This is a review/essay I posted in 2016 when ADAMA played the NYICFF. Its one part review and one part an examination of how animation outside of certain boxes was handled in America. Things have gotten better over time but many people still want animation want to be certain things. (and regretably many people are still not wading in and really covering NYICFF)
The fact that Simon Rouby’s ADAMA is, in all probability, going to be largely ignored in the US is a damning indictment of the way most Americans view animation and of how there is no market for truly great animated films that are not filled with cute characters, giant robots or heart-warming feelings
Rouby’s film tells the story of a West African boy. named Adama, who literally lives in a community cut off from the rest of the world by giant natural walls. When his brother runs off to join the army Adama decides to get his brother back and chases after him, thinking foolishly that if he gives back the money he was paid to join up he will be able to come home. Unfortunately the outside world doesn’t work like that and as Adama gets farther and farther from home things get bleaker and bleaker until he finds himself trying to find his brother in the middle of the carnage of the Verdun.
Beginning as a kind of typical coming of age story the tale morphs as it goes on, growing deeper and richer. The coming of age story is revealed to actually a spiritual journey, not only of Adama, but also more importantly his brother. As the film morphs again in the final moments it's switch to magical realism makes perfect sense. This is a film that surprises with each turn as expect twists and turns becoming something else entirely depending upon the moment.
Several days on I find I’m still haunted by the film. Its themes of family, honor and the growth of the spirit are pinging around not only in my head but more importantly in my heart. This is one of those films that gets better with each pass through my brain. For example the themes of family and family honor are key to the film. I never realized how much so until I contemplated the French girl who help Adama get on a train after her brother steals most of his money. Yes she seems to be a good person but thinking about it it may not be so simple, as stray lines of dialog and the behavior of others around her make me suspect she is simply trying to make things right more than be a good person.
The animation and the imagery is incredible. Working with a variety of styles Rouby has made a film that is a literal work of art (stills don't do it justice- the images must be in motion). Watching the film I was never sure what I was seeing, Was this stop motion? Traditional? Computer generated? During a Q&A that followed a New York International Children's Film Festival screening Rouby said that he employed various techniques beginning with clay figures of all the characters which were then manipulated by hand and the computer. He then manipulated the world that Adama inhabits making things more less “real” and more painterly, the farther that he gets from home, with the inner landscape of our hero being reflected outward. It’s something that is plainly obvious when it’s pointed out to you, or when you are looking back on the film, but when you are I the middle of the film you really don’t notice it. Watching clips from the film to prepare this piece I wanted to try and see how things shifted, but instead I found I was falling back into the story. I was watching the characters and not the manipulations. I realized the effect that Rouby created was much too powerful to be pulled apart.
Simon Rouby has made a truly great film. It’s a film that is a compelling tale of a brother trying to rescue his brother and it’s a cinematic work of art of the highest order. Where most films today manage to either look good or tell a good story ADAMA does both. More importantly it’s a film that hits you in both your head and your heart. And it’s a must see…
…unfortunately I’m not sure how many of you in the United States are ever going to get a chance to see the film. Those of you with a ticket to the NYICFF screening this weekend are in for a treat but if you don't live near by I can’t say you’ll get a chance unless you run to New York and force your way into the sold out screening. After the screening at NYICFF this past Sunday I asked about a US distribution and Rouby said that the film has had limited interest from US distributors. There is some but the trouble is not that they don’t like the film, they do, rather the trouble is audiences in America really don’t know how to deal with animation that isn’t cute computer animated animals, so distributors are wary.
That’s a sad state but it’s true. Most people in the US don't know how to handle animation that isn't cute, Disney, Ghibli, computer animated or Japanese.
What’s worse is that even in the critical circles or even the festival circles animation isn’t touched. Yes they will fall over themselves for someone like Charlie Kaufman who gives them something like ANOMALISA but if they aren’t getting a known quantity they won’t touch it.
Critics don’t do animation, and most of the major festivals won’t either. Outside of a Ghibli or Disney film how many animated feature films have a festival like New York ever included as a main slate or a non-retrospective Title? Very few. You’ll get maybe one film every year or three. I suspect part of the decision is the selection committee doesn’t think audiences will sit through the films. But if they, like critics are supposed to be the gate keepers to good and interesting films shouldn’t they be picking the best films out there regardless? If they aren’t willing to begin to change tastes then tastes will remain where they are and we are going to end up losing or marginalizing an entire cinematic art form.
If you want proof of critical indifference to animation consider how many New York writers did anything on NYICFF this year. I bet it’s very few. Ignore the fact that there is Children's in the title, NYICFF has become the place to see the award winning films before they are even noticed for the awards. NYICFF is the place you must go to find great films, but very few do. Here is what amounts to the biggest and best showcase for animation in the New York Metro area, and probably the whole country, and most outlets never touched it. Yes, The New York Times did a lovely piece but how many others really covered it? How many made any effort to really mention more than a few films in a curtain raiser? How many reporters were in the audiences seeing films. (I saw three people over the last two weekends)
It’s a sin and travesty.
While this piece isn't about how great NYICFF is, they have to be brought into the conversation because they are the only people in America who are doing serious exposure to great animation that isn't Disney cutesy crap. Simply consider how many of the Oscar nominated animated films come out of the festival. This past year three of the Oscar nominees played NYICFF, but most outlets never touched them, or didn't until the Oscar noms were announced. And in the case of BOY AND THE WORLD, it wasn’t reviewed by Entertainment Weekly until a week after the Oscar ceremony (and I’m guessing that had the film not gotten an Oscar nom they never would have touched it.)
Almost no one in the critical or festival worlds will do anything to change that with the result that countless excellent animated films are missing from the lives and minds of America. Yes I know in today's world everything will be available eventually but wouldn't it be nice if something like ADAMA was discovered when it comes out instead of five years from now when its suddenly a lost classic. Discovery now means artists like Simon Rouby can get the money for his next film now not five years from now.
I would like to challenge all of the major film festivals to try and program more animation. There are all these great films out there that no one in the US really knows exists. Seriously all one has to do is look at the schedules of NYICFF for the last five years to see it's true. If the festivals make the commitment to program people will see the wonders that are out there.(Hell be lazy and steal the best of NYICFF)
Likewise I dare critics to rethink their stupid backward notion that animation not from a name they know is not worth looking at. Why will you look at films from new live action directors but won't look at new films from animators? Why won't you give the films a shot. And I'm not being overly dramatic I've been writing on film for over six years, I've been in trenches so I've heard and been part of conversations where established writers have dismissed animation because it's kids stuff or isn't true to life. Animation is neither, it is simply a means of telling a story in a highly creative way. If a writer can't see that they shouldn't be writing.
All of which brings me back to ADAMA. This is a great film. Its so great, that were it live action the film would be having boat loads of awards tossed at it. Is so good that you have to keep an eye out for it because unless it finds a distributor it’s not going to find the audience it so deserves.