Animest: The Penelopes from Animafilm

14 October, 2021

To the extent that one can talk about a Romanian animation school (which was pioneered by Gopo), one might find it hard to argue the existence of a Romanian female animation school. Which makes Animest’s initiative even more commendable as they set to organize two screenings in their dedicated section Women in Animation, showcasing Romanian animation by women directors before and after 1989.

In “The History of Romanian Animated Film”, Dana Duma (who is also featured in the credits of one of the short films in the set) dedicates to the female authors of preDecembrist Romanian animation only a short chapter (whose title, Women in Animation, seems to have inspired the title of the Animest section). In this chapter, there are mentioned, in order, some of the important female authors in animation, as well as their films. But what can be noticed when watching this short film set is precisely its heterogeneity (and the fact that a more, shall we say, holistic approach would not suit the subject of Romanian female animation before 1989). There’s no sign that Animafilm ever had a female artistic collective with similar concepts and approaches on animation (or if so, it’s not something that transpires from these short films). Moreover, even the generational binders that link the authors of the short films in the set are much less visible than the huge differences in style and content that emerge from one film to another. Thus, instead of reviewing the films in the set as part of a whole, a better approach would be to take them one at a time and say a few words about each.

First of all, it should be said from the very beginning that, judging by the short films in the set, the female animation in preDecembrist Romania does not seem to be a feminist animation. Here, however, there is one exception: the 1976 short film by Luminița Cazacu, Condiția Penelopei. Condiția Penelopei is the first of what would be a 10-episode series starring Penelope, a character Cazacu borrowed from Homer’s Odyssey and reinterpreted. The feminist subtext of the film comes mainly from the message of the monologue narrated by Toma Caragiu, which begins by reminding us that Penelope is “the symbol of the patient and faithful woman, who waited twenty years for her man to return from the war”. Throughout the film, the narrator makes all sorts of statements and observations, that are obviously misogynistic, about the differences between the sexes, which comes down to the fact that the man’s role is to undertake great acts, whereas the woman’s role is to stay in the kitchen. Without a doubt, Caragiu’s monologue is a tongue-in-cheek one – what the film actually says is rather in the vein of the old adage “behind every great man”. The problem is that the jump from “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” to “behind every great man there is a great woman” is not a significant one, especially since the only small moments of glory reserved for Penelope are still rather passive – such as being the muse for the Ionic column sculpted by Ulysses. And, insofar as the film subtly mocks the different societal expectations of the two sexes (we have, for example, an exhausted Penelope, juggling between taking care of the child, household chores and rescuing Ulysses as he is messing around), it rather shows an amused and resigned attitude – the short film ends with Ulysses and Penelope holding a globe in their arms and with the same Caragiu throwing a “here we are together as equals”. Obviously, the feminist subtext of the film is by no means subtle. But its irony is still timid enough not to be perceived as such by some spectators. As proof, here’s a comment on the Youtube page of the short film, which says, nostalgically, this much: “at a time when there was no political correctness”.

Still from Condiția Penelopei

Condiția Penelopei is not the only short film by Luminița Cazacu showcased in the Animest set: ten years after its release, Reprezentația/The Performance comes out, which would, in turn, become the first in an 8-episode series called Pin Pin’s Adventures. However, The Performance is not as interesting as Condiția Penelopei. The former lacks the visual humor and ingenuity of the latter, but that’s because, unlike Condiția Penelopei, The Performance is mainly intended for younger children. Still, one of the interesting things about The Performance is that real footage is combined with animation: the film begins with some shots filled with candor, of a penguin waddling and some children watching it, their faces filled with excitement. Truth be told, there’s not much difference between the penguin shots in The Performance and the various penguin videos flooding the social media: if there’s one lesson to be taken from this short film, it’s probably that people’s fascination and fondness for penguins remains the same regardless of the video media on which they are captured. And, fortunately, the animated equivalent of Pin Pin is cute enough (Valeria Ogășanu’s voice is also worth noting here), if not as cute as its real version, to make the entire short film an enjoyable experience.

Still from Reprezentația

It’s not just Luminița Cazacu who found her inspiration in ancient Greece: if she reinterprets Homer’s Penelope in her respective series, visual artist Geta Brătescu has Aesop as protagonist in her 1967 short film; but the similarities between the two pretty much stop here. The earliest short film presented in the set, Plimbarea lui Esop/Aesop Takes a Walk is one of the two titles born from Geta Brătescu’s affair with animation. The film, with no dialogue or commentary, follows Greek fabulist Aesop in various encounters he has on his way, from which he walks away invariably wiser and just as clever. As for the characters that cross Aesop’s path, they have something fantastic and mysterious, typical of the fairy tale rather than the fable. They are essentialized by Brătescu’s visual style, becoming almost simple geometric shapes, monochrome, but particularly expressive.

Still from Plimbare cu Esop

By comparison, Adela Crăciunoiu, Clemansa Sion and Anca Florea’s animations in Mozaic 4 (1986), with their caricature style, are much more elaborate, but just as expressive. Mosaic 4 consists, as the title suggests, of four very short episodes, built on the “unexpected turn” model typical of jokes. But there’s a seriousness, theme-wise, and a humor to Mosaic 4 that makes the short films rather suitable for adults (or at least for older children). The Animest set features two short films that are more designed for younger spectators: Liana Petruțiu’s Cartea cu guturai/The Book that Caught a Cold (1987) and Plimbare în lună/Taking a Walk on the Moon (1988). They are both made in Petruțiu’s own detailed drawing style, which doesn’t resemble any of the other animated shorts in the set. The Book that Caught a Cold also combines real footage scenes with animated ones; here, the blend between the two is made organically, as Petruțiu draws directly on the footage in some of the beginning shots of the film. However, these eye-catching experiments are too little explored in Petruțiu’s short film. As for Taking a Walk on the Moon, its narrative stands in a rather gray area: it’s a little too mature for a young audience (despite the funny rhyming monologue) and at the same time too childish for a preadolescent audience. But the short film that is probably the most childlike of all is the lovely Frânele nu fac minuni (1984), whose rather dull lesson (dear children, pay attention to where you cross the street!) is sweetened by the adorable characters and absurdly violent situations they end up in, while the other characters burst out into a song, like in a musical.

Still, it should be pointed out that the experiments of Romanian female animators were not limited to classical animation. In her film Fetița de turtă dulce/The Gingerbread Girl (1974), Tatiana Apahideanu shows an interest in textures and their three-dimensionality: the protagonist is made of dough, which leads to a memorable moment when, going out in the rain after her friend, a boy made of metal, she melts under the raindrops. And the other objects and decorations made of cakes and other stuff created by Apahideanu are also impressive. Another important director, Isabela Petrașincu, has two films in the Animest set, each using different resources for animation: Parada cifrelor/Figures Parade (1974), a spirited short film made of cut cardboard, and the rather stimulating Poveste cu gheme de lână/ Balls of Wool Story (1987). In the latter, Petrașincu offers her characters some sort of self-awareness – after they fail to escape a villain who repeatedly scares them, the woolen characters carefully made by Petrașincu decide to pull at a thread and unravel him. Which is exactly what they’ll do.

It doesn’t take a lot of arguments to prove that this program was necessary: the “100 years of Romanian animation” retrospective from the previous edition of Animest showcased over 20 animated films and only two of them were signed by women. Like Luminița Cazacu’s Penelope, the female authors of preDecembrist Romanian animation were rather in the shadow of male filmmakers, despite their talent, ingenuity and even the international praise that some of them enjoyed. Still, the one thing that all these films have in common, from Geta Brătescu’s Aesop Takes a Walk to Isabela Petrașincu’s Balls of Wool Story, is that formal freedom inherent in animation, which extends to the content too, in some cases. Many of the most memorable moments in these short films do not follow any logic of immediate reality. The logic of these moments is rather dream-like: it’s about visual associations that look good and are technically spectacular; and that’s enough for them. The preDecembrist Romanian animation by women directors, slipping as if, like Penelope, under the radar and at the same time being a little less ideologically restricted than the rest of the cinematographic production, indulged this way in a freedom of form and content that many of today’s animations lack and which transpires, as we can well see, even half a century later, like a breath of fresh air.

He studied directing at UNATC, where he wrote articles for Film Menu. He also wrote his degree paper on D.A. Pennebaker’s early filmography. He is interested in analog photography and video art. He hopes for a Criterion release of Shrek 2. He makes movies.