Animated bar mitzvah

Frenchman Alain Escalle will present his Holocaust film at Animix's 14th festival.

Bar Mitzva 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bar Mitzva 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Animix Animation Comics & Caricature Festival has become a man, or a fountain pen as we used to say several eons ago when a boy turned 13. The bar mitzva edition will take place August 9-13, with most slots taking place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
Like every year, there will be a rich mix of animated film for all age groups and interests, with workshops, panel discussions, hands-on activities and lectures betwixt and between the silver screen stuff.
While cartoons may have started out with fun offerings based on such beloved characters as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the animation business has undergone significant changes in terms of both technique and content, since 19th-century contraptions such as the phenakistoscope, zoetrope and praxinoscope were used to animate static figures. And for some years now, in addition to junior audience-oriented entertainment, animated movies have increasingly addressed serious issues in all kinds of fields.
Alain Escalle’s Le livre des morts (Book of the Dead), which features in next week’s Animix program, is the non-Jewish Frenchman’s take on the Holocaust. Despite not having any direct connection with the Holocaust, Escalle says he found it difficult to tackle the subject, and approached the project with the utmost caution. “It was not easy for me. It was a very long process to make the film, but also to think about it,” he states, adding that he has handled apocalyptic material before.
The previous experience, he says, gave him invaluable insight into how to get into the subject matter, and also how to talk to people with a strong emotional bond with the topic. “My second film was called The Tale of the Floating World, and it was about the bombing of Hiroshima in Japan. It was not easy for a Frenchman to try to understand the Japanese culture, and it was also not easy to get them to talk about it. The subject of the bombing, for them, is still alive – almost like the Shoah. So it was important to have a good point of view of the Holocaust, and to start the project as sincerely as possible.”
Escalle certainly doesn’t pull any punches in Le livre des morts and put his all into the venture. It is a stark work that took five years to complete, with the powerful visual images enhanced by the somewhat funereal sound track. But there are also some fleeting lighter moments in the movie, where hope of a better world somehow manages to filter through the dense morbid morass.
While very aware of the sensitivities involved, Escalle says he was able to maintain a relatively neutral stance on the storyline. “The fact that I am not Jewish helped to give me some kind of distance about the subject,” he says.
Then again, the Holocaust is not exactly a hot-off-the-press news item. “On the one hand, it was quite easy to approach the subject. But on the other hand, there are a lot of documentaries and books about the subject, so I had to find a different point of view – something new and fresh.”
Escalle says he was also keen to incorporate some positive energies in the work. “You know, whenever there is some tragedy in the world, people try to find some source of hope, something better over the drama and the suffering. So that’s how I decided to treat the subject of the dead. For me, the Shoah is about the dead and how you react to that.”
The “book” in the name of the movie refers to two tomes. Part of the inspiration for the film came from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is a Buddhist guide to the afterlife. “It describes the process which helps your soul go quietly towards death,” explains Escalle, who worked as a digital artist on a 1994 documentary based on the Tibetan text. “I wanted to use this sort of mystical background to the real drama [of the Holocaust]. I have seen a lot of films about the Shoah, but I found a lot disappointing, because they sort of made it into a caricature. I wanted to make something more mystical, and which would give more hope.”
Escalle says his film is also about an odyssey. “You also see the story from the point of view of the people in the trains, who do not know where they are going. It is important to see it from the point of view of the traveler.”
The film has been shown in various places and he says that Jewish audiences have responded well to Le livre des morts. “I have only had two really bad reactions to the film,” he observes, “but they were from cinema professionals, not from Jewish people. I find that Jews understand the approach of the film, and like it. I am glad about that because it was essential for me.”
Then again, Escalle notes that not all Holocaust victims were Jewish, and that also comes across in the movie. “There were Gypsies and homosexuals and people with psychological problems and others who suffered, too.”
Escalle will attend the screening in Tel Aviv, and will have his work cut out for him during his visit. He is due to present a talk about the making of the film, and will participate in a panel about the Holocaust in film. “This will be my first time in Israel,” he says. “I am looking forward to coming and participating in the festival.”
The public should find something to suit most tastes over the five days, with an intriguing slot devoted to superheroes, a new TED-like item in which seven leading artists will each talk about a specific topic for exactly seven minutes, and a session in which Ma’ariv’s political caricaturist Moshik Lin will talk about his work with veteran counterpart Shlomo Cohen. There will also be cerebral offerings, as well as some late-night films of a more adult nature, and The Jerusalem Post’s very own Yaakov Kirschen, creator of Dry Bones, will mark the 40th anniversary of the ever-popular comic strip with the launch of a special Passover Haggada he designed.
For tickets and more information about the Animix festival: (03) 606-0800 ext. 1, and