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The rise of the Croatian animated puppet

Imbued Life - Directed by: Ivana Bošnjak, Thomas Johnson
Imbued Life – Directed by: Ivana Bošnjak, Thomas Johnson

However unfathomable it may sound, there were almost as many Croatian puppet films made in the last year as there had been in the past century.

Although there were more films made in 2018, last year was, without doubt, a very successful one for Croatian animation. About ten exciting and excellent productions were made, getting great reactions on national and world festivals alike, delighting audiences and even, more specifically, many juries around the world. It was a year of great variety, in terms of the aesthetics and experimentations as well as directorial approaches, with added refinement to all animation techniques.

Particularly popular were puppets in stop-motion, with three successful titles made, similar in topic, yet quite different in their genesis: Imbued Life (Udahnut život, 12’, Bonobostudio) by Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson, Misplaced Memories (Zagubljena sjećanja, 6’, ADU/Zagreb film) by Ivana Radić, and The Unusual Bath of Mister Otmar (Neobična kupka gospodina Otmara, 15’, Croatian Association of Digital Artists – HUDU/ Psychiatric Hospital Vrapče, Croatian Association for Psychosocial Help) by Niko Radas.

Furthermore, as yet another evidence of the value of the stop-motion puppet film form, Croatian Film Association published a book titled The Cinema Puppet with support from Croatian Film Directors’ Guild. It was written by author and film theorist Midhat Ajanović, and it traces the history of world puppet animation in all segments of its development.

Starting from the earliest beginnings, dating back to the 17th and 18th century mechanical puppets, Ajanović’s research is all-encompassing, from the stop-motion films made by the British filmmaker and the pioneer of animation, Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, all the way to contemporary filmmakers such as Henry Selick and Nick Park. Ajanović discusses important segments in the manufacturing process of dolls, and their acting, also touching upon animated films in general. He does not neglect to mention Croatian authors as well, particularly the puppet animation scene which appeared and blossomed in the past ten years, before becoming one of the most prominent fields in Croatian animation.

Amid the few names mentioned in the book, of people who have left their mark on the film puppetry scene, are—much deservedly—Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson, a directing-animation couple behind some of the most successful puppet films in Croatian cinema to date. There was Simulacra (Bonobostudio) in 2014, a film where labyrinthine mirror hallways are traversed in search of a story, delivered from the point of view of a young man looking for his beginning and his end of ends. The filmmaking duo returned with Imbued Life in 2019. Keeping to the same aesthetics, and with the same opulent sensibility for scenographic details, they elevated their already fine animation and embarked on a forest journey and a story about a young woman’s connection to the nature’s life energy. The return of taxidermal animals into their natural habitat, coupled with surreal moments reflecting the internal state of the protagonist, mesh together in a brooding film which has been acknowledged by many festival selection committees as well as festival juries around the world.

The forestial environment is also the setting in Ivana Radić’s surreal and horror-imbued Misplaced Memories, which was produced as a graduate student film. The filmmaker places her protagonist in a cabin in the woods, far from the real world, to make him face his violent, wild nature, and to show that even rabbits can be brutal and not-at-all the plant-eating creatures we know them to be. The protagonist is well-designed and it is impressive how well it executed the acting specific to roles riddled with mental health issues. Even if a bit confusing and, at its essence, not entirely clear in its intent, Misplaced Memories truly is a memorable puppet animation that keep the suspense going until the very end.

Another remarkable, noteworthy film of puppets, with a very unique origin, is The Unusual Bath of Mister Otmar by filmmaker and art therapist Niko Radas. It is a story about Mister Otmar who is taken to court because he simply does not conform to the imposed social norms, after which he is sent to a psychiatric institution where he should ‘collect his marbles’ and come to a socially acceptable lifestyle. Somewhere in between the protagonist’s defiance to the greying surroundings and his conflict with a society that does not tolerate colours, there is a subtle love story to be told. It motivates and inspires a sense of hope in the individual, with ever clearer possibility to be everything he wants to be, plans to be, and can be, without being fettered and dismissed by other people’s hardened beliefs. The film was made with the patients at the Psychiatric Hospital Vrapče as part of an art therapy workshop, and it was inspired by Otmar P, a fascinating patient at the Hospital, and his texts about the society of that time which were published in the hospital, patient-run magazine Vrapčanska Koreja in the 1950’s.

And as for the previous century, it is worth noting that a total of four puppet films were made; there at the end of the 1950’s and the beginning of the 1960’s, and one in mid-90’s, and that was more or less all there was, where films done in such technique are concerned, until the start of the 21st century. In other words, there were almost as many puppet films made last year as in the previous century as a whole. It may seem unbelievable, but our renowned Zagreb School of Animated Films has always been focused on hand-drawn animation. The reason for this is not necessarily because the filmmakers did not want to try out the technique or because the traditionally hand-drawn films of reduced animation became a staple of Croatian animation. It was rather technological in nature. Still, even today, when the equipment necessary for making such a film is made readily available, filmmakers need more experience and they need to connect more before they can use it well. If anything, these past ten years are a proof of that.


Božidar Trkulja

Božidar Trkulja

Božidar Trkulja (1975.), završio je Školu za tekstil, kožu i dizajn, studirao je teologiju na KBF-u, a od 1997. radi kao novinar, urednik i filmski kritičar...

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