An unusual format stakes its claim for Best Foreign Language Film
As we head into awards season, two countries have staked their official selections for the Best Foreign Language Film on a fairly unusual format–the hybrid animated political documentary. The mishmash of words may sound computer-generated, but this may be one of the more interesting trends of 2022, likely to be widely imitated if it works and completely forgotten if it doesn’t. I’m hoping for the former, since even where the substance is lacking, the style is indisputable for both of these movies.
Canada springs eternal
The first, Canada’s submission, is Eternal Spring, and there’s no way to sugarcoat this. Eternal Spring is a Falun Gong propaganda film. The filmmakers go to fairly impressive lengths to avoid actually saying anything about Falun Gong or what they believe. That Eternal Spring has been as lauded as it’s been on the international festival circuit as a whole is an indictment of just how low the standards are these days for critically appraising whether a documentary has an agenda that benefits from obscuring the facts.
It certainly helps that the villain of Eternal Spring is China, a country with whom Canada has been having a public hostage crisis, with both countries holding citizens of the other on (probably) trumped up charges. The actual text of Eternal Spring only really establishes that comic book illustrator Daxiong and a team of Falun Gong compatriots hijacked a government broadcast, were arrested for it, and escaped prison surprisingly easily considering how all-powerful the film portrays the Chinese state up until that point.
That’s the movie’s substance. But the style is something else entirely. As mentioned above, Daxiong is an illustrator, and Eternal Spring renders in his distinct style the parts that would be reenactments in a lowbrow documentary. The visual look is a grimy, urban visage in a cold, oppressive backdrop marked by moments of bright hope and compelling facial expressions. Eternal Spring is a very artistically-made movie, reading like a live-action version of serious graphic novels from twenty years.
It’s distinctive just for being so radically different. The 3D animation is all smirks, the 2D animation is all anime. The few animation stories that break this mold struggle to find a mainstream audience even when the filmmakers deliberately design it for mainstream audiences. Then there are the abominations like Marmaduke, which look distinctly horrifying for mostly incomprehensible technical reasons. The same goes for the AI art craze that seems, for the moment, to have died down.
The long odds of Armenian film success
Aurora’s Sunrise, the hybrid animated political documentary that Armenia selected for its best foreign language film selection, faces longer odds on the awards circuit than Eternal Spring despite being a superior film and documentary. Part of this is just political misfortune. Armenia aligns geopolitically with Russia, the enemy of most of the rest of the world at the moment, and this has left Armenia in an awkward position internationally even as it endures an invasion of its own from neighboring Azerbaijan.
None of this has anything to do with the actual content of Aurora’s Sunrise, which deals with Armenian Genocide from the vantage point of the life of Aurora Madriganian, who very briefly was the star of a major but now-forgotten Hollywood film depicting her experience. This might be the bigger knock against Aurora’s Sunrise in the long run. While the Ottomans are the genocidal monsters, ultimately, the Americans just prove to be indifferent, which in some ways is even worse considering their relative influence. Aurora’s movie fails to change the world, and admitting the limits of popular culture to effect social change is not a popular talking point these days.
Much like Eternal Spring, Aurora’s Sunrise uses a distinctive animation style that’s evocative of a whole era. It depicts Aurora’s life as paintings from the time period through artistic reconstructions of the few documentary materials available. Where necessary, it also splices in actual interviews from Aurora, and even the surviving clips of her film, Auction of Souls. The effect is a brutal one. We actually see Aurora on the run, the genuinely alien nature of this horrifying context aptly reflected through art that’s recognizably human, yet placed from a different era. The film also truly is from Aurora’s perspective, with brief moments of fear and terror punctuated by careful attempts on Aurora’s part to engage in self-preservation. It deals anticlimacticallywith apparent plot beats and discoveries–much like in Aurora’s actual story.
But most importantly in terms of Aurora’s Sunrise functioning as a documentary, the film gives the full context wherever possible. It even portrays the actions of the Ottomans World War I-era paranoia. Aurora herself is relatively ignorant, and we only ever really know what she knows, although that’s more than enough. Aurora’s Sunrise is a genuinely immersive and disturbing experience.
Eternal Spring and Aurora’s Sunrise both use animation to great effect in the documentary format, actually making documentaries cinematic in the sense that they use visual form, technique, and artistry to create the mood for a historical moment rather than relying purely on the promise of facts or more subtly manipulative sound design. They makea fantastic case of how filmmakers can use the medium of animation as messaging. Of course, with documentary filmmaking itself refusing to acknowledge its often inherently propagandistic nature these days, any true appreciation of what these movies have done will probably move this niche further away from the documentary side of its description and closer to the animated one.
And as for the political angle? Give it a few years, and both of these films will likely become footnotes like Auction of Souls did. That’s a dreary conclusion to draw, but not a surprising one. After all, the more cynical Aurora’s Sunrise has a far more well-developed and convincingly-argued message than the fundamentally optimistic Eternal Spring.