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Terri Dentry spoke to Prof Gerd Gockell, Head of Dept at HGK Lucerne, School of Art & Design, about his ideas and approach to playing with “truth” in the image, at the 31st Festival Internacional de Cinema de Animacao, CINANIMA, in the beautiful town of Espinho in Portugal.

CINANIMA never disappoints in providing one of my favourite film festivals for the year. It is here in Esphino that filmmakers come to relax and chat with each other over an abundance of fresh seafood, traditional portugese cooking and plenty of beer and sunshine. While the competitive screenings are always world class it is more often the special programs that take my interest, and this year was no exception. The showcase on student films from Lucerne more than lived up to its title “Narration and Experimentation” with 20 films each showing elements of the prestidigitation of the school’s masters.

Header images: Apres-le-chat; Une Nuit Blanche; The Collector; Mahlzeit; Prince Principle
Original publication: Desktop Magazine June 2008
Republished with permission
In his own sleight of hand, Gockell, accoladed for his work in abstract animation, diverted the discussion to a fascinating insight into, arguably, the only new film genre of the last 40 years, fake documentaries. Gockell quickly pointed out, “nearly everything is done already [in abstract animation], the young don’t know the history, so are reinventing the wheel again. The new challenge is to experiment with the structure of the story”.

Of note is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which projects a mind-bending visual jigsaw puzzle that unfolds before the audience. Gockell says “it’s a new way of telling the story. Away from the visual experiments we now have a big suitcase of techniques to work with, which can be taken and used in the same way”. Gockell correlates it to “playing with the truth in the image, truth in documentary. If you cant find the right image you have to invent it.” He and Kirsten Winter, long time film collaborators, have been playing around with this concept for a number of years in film and theory.

Muratti & Sarotti (2000), titled for 20’s cigarette and 50’s chocolate brands, , was funded by the German government. Made from original sound archives, and surviving images, Gockell used a variety of camera and graphic techniques, to produce a unique animated documentary that traces the development of animation as an art - and commercial - form in Germany. Roaming through surrealist archives with animated file drawers Gockell showcases infamous auteurs such as Richter, Ruttman and Fischinger, but also delves more deeply into lesser-known but exceptional talents such as Peter Sachs and Oskar Fischinger's younger brother Hans.

Premiering of the film, esteemed by the attendance of the fathers of vérité, Gockell stepped back from the film and considered the implications of testing the boundaries of the doco artform. M&R caused controversy over its use of photo animation as an substitude of missing live footage. For an other short film project: Restored Weekend (2004) Gockell and Winter used chemical treatment to “fake” the old look of the film. “It might have been a true Ruttmann film, but its not” he says. “What then of faking the material itself, making up the work, or maybe the next step is to make up a fake person altogether”.

Not a new concept, but certainly an interesting one from Gockell. A plethora of fake-docs are popping up all the over the place in the last few years, and most notably for their ability to be taken seriously. Our own Peter Jackson (LoTR) was caught red-faced when his film Forgotten Silver (1995), a documentary about an apparently forgotten New Zealand filmmaker, was showcased in the Montana Sunday Theater slot on Television New Zealand. Jackson even makes reference to a nationwide search for old films at the start of Forgotten Silver, "when explaining how he first encountered the work of Colin McKenzie." The entire film was a hoax, a fact both Jackson and fellow filmmaker Costa Botes thought would be apparent early on in the film; however, many of the 400,000 viewers who saw Forgotten Silver missed the clues and were outraged when they discovered the documentary was a fictional joke. Public response ran from amused to enlightened, to the succinct suggestion that "Peter Jackson and his Silver Screen conspirators should be shot. (a full essay on this and other infamous fake-doc’s can be found in the excellent text “F is for Phony, Juhasz & Lerner, 2006)

Fake-docs are not only a film phenomenon. The editors of Social Text, a prestigious refereed journal, were infamously taken into publishing a text by Alan Sokal, a leftist physics professor, on science and postmodernity (purporting to link developments in quantum mechanics with the formulations of postmodern thought) – which the author himself revealed to be utter nonsense in an article later published by Lingua Franca. Sokal explained that he was out to demonstrate that the ‘real’ articles in Social Text were merely “fraudulent academic flatulence”.

So too are the antics of the ignominious “Yes Men”, the band that delivered a keynote speech to 300 oilmen at GO-EXPO, Canada's largest oil conference, on the benefits of “vivoleum” candles to take advantage of available human flesh as a response to Exxon’s need to make use of their own carbon-intensive exploitation of Alberta's oil sands, and the development of liquid coal. The same imposters presented as WTO officials at a Wharton Business School conference in Africa, to announce the creation of a WTO initiative for "full private stewardry of labor" for the parts of Africa that have been hardest hit by the 500 years of Africa's free trade with the West. To prove that human stewardry can work, Schmidt cited a proposal by a free-market think tank to save whales by selling them. The Yes Men were finally ousted (surprised, and a little dissatisfied, not to have been wrung and quartered many times prior) by a group of university students who were not as caught up with the rest of corporate society in their own cloaks of sobriety.

Some fake-doc’s are more productive than others. Some are not intended to be productive at all. In a film sense the fake-doc deconstructs and reconstructs the outer trappings of Nichols doco genre, or academic vestments, and links and unlinks their text and viewer to consider what is apposite and what is not.

Sicinski (Cineaste 2007) explains it well, “the critical power of the fake-doc is its ability to problematise the transparent styles and truth claims of “normal” documentary thereby demanding a higher level of hermeneutic engagement on the part of their viewers.” He goes on to suggest “these films use the imaginative capabilities of art, along with the genre cues endemic to documentary film style, to generate alternative histories, ones that are speculative and, most importantly, productive of specific intellectual goals with respect to the politics of identity.”

Gockell points out a beautiful film “Une Nuit Blanche” in the Lucerne showcase, directed by graduate student Maya Gehrig. In this film Gehrig explores the emotions of loss. It could be a love story, or a zombie state. The audience never knows what is real and what is not. Gehrig has used the exploration of reality and truth in her narrative to experimental ends, and applaud ensues.

Another of the noted works in the showcase is Kicker Sticker, directed by Marco Zizzi, an animation of soccer star stickers, which utilizes the learnings gained from session intensives with another celebrated filmmaker found on the lecturer list at Lucerne, Paul Bush.

Bush is best known for his directly worked films, such as The Albatross (1998) or Secret Love (2002) and his pioneering work in pixellation in films such as While Darwin Sleeps (2004). It is the pixellation that dominates his work at Lucerne and is captured so well in the work of Zizzi.

While Darwin Sleeps depicts some 3000 still photographs of different species of insects captured from the collection of Walter Linsenmaier in the Natural History Museum of Lucerne. Bush crafts each still into a six-minute long sequence where each animal is seen for a single frame. As thousands of different species flash past our eyes, the film seems to document a single species morphing from one phase in its history to another – the genetic programme of millions of years condensed into minutes.

At Lucerne, the students are given only one day to make a one minute film in this same style. They bring along their own collection of stills and the exercise brings together the theories of persistence of vision, rhythm and the blending of shapes optically. Gockell emphasizes that it teaches the lecturers as much about the student’s abilities in animation as it does the students ability to adapt and make use of what’s around them.

Similarly the students are stretched with a one week exercise in creating a walk cycle using a technique no-one has used before for animation. Many a celery stick and sausage have been tortured along the way – but Gockell admits that fantasy and movement abound.

Bärbel Neubauer’s work in films such Roots (1996) and Firehouse (1998) are also evident as influences in student’s work. Neubauer can best be described as a sound and image composer, one working with the other so closely it is difficult to extract which is which. Firehouse was created by exposing 35mm film stock with a flashlight using bits of natural material, such as grasses, to form images on the film stock. “The sound and images together forge a dramaturgic development, an animation that “paces the piece”. Neubauer advocates that “sound is emotionally direct, a powerful tool”. Maya Gehrig, with her film Metawalz (2003), a black and white abstraction of a cylinder, is once again, the director of the piece that excites this interest.

The tutors at Lucerne, too many to be showcased here, but which also include Priit Parn, Otto Alder, Mathias Bruhn, Jochen Ehmann, Jean First, Robi Müller, Jesús Pérez, Wolf-Ingo Römer, Jürgen Haas, and Ted Sieger, encourage the students to develop their own artistic film language and also acquire the professional knowledge needed for their subsequent careers. During the three years of study a wide range of theory classes in the history and aesthetics of animated film complement the practical courses.

When Gockell was initially invited to Lucerne in 2002 to restructure the animation course, and develop the one he would have liked if he was a student again, the school was a grand dame of graphic design but did not have the infusion of creative thought needed to make it one of the best. Gockell is rightly proud of his turnaround of the department, with a current student base of 40, with 18 of those graduating this year, he will be over seeing a new generation of animation pioneers, each one with a solid foundation of the best in current animation technique and thought.

Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

HGK Lucerne (Switzerland): Playing with “truth” in the image
Australian Animation: From Devils who turn good, and supermarket musical massacres
Phil Mulloy (UK): The Dilemma of Humanity
Marie Josee Saint Pierre (Canada): Norman McLaren here ...
Ben Tiefholz (Australia): Stories in the Stars
Peter Chung (USA): Aeon Flux and the psychology of desire
Rosto (Netherlands): A Graphic Novel that asks you to “Just open up and don’t be scared”
Regina Pessoa (Portugal): Tragic Story with a Happy Ending
Im Prinzip Prinz / The Prince Principle (2002)
Director, Script, Animation: Sabine Lattmann
Wolkenbruch / Cloudbreak (2005)
Director: Simon Eltz
Mahlzeit / Yummy (2006)
Directors: Lynn Gerlach, Irmgard Walthert
Une nuit blanche / A White Night (2005)
Director: Maja Gehrig Music; Joy Frempong
Botteoubateu / Boot or Boat (2006)
Director: Marina Rosset; Sound Design: Barbara Brunner
Zurn Wohl / Cheers (2006)
Directors: Barbara Brunner, Franziska Meyer