Animated Identities

Perhaps a cartoon can capture the menace and the intolerable normality of life with the Qassams

26ch (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
26ch (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
An evil Plasticine penguin flees on the speeding engine of a toy train. Gromit the dog overtakes him, laying track in front of another train as fast as he can go. A pair of mechanical trousers stops the engine short, the penguin flies up into the air and down straight into a glass bottle, and Gromit captures him. The lights snap on. We're sitting in a long, narrow space on the campus of the Sapir College in Sderot, the Israeli town north of the Gaza Strip that has born the brunt of Hamas's attacks for the last three years. Fifteen young women and men sit in the lecture-room chairs that line the walls. The young, compact, energetic teacher, Yael Inbar, leads the class in an analysis of the structure of the cartoon - Nick Park's 1993 stop-motion (in which animation is done with dolls modeled out of Plasticine and moved) mini-feature, "The Wrong Trousers" - in light of Aristotle's "Poetics." This time, they've managed to see the half-hour film straight through without a missile alert. Eight days previously, a fellow student was killed, just a short walk away, when Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip fired a Qassam rocket that landed on their campus. This is the first-year class in the animation program at Sapir College. My oldest daughter, Mizmor, is part of this group that is learning how to craft hilarious and improbable chase scenes - smack on one of the front lines of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Rockets fall out of the sky, sometimes two a day, sometimes twenty. The populace, students included, gets about a minute's warning from the public defense system each time. "The film can be divided into three acts," says Inbar, who, in addition to teaching this class on the short story, is the director of the animation program in Sapir's respected and innovative film school. "Where is the end of the first act? The second?" The students propose various points in the film: when Wallace gives Gromit, for his birthday, a pair of mechanical trousers that can take him for walks; when penguin rents a room in Wallace's house; when the penguin takes over Gromit's room. Inbar isn't satisfied. "You said Gromit is the main character. So the key points in the story will be things that Gromit does." Finally, she gets the answers she's looking for. The first act ends when the dog leaves home; the second when he returns to fight back against the sinister bird. The penguin's appearance is the incentive moment; the turning point the Gromit's discovery that the penguin is planning to burgle a diamond from a local museum; the climax is the chase scene. Last year, when Mizmor was pondering where to go to college and what to study, I pointed her to the film school at Sapir. "I bet interesting things are going on there," I told her. "And I bet that the kind of people who enroll in a place like that are a lot more remarkable than ones who would study film in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv." For the last six months, as Mizmor has studied under fire, I've wondered whether I hadn't been crazy to suggest it. But when I first came to Israel 30 years ago, I lived in Kiryat Shmona, during a time when a barrage of katyusha rockets sailed over the mountains from Lebanon every couple weeks. The attacks only made me all the more determined to stay there, not give in. Mizmor seems to feel the same today. Inbar confirms my original hunch over a cup of coffee during the class break. It's not just being in a war zone. Sderot's poverty and social ills are the kinds of things students in the big city seldom encounter face to face. Students who come here know that they'll be under fire in a remote town far from the amenities and cultural cool of a big city. So they are not ordinary types. They want to tell a different kind of story. "We're not here for no reason. There's huge potential here because we're far from the center of the country. Here in the periphery you approach storytelling differently. What stands out in the work I see from my students is the dimension of the personal story and of individual language," she maintains. Mizmor's class is only the second to begin the full-fledged four-year academic animation program, so there are not yet any graduates of Sapir producing cartoons on their own. But Inbar says the graduates won't have trouble finding jobs. "They can find work with animation studios that do work for advertising and television," she says, and freelance animators in Israel are hired by studios overseas. But, she stresses, the message she and her fellow faculty give the students is that the ideal graduate will work for a living but also find time to work on personal projects. She doesn't see the missile attacks manifesting themselves in any direct way in the stories and screenplays she receives from students. But, she says, they display "an examination of things true" in the world that the students see around them in Sderot, rather than an attempt to emulate the current fashions in the art. "I'm teaching you structure because you need to know it," she tells the class during the discussion, "but I want you to know that I'm not a big believer in formal structures. You need to be able to put the structure to the side when the story calls for it." Perhaps inadvertently, I think, she's also referring to life at Sapir College. I head to the small room that serves as a sculpture studio. The subject is heads. A somewhat flustered and zaftig (hefty) model sits on a stool at the head of the class as she is turned this way and that. The teacher, Ravital Arieli, has half-wild hair, a flowing long vest, and keeps jumping from subject to subject and student to student. She reminds me of Prof. Sprout in the Harry Potter movies. She explains that in this new semester's first three lessons, the students will concentrate on molding realistic heads, and in subsequent lessons will learn to create progressively more stylized heads - like the Plasticine ones of Gromit and Wallace in the film we saw earlier. One of Arieli's own creations for the theater, a mannerist puppet with a huge nose and tree-mushroom ears, crouches on a table at the front of the room, observing the students at work. Except for a dark, sturdily built young man named Erez, who has quickly fashioned a very passable first-draft portrait bust, most of the students are having trouble getting the basic shape of the head right. "Make what you see, not what you think you ought to see," Arieli tells them. She takes the students up to the front of the studio two by two to peer down at the model's egg-shaped head from above. "Look at the planes and where they intersect," she urges them. "And look at your heads from all directions. That's the only way to see properly." "Red alert, red alert," shouts a loudspeaker somewhere on campus. The students jump up, hands smudged with clay, and file quickly out of the room into the better protected foyer, where their sculptures from last semester are on exhibit. We hear an explosion, not too near, but not too far. "It didn't hit a building," Erez informs me. "You can tell when it hits a building. It's a different kind of sound." They file back into the studio. The previous Wednesday and Thursday there were three dozen rockets each day. During the army's incursion into the Gaza Strip in the days that followed, three Israeli soldiers and 119 Palestinian combatants and civilians were killed. Today has been reasonably quiet-this is only the third missile. Later, I take Mizmor back to her student apartment in Sderot. We hear that Erez was wrong and the rocket hit a home in the town and that the fire it caused is still raging. And a Palestinian gunman barged into the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and killed eight young students. "You can't let yourself get locked into a structure," Yael Inbar had told me over coffee. "Animation is a language much richer than what words alone can express." Perhaps Mizmor or one of her class will come up with a cartoon that will capture the menace and the intolerable normality of life with the Qassams. Haim Watzman is author of 'Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel' and 'A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley.' He blogs at click here.