emperor Absalom, The Wedding of Zamfira, The Morning Star, where he oftentimes makes use of the procedure of anachronism, which is much more charmingly reprised in the same short film series that made him famous. And the cartoon series titled The Gops Movietone Journal is a parodic retort to the Fox Movietone journals and is yet another testament to the fact that Gopo developed himself as a cinephile by watching a lot of American cinema.


From the third folder, we discover details regarding Gopo’s collaboration with the “Bufonul” (“The Buffoon”) magazine (issue no. 1, dating the 25th of September, 1942), where his father, Constantin Popescu, was an editor. Alongside his father, Gopo made his first steps towards cinema, when in a joint effort they created, under very DIY conditions, an 80-meter-long (ie – 2-minute long) film called Orache (Lobodă). In 1950, together with his father, but also with Matty Aslan, Gopo became the founder of the then-new animation department of the “Bucharest” Studio, when the communist-led government decided, following in the footsteps of the Soviet model, to offer consistent support to film production. In this entire context of modeling local cinema after the tenets of the Soviet one, which implied the selection of young Romanians who would go on to study in Moscow, Gopo was also sent to the city, at the “Soyuzmultfilm” studio, where he followed an intensive preparatory course in the field of animation.

Of course, the files in the “Gopo Fund” folders, which contain relevant pieces that reveal the day-to-day drawing exercises of the filmmaker, are a partial explanation for the very certain lines that the future animation director would put to good use. But the secret behind Gopo’s success also probably has to do with his permanent dissatisfaction with himself, with his periods of “reinvention” which also influenced his future evolution in cinema.

Gopo himself realized the limits of the “Disney-esque” style, having been impacted by the norms of realist socialism, which he had learned in Moscow (where animations were oftentimes traced after a real-life film shoot). His dissatisfaction accelerated his passage from this particular model to the graphical simplifications and narrative reforms in his Little Man series, starting with A Brief History and continuing with Seven Arts (1958), Homo sapiens (1960), Alo, Hallo! (1962). His lack of pride in his pre-1957 short films is very explicit in his ironic commentary from an article published in the 9/1988 issue of the Cinema magazine, where Gopo remembers his first film to have been “created in a studio that was specially equipped for animated films, where the following people were hired: my father, Pascal Rădulescu, Matty Aslan, Iulian Hermeneanu, Liviu Ghigorţ Silo, and Ramacher, was The Naughty Duckling. A story about a chick that doesn’t fit any discipline. What an idea!… The second film was The Bee and The Dove. An impossible friendship between an insect and a bird? The film fashioned itself as a message for peace. Was I really that intelligent? Two Bunnies, the first animated film in color! The story of the adventures of a positive bunny (a white baby rabbit) and a not-so-negative one (a grey baby rabbit). A Disney-esque period in full bloom: all’s drawn well and ends well. Lost time: The Mean Porcupine. Marinică. Marinică, aka the slacker. Theoreticians spent four weeks thinking if the archetypal slacker may change after receiving a moral, or if he may not change, because he’s the archetypal slacker!!!

It was a pleasure to see him work on his troubles – May we chastise the slacker! – and to criticize him until he straightened himself up! The conclusion? Neither one nor the other – Let him go down the drain! This is how the animated short ends. Marinică is flushed down the waters of the Dâmboviţa River… Marinică’s Screw was already a metaphor: the world seen through the eyes of a crooked screw. The first signs of directorial optics appear, whereby I discover that simply knowing how to draw is not enough. A French critic wrote: Marinică’s Screw, a prehistoric film! He was right. All of our efforts to catch up with Disney were futile.” (Cinema, issue no. 9, 1988)

Gopo with Disney

His self-evaluation of his first phase of creation, which criticizes especially the Manichaeism he had learned from the dogma of socialist realism, shows that Gopo was capable of expressively depicting the faults of his first films, which featured a heavily highlighted moral and were affected by the very “collectivistic” optics of the 1950s. But the filmmaker is also lucidly evaluating his first short films that featured human characters, the Marinică series, which was inspired by H. Mălineanu’s pop song about the factory “slacker” after whom the series was named. Gopo isn’t exaggerating when he identifies the first signs of his vocation as a director in Marinică’s Screw (1954). Truly, the story of the defective anthropomorphic screw, which limps and sets various catastrophes into motion, is well-dosed from a narrative standpoint and has self-reflexive elements (the hand of the artist appears in the film, as it’s drawing the character), thus offering an encouraging dose of modernity. So, Gopo’s conclusion in his reevaluation of his early years, regarding the impossibility of competing with Disney and thus the need to search for another way to approach animation, makes sense. In an interview he gave to me in 1983, he had a more detailed explanation: “In my first animated cartoons, I was trying to imitate Disney. When I realized that I couldn’t equal his technical perfection, I started to make anti-Disney films. So, no beauty, no colors, no tenderness. (…) I invented a character that didn’t excel through its beauty, nor through its complex movement. I made a little man with a great economy of lines. His eyes are two dots, he can’t roll them over and he also can’t throw a gallant look. I benevolently reduced my own possibilities. His mouth is almost immobile. I didn’t use facial expressions. The subject, however, then gained in power. The amount of attention directed towards the substance was greater.” (Cinema, 1983, p.26-28).

This “power of the subject” was appraised by the jury which offered him the Palme d’Or at Cannes, during its 1957 edition (which he could not attend, despite what some local writers claim). But then came the legendary festival of 1958, where he was integrated with the group of the world’s most highly respected animation directors, led by “the king of experiment”, Norman McLaren, and other famed “anti-Disneyans”, such as Alexandre Alexeieff, Dusan Vukotič, Richard Williams, Peter Foldes, Bruno Bozzetto, Bob Balser and others. These directors went on, two years later, to found the ASIFA (The International Association of Animation Film), which was launched on the occasion of the very first edition of the Annecy International Film Festival, which is, to this day, the most important international competition in the field of animation. A photo that presents the founders, sitting at the edge of the Annecy Lake, also shows Gopo amongst their milieu, the tallest man in the last row. A relevant feature of Gopo’s biography consists in the fact that he was liked both by the “anti-Disneyans” but also by Walt Disney himself, whom he visited at his Burbank studio in 1962, and who wanted to hire the Romanian director as a screenwriter. (See the photos that mark the foundation of the ASIFA and the one with Disney)

ASIFA Founders

Because Ion Popescu Gopo’s filmography after A Brief History expanded with a number of films that continued the cosmic and terrestrial adventures of the little man with an elongated head and a rubicund figure: The Seven Arts (1958), Homo Sapiens (1960), and Alo, Hallo! (1962), which won the top awards of international festivals such as the ones in Tours, Karlovy Vary, and San Francisco, Gopo was elected the vice-president of the ASIFA, its president at the time being Norman McLaren. This important position held by the Romanian director, especially within the international (and “anti-Disneyan”) community, had a positive impact upon the evolution of Romanian animation films, influencing the foundation of the specialized “Animafilm” Studio (in 1964) and of the Mamaia International Film Festival (in 1966). To avoid accusations of overstating Gopo’s merits, here I will cite the work of researcher Anne Jäckel, who dedicated an important study to the relations between Romanian and French cinema, “France and Romanian Cinema 1896-1999”, published in issue no. 11/2000 of the French Cultural Studies journal (p.409-424). She writes: “In 1957 Popescu-Gopo brought Romanian cinema to the world’s attention when his short A Brief History won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The little man he created – an unconventional hero with a long rectangular face and a naked body – had a character and a style of his own. Walking around with a permanent smile on his face he seemed to condemn mankind to eternal optimism; «the little man with a flower» could alternately be tender and grotesque, poetic and philosophical, generous and cruel. Following the international success of Popescu Gopo’s little man, a school of animation was created in Romania. It led to the foundation in 1964 of Animafilm, Romania’s famous animation studio, and the creation, two years later, of the Mamaia Animation Festival, where the world was able to admire technical creativity and ingenuity. The studio went to develop animation series in the 1970s and its annual production increased to over sixty films in the 1980s.”

Cinema Magazine, June 1966

Throughout Mamaia’s three editions (from 1966, 1968, and 1970), various personalities from the international elite were there to present their films or to serve as members of its jury, amongst them John Halas (England), Ivan Ivanov-Vano (Russia), Todor Dinov (Bulgaria), Jiri Bredčka (Czechoslovakia), Michel Ocelot (France), Raoul Servais (Belgium), Bruno Bozzetto (Italy), Yoji Kuri (Japan), Chuck Jones (USA), Daniel Szechura (Poland), Ante Zaninoviċ and Borivoj Dovnikoviċ (Yugoslavia), Attila Dargay (Hungary) and others. The Mamaia Festival alternated with the one in Annecy: the Romanian festival taking place in years ending in even numbers, the French one in uneven years. An apt explanation for this is offered in a piece written by Pierre Barbin, the Secretary-General of the ASIFA, in the first number of Cinema magazine’s special issue dedicated to Mamaia’s first edition: “In 1956, when animation film creators from all over the world met in Cannes, on the occasion of the International Day of Animation Film, they (nor anybody else, for that matter) couldn’t have guessed that this first spark would light the fire which we are witnessing in the present. But, in 1960, when Annecy opened the doors of its first Festival, nobody could have doubted that something was changing in this hitherto neglected corner of cinematography and that those who had until then been relegated to a clandestine existence would now achieve – all of them, together – great things. Ever since, this veritable Renaissance hasn’t ceased to capture the attention of amateurs and to elicit the attention of the audience. To a degree to which Annecy, left by itself, could not face the entire activity of animation film on its own. By opting to host the festival once every two years, Annecy was thus launching an invitation towards another center that would keep the torch alight.

The fact that Romania was the one to receive this torch and that, starting tomorrow, Mamaia will be the new center of attraction for those that have animation film as their very raison d’etre, as well as their most significant method of expressing themselves cinematically, is a great joy for us.”

Judging by the titles retained in the three editions’ award records, the positive influence of Animafilm’s increasingly ambitious output, as well as the sheer originality of the ideas expressed within the context of the festival, expectations were truly met. The bilingual magazines that were published during the festival contained interviews with important personalities, manifesto-texts, and theoretical platforms. The duel of ideas regarding the specificities of animation, its relationship to the other arts, its aesthetic and industrial perspectives were illustrated through many interventions that were published in those special editions of the Cinema magazine, written by prestigious critics such as D. I. Suchianu and Eva Sîrbu, along with writers such as Nina Cassian, Marin Sorescu or historian and literary critic Ovidiu S. Crohmălniceanu.

In the issue for the 1966 edition of the festival, Gopo published a text that proposed a new reform in the field of animation, or at least within his work: the “pill-film”. Presented outside of the competition, “pills” such as The Scale, The Rain, The Shoe, A Job Well-Done or The Pitcher were small parables that contained clear meanings, in which Gopo virtuously demonstrated the concentrated expressivity of animation, which, in short films, had the power of communicating big thoughts. Published in the fifth number of the Cinema magazine’s 1966 special edition, the text is titled precisely “Pill-films”, and claims that this type of instantaneous communication, in short films that were one-minute-long, “could renew animation films, without threatening normal productions in any kind of way; could promote the specifics of drawn art; could offer an answer to the question: is it an idea-film or a film-without-an-idea?”

Cinema Magazine, June 1966

Unfortunately, this privileged moment of Romanian animation didn’t last for long. It’s possible that the impressive financial means that were put at the organizers’ disposal were also an effect of the political strategies behind the political “thaw” of the era, which was unfortunately short-lived, and which had also led to the foundation of the Animafilm Studio. The festival didn’t survive past its 1970 edition and was one of the victims of the 1971 Ideological Plenary Meeting of the Romanian Communist Party, which signaled the unfortunate role of “cosmopolitan influences” and thus hardened its controlling grip over film production in general. The Mamaia Festival tried to survive through one of Ion Popescu Gopo’s “strategies” (as he confessed to me off the record during our interview in 1980, since we could not publish the full truth back then). He led a negotiation with Zagreb Film in which he conceded them the international license of the Mamaia Film Festival, in the hopes that things would change for the better in his home country and that the competition will, one day, return to the shores of the Black Sea. Unfortunately, this was not possible, and starting with 1972, the Zagreb International Film Festival took Mamaia’s place and functioned in an alternative tandem with the one in Annecy.

The ones in Zagreb, however, did not forget Gopo’s gesture and remained thankful to him beyond his untimely and unexpected death (on the 29th of November 1989). While after 1990, Romania was gripped by the chaotic reorganization of its cinematography and was brandishing so-called “blacklists” compiled by those who wanted to occupy the key spots in the newly emerging institutional hierarchies, and so Gopo was also made to look like a “dalmatian” (as he was the president of the Filmmakers’ Association when he passed away), the Zagreb Film Festival wanted to honor him. Director Borivoj Dovnikovič, who led the festival in 1990, invited me to that year’s edition and asked me to write a text about Gopo for their catalog and to bring along one of his films in order to screen it. Thus, I crossed the border for the first time after the Revolution, with A Brief History in my arms, on a June day. The emotional commemoration in Zagreb was a sort of “poetic justice”, which is rather known by those in the international animation community.

Barca – The boat (1987)

Unfortunately, much too little is known about Gopo in Romania, and I also believe that he is a victim of the “rhetoric of frivolity” which is applied – and, regrettably, even by most critics – to the field of animation, which is considered as just entertainment for children. This is contradicted precisely by Gopo’s films, fragments of which are used in the presentation of the yearly awards that bear his name. Some of the shorts used are part of his experimental series that began in 1979, which I consider to be the maestro’s answer to the radical innovations brought upon by the young filmmakers who were part of the so-called Eighties Generation (Zoltan Szilagyi, Nicolae Alexi, Radu Igazsag, Zeno Bogdănescu, Ştefan Anastasiu, Olimpiu Bandalac, and others). One should see in full the films that are consistently cited at the gala, films belonging to a new period influenced by experimentalist upsurges in animation, when, abandoning his Little Man cartoons, Gopo sought courageous techniques in films such as And Yet It Moves (1980), Frame by Frame (1980), Animagicfilm (1981), You (1983), The Apprentice Wizard (1985).

There is much that should be done to redeem the oeuvre of this very important, yet superficially known filmmaker. Until a coherent strategy is elaborated, with both institutions and individuals fully involved in such a process, I would conclude by citing Victor Iliu, who characterized him thusly: “Gopo is a grand artist, not only because he produces art out of almost nothing, or for gathering international awards… He is an artist who has a sense of contemporaneity in the most profound sense of the term. He has an exact intuition for the directions and lines onto which the human spirit moves, he senses the themes of contemporary thinking, the mark of their disquiet, of the interrogations of people living in our age.” (Fascinaţia cinematografului / The Fascination of Cinema, Meridiane Publishing, 1973)

Dana Duma is a film critic and a scholar, currently teaching at the National University of Theatre and Film in Bucharest. Member of FIPRESCI and of the Romanian Film Critics Association, she is a regular contributor to mainstream and specialized film press in Romania and abroad and a frequent member of international festival juries. Director of “Film” magazine, she also published the books Self portraits of Cinema-1983, Gopo-1996, Benjamin Fondane cineaste-2010, Woody Allen,a Bufoon and a Philosopher-2005, The History of Romanian Animation 1920-2020 and Filmmakers in the Digital Era (both in 2020).