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12. festival Animateka: The Magic Mountain

Throughout the movie Wikner’s narrative voice is teaching his daughter the rules of survival, but in fact he is teaching her the rules of a meaningful life, which for him may also be a meaningful death. 

5. filmski seminar za mlade: NORI NA ANIMIRANI FILM

Avtorica: Paraskevi Karageorgu

The meaning of life

Communist oppression, immigration, invasion, resistance, fight for the meaning of life, for justice, capability to identify yourself with a foreign country’s cause. The Magic Mountain (2015) tells the story of Adam Jacek Winkler, a Polish refugee in Paris, who goes to Afghanistan to fight against the Bolsheviks, thus becoming yet another unknown hero in the ‘tales of heroism’ trilogy by director Anca Damian. The film was awarded with the Grand Prize for Best Feature-Length Film at the Amiens International Film Festival in France and received a Special mention at the Main Competition Jury at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, as well as Ottawa International Animation Film Festival.
Damian is a Romanian director that has received a Cristal for Best Feature Film at the 2012 Annecy International Animated Film Festival for her first animated documentary: Crulic – The Path to Beyond (2011), telling the story of the struggles of a Romanian immigrant who died in a prison while on a hunger strike. With these two films, Anca Damian has established herself as a renowned and respected director, that is aware of the limitations of a documentary in its classical form, and has mastered the mixed-media animated expression in telling compelling personal stories.

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Set as an intimate father to daughter telling of a life story memoir, the animated docu-drama The Magic Mountatin takes on the personal journey of Adam Jacek Winkler – an individualist and an idealist who makes his life purpose to fight the Bolsheviks because, as he says several times during the film, he believed he ‘can change the world’. Being a witness of the Bolshevik atrocities while several of his family members were killed in the 1940 Katyn Massacre by the Red Army, and being profoundly marked by the struggle of the AK (the Territorial Army) against Bolshevism and the torture carried out by the UB (The Office of Public Security), he becomes a refugee in Paris, where he displays his anti-communist activism and adventurous spirit. However, his life in France is far from spectacular. He is a black market painter that does not want to conform to society rules. Even his parental and husband responsibilities are put aside and thus he is somehow detached from the reality in the quest to fight the Evil, not so much for the cause itself, but for the fulfilment of his own potential and meaning of life. This narcissistic self-definition in the search of one’s self finally finds its expression when Russia invades Afghanistan in the 80s, and Winkler is able to realize his urge to fight against the Evil and accepts Afghans’ faith as his own by joining the mujahedeen. By the words of the film’s main animator Theodore Ushev in one of the interviews: ”Winker is not a hero, he is an anarchist, anti-establishment (he never had a bank account) – a Don Quixote of his time”. A bit naive, but courageous, self-aware personality, that identifies with Koziolek Motolek, a passionate, but naïve character of a Polish children’s literature. And in fact, he is telling his own story in such a manner: with humour and self-irony, but without underestimating his own bravery and courage.

Various animation styles change over the film as the feature covers a time period of forty years happening in six countries. Therefore, artistic creativity is used to clearly distinguish not only the time shift, but also the emotional and the location one. For example, in France, artistic design is used that resembles the work of Jan Lenica, also a Polish refugee in France, an artist used as a personal inspiration by Ushev. The authors have included various techniques where real elements are combined with illustration, including photographs, videos and illustrations from Winkler’s archives, as well as different materials such as carbon, oil, watercolour board, chalk, stop-motion and thus, successfully blending documentary with surrealism.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film was the stop motion animation, where the environment and Winkler himself are made of cardboard, in order to represent the refugee life in Paris – slow, mechanical routine movements, poor, almost homeless looking like. Another one is the white painted canvas, with grey paint over and a collage of a photograph of Winkler with the mujahidin and white paint erasing the figures of the ones who have lost their lives. In order to show the criminal activity in the immigrant quarters of Paris, where Winkler wants to acquire a fake passport and is being attacked, criminal comic book technique is used. The heroic, yet idealistic individualism in the fight against evil finds an expressive representation in the shadow cut-out of a warrior with a spear, (unsuccessfully) trying to fight a white whale – a Moby Dick metaphor of the Evil.

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The usage of different techniques is typical for the main animator Theodore Ushev. His well-known Gloria Victoria (2013), for which he has received a ‘FIPRESCI critics’ prize at the 2013 Annecy festival, is an anti-war animated short with mixed media animation, in different styles: German expressionism, British Avant-garde, cubism, constructivism and surrealism. Ushev’s film Nightingales in December (2011) resembles some of the animation techniques used in The Magic Mountain, especially the usage of a simple grey over a white canvas and the realistically painted portraits. Also the topic in The Magic Mountain is quite familiar to Ushev, as the main themes in his short animations are strongly political: war, human suffering, combats, refugees, and revolution.

Throughout the movie Wikner’s narrative voice is teaching his daughter the rules of survival, but in fact he is teaching her the rules of a meaningful life, which for him may also be a meaningful death. As he states in the film, he was not afraid of dying, he was afraid of a pointless death. The Magic Mountain is an animated epic, which compels not only with the explosion of animation creativity, but with the deep sense of humanity, that cannot be without giving a meaning to life. As with the case of Winkler, in his quest for self-definition and self-fulfilment, he makes the most humane choice of all – dedicates his life to a cause that is beyond him and finds its expression in the fight for a foreign nation’s freedom.
It is interesting to follow this same perspective in reflecting the situation today. While in this same part of the world terrorism is spreading and for some is the only force daring to face the atrocities committed by the Western world, it also explains why so many Europeans and immigrants feeling unwelcomed in Europe are going to the Middle East to fight. Therefore, the will to define what is the Good and the Evil side is more actual than ever, as the blurred definition of these two concepts makes us question in what values we are to believe in and between what ‘meaning of life’ options that will make our lives worth living we should choose from.

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