GoCritic! Feature: Nedeljko Dragić Retrospective at Animafest
- One of the historic programmes that Animafest Zagreb 2019 paid special attention to was focused on one of the pioneers of the Zagreb School of Animated Film, Nedeljko Dragić
The Zagreb School of Animated Film is an important episode in Croatia's animation history. The name, coined by the French film historian Georges Sadoul, refers to the collective, modern style Zagreb-based animators shared, characterised by the use of geometrical forms, few details and colours and character-driven animation about “the little man”. The school gained a lot of international recognition and, especially animator Borivoj Dovniković, helped to establish Animafest Zagreb.
According to Dragić, the great success of the Zagreb animators is due to the political climate in Yugoslavia back then, which, as a communist country but not a member of the Warsaw Pact, laid on the border between the East and the West, influenced economically but also culturally by both. It wasn't a democatric state by a long shot, but the censorship was nowhere near that which was dominant in other Eastern European countries.
Being a cartoonist and caricaturist, Dragić applied for a competition organised by Zagreb Film and so his succesful career as an animator started. However, his films remained strongly connected with his comic strips both in terms of style and narrative, and some of these are actually the animated version of his comics. Elegy, Dragić's debut film, for example, is based on his comic called Nostalgia, as he explains in an interview with Bosnian-Swedish theorist and animator Midhat Ajanović in his book "Nedeljko Dragić: The Man and the Line" (2014). Elegy is about a prisoner longing for the flower that caught his eye through the bars of his cell. The animation is quite static, a quality coming from his background in comics.
This slightly changed in his second film, Tamer of Wild Horses (1966). One of the greatest Croatian directors, Vatroslav Mimica, taught Dragić that animation is all about movement, not about static pictures. From then on, Dragić drew only moving images, which resulted in the quite energetic style he is known for nowadays. Tamer of Wild Horses, which was awarded the Grand Prix at Annecy in 1967, is about a horse tamer who encounters a metal horse. When the tamer activates the horse, it transforms into a machine, a beast that doesn't obey the man's orders. Is humankind is able to control technology?
“A lonely man roams around an absurd worlds in pursuit of happiness. Perhaps it's Diogenes, perhaps not.” With these sentences, Dragić pitched his idea for the film Diogenes Perhaps (1967) to Zagreb Film, since he found it stupid to write a script for a fully drawn film. The worlds in which the small, lonely man finds himself in are absurd indeed. He ends up in Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper", where he tries to get attention from every single character in the painting. Unfortunately, nobody responds. A statue of William Shakespeare doesn't react to the man's presence either. Everyone is imprisoned in his own bubble and doesn't care about anyone else.
The films Dragić made after Diogenes Perhaps were rather sober in terms of style and use of colour, compared to his previous films. Per Aspera As Astra (1969), Passing Days (1969), Tup-Tup (1972), Dairy (1974) and The Day I Stopped Smoking (1982) are set against a white background (although Diary has a colourful intermission). The drawings consist of black lines and are either slightly coloured or just left blank. Apparently, this is the style Dragić feels most comfortable with, since it stays close to his comics.
However, Passing Days, Tup-Tup and The Day I Stopped Smoking have more in common mutually. These films are all about a little man who is not allowed to live his simple day-to-day life. In Passing Days, a man is beaten up several times by soldiers who simply barge into his house. A stranger tears his book to pieces and his wife makes love (and babies) with other men. Some (literally, physically) big guys tell the little man how he has to behave and later on, he ends up in a war zone. He is desperate, death is all around him, and Passing Days is a pessimistic and critical film about the influence of propaganda on an individual's life.
Tup-Tup, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1973, sheds light on other aspects of life that disturb people's way of living, especially in overpopulated cities. A man is lying in his bed trying to read a newspaper. A knocking sound irritates him and turns the peaceful, ordinary guy into an angry character. After the alarm clock explodes, the man finds himself in another world, where the knocking sound continues. It drives him crazy and it's hard for the viewer to not get annoyed too - although the sounds accompany the images perfectly.
The world which the man in The Day I Stopped Smoking enters is far less crowded. On his way to buy cigarettes, he barely comes across any other persons or objects. What is not visualised in drawings can be heard though, and this emphasises the alienation that the film is about. Again, the hero finds difficulties in his path. The headwind prevents him from buying cigarettes. Eventually the man gets home, without clothes, without anyone to comfort him - and without cigarettes.
Diary, which won the Grand Prix at Animafest Zagreb 1974, is less character-driven, compared to the aforementioned films. Diary was made without a screenplay or storyboard: Dragić just drew 5000 images spontaneously. The film starts with a man whose head and body continuously change shapes. After the transformations, he drives towards a bustling city reminiscent of New York. Neon letters welcome him, the American flag is embodied in another animated character, and Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin also how up. The dynamic, noisy and colourful end of the film feels quite chaotic and overwhelming. Just like Tup-Tup, Diary focuses on the life in an overpopulated city, however, this time it's about a life of an undefined person. This raises the question whether it is possible to present your own identity within such an overload of impressions.
While most of his films addresses social political issues of the 1960s and 1970s, and actually of our contemporary society as well, Pictures from Memory (1989) is probably Dragić's most personal and stylistically advanced film. It was made in memory of his father Stevan, who died in 1945. Pictures from Memory represents the “ugly childhood” Dragić and his generation have experienced, something he discusses in his interview with Ajanović. Dragić grew up in a slum, stole coal and wood to keep warm and had to wear his father's shoes. In a combination of hand drawn-animation, painted colours and pictures, Dragić captures the youth of his generation in a nutshell. The film depicts the cold snowy winters, the darkness of World War II, the rise and fall of Stalin and memories to American cinema. The black gap in a picture of, presumably, Dragić's family, depicts the missing father in a harrowing way. With this film, Dragić proved once again that he is more than a cartoonist, but rather an artist whose animated films had more to say about the world that it might have seemed on the surface, and one whose works still resonate today.
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