From “The Red House,” one of five animated shorts
From “The Red House,” one of five animated shorts

Visuals at forefront of powerfully told animated stories

It is by now widely understood that film animation is not only an art to delight children. Adult films, such as the Israeli feature-length “Waltz With Bashir,” about the Lebanon war, have used animation and other visual effects to allow audiences to approach subjects of almost unbearable emotional intensity. Such is the case with the program of animated short films offered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Adolf Eichmann, for example. How, one might ask, could the well-known story of the Mossad’s hunt for the infamous Nazi, living in disguise in Argentina, be bettered by an animated retelling? Set in Argentina in 1960, Randall Christopher’s “The Driver Is Red” draws you into the drama with three elements: the first-person narrative of Mossad agent Zvi Aharoni, a Holocaust survivor (performed by actor Mark Pinter), paired with sketches that draw the action as it unfolds in his telling, and a moody original score by Spencer Rabin. The rough urgency of the black-and-white drawings and inherent drama of a secret agent single-mindedly focused on bringing Eichmann to justice make for a riveting 15-minute historic account that is in no way trivialized by the medium.

“Five Years After the War,” from France, also uses imaginative visuals to enhance a first-person narrative. In this case, the narrator, Tim, recounts his quest to reconcile his identity as the son of a French Jewish mother and an Iraqi non-Jewish father who had to flee “an angry-as-fuck dictator, an Arab version of Hitler.” Director Samuel Albaric grounds the film in an interview with Tim, who happens to be his cousin. Tim’s voiceover is dramatized by full-color animation that realistically captures his mannerisms, movements and the Parisian environment, alternating with more freeflowing animations of the fantasies he nursed as he was growing up.

“You have no father,” Tim begins. No photos, no contact, no memories. Instead, he identified with superheroes who experienced that same paternal absence: Batman, Spiderman, Harry Potter. “My life’s the same — minus the superpowers,” he says.

Unable to negotiate his mixed identity in a France where Jews were a subculture to which he had little access, while Arabs were “not much loved by the French,” Tim describes himself as an aimless, melancholy youth, formed of absence, longing and ignorance.

The film flashes back to a time when Tim finally arranges to meet his father, and his cousin goes along to film the encounter. This segment is in live action: It would seem the director decided to present this emotional scene without an artistic filter, and though it is a jarring mood change, it works.

In “The Red House,” the central character is not a human being but a large red brick building in Tel Aviv. The film opens with voices describing it variously as “beautiful and saturated with memories,” or “an avante-garde place for workers, dreamers and pioneers.” It was “like a Polish mirage in the Sahara desert,” says another Israeli. “Hot in summer, cold in winter … everyone wanted to be there.”

In fact the building was a replica of a textile factory in Lodz, built in 1924 by four Zionists who had immigrated to Palestine from the industrial Polish city. It was intended to be a hosiery and underwear factory, says Tel Aviv scholar Chula Widrich. “Apparently that’s what the land of Israel was missing.”

But Israel was hot, socks were not so needed, and the factory lost money and closed. Tel Aviv grew up around the building, which was increasingly an eyesore. In 1935 it was “moved to other sands — the suburb of Holon,” says Widrich.

Over the next few decades, requests to utilize the building as a movie house, tobacco warehouse, wedding hall and many other uses were denied by the Tel Aviv municipality, until finally, in 1960, a request to convert it into a synagogue was approved. It was not a pretty synagogue, but it served the community.

By the late 1980s, the building had once again fallen into disrepair. Photographer Eitan Hillel leased the top floor and persuaded artist Sergio Edelsztein to open a gallery in the space. As soon as it became an art venue, the Red House had panache. Hundreds showed up at the gallery’s opening, Hillel recalls, including “Tel Aviv high society, in limousines.”

For several years, the Red House was a magnet for working artists, including Assem Abu Shakra, an Israeli Arab who worked furiously for several years and became very well known. “His entire body of work was created in that studio,” Hillel said.

Through all these accounts, the 21-minute film flows seamlessly between live action, animation and combinations of the two, layering shadowy drawings of past inhabitants under present-day photography, like ghosts.

“Triptych,” the shortest in the program at eight minutes, is the most “art school” of the group, with only a few spoken words punctuating a suggestive assembly of sounds and images. The subject is universal: the problem of how to process time — past, present and future. In director/animator Katia Lom’s story, a daughter reflects on her late father and the memories they shared as she clears the possessions from his home. Layered images of mementos, photographs, and drawings, accentuated by a psychologically resonant soundtrack, build to a profound expression of the feelings that accompany the death of a loved one. It is so poignantly evoked that I honestly have no words to match it.

The fifth film, “A Thousand Kisses,” was not available for review at press time.

“Jews in Shorts: Animation,” 12:15 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Piedmont, Oakland.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.