Cannes is a great place for cartoons. That may sound odd, given the festivals’s reputation as a towering arbiter of high-minded auteurist cinema, but it’s true. The Palme d’Or for short film (which is a thing!) has been given to many, many animated short films over the years. As is also true of the Best Animated Short Film category at the Oscars, Canada’s National Film Board has done quite will for itself. In 1955 the very first official Palme d’Or du Court Métrage went to Norman McLaren for his experimental his experimental Blinkity Blank.
That said, the more interesting story is a Cold War one. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries were powerhouses of animation for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The films never quite broke into American awards, but time and again juries at Cannes chose to recognize their brilliance. Russian, Romanian, Polish, Hungarian, and Czechoslovak animators brought home gold from the Croisette.
In 1973 Soviet animator Fyodor Khitruk won the Palme d’Or du Court Métrage for Island, a perfect example of the power of a cartoon to break through both censorship and international barriers of understanding. Like most of the award-winning animated shorts to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain it is essentially wordless. Its images are generic and therefore universal. And its message, at least on the surface, is very generically philosophical. Beneath this veneer of comedy and harmless pacifism, however, is a wry critique of the world that includes the Soviet Union.
Island is, well, about an island. The entire film is framed around a single, tiny atoll with a lone tree and a lonely inhabitant. He’s a scruffy lilliputian, blessed with a deadpan desperation and an enormous head of hair. He looks like he could have been lifted from the films of Saul Bass or John and Faith Hubley. At first it seems that he’s been shipwrecked, but as the film moves forward one realizes that he’s more likely been on this island since the beginning of time. As such, it’s a bit of a shock when his home begins to change.
First come the tanker ships, passing by with their piles of cars. Next up is a newspaper, folded up in the shape of a boat. As the islander opens it and begins to read, Khitruk surrenders the frame to a barrage of broadsheet images. It is a premonition, or perhaps even a vision of warning sent by the gods of commerce to the islander. Then, in rapid succession, comes an endless stream of loud and obnoxious visitors. They are tourists and conquistadors, scientists bent on eugenic discovery and a priest bent on conversion. Salesmen arrive with boats full of junk, documentary filmmakers with lights and cameras and litter.
Each invader dwarfs the islander, though in different ways. It’s extraordinary how dynamic Island is visually, given Khitruk’s choice to keep almost every shot closely focused on this tiny space. He gets around this by keeping the visitors ridiculous, baroque and even grotesque. The ships that arrive on shore are giant, oddly shaped beasts of imaginary engineering. The people they carry are equally bizarre. Moreover, the wider aesthetic of the film is equally flexible. Khitruk regularly switches the color of the backdrop, leading to seas of purple and yellow. This persistence of abstraction is the source of its successfully allegorical tone.
But what is it an allegory for? It is very easy to read the film as a scathing critique of consumerism and capitalism, which of course it is. Just because an artist is working in an ideologically strict society doesn’t necessarily mean that their subversive work must toss out every element of the ideology. Island‘s assault on Western imperialism still shines through. That said, much of Khitruk’s allegory could be directed at the Soviet Union itself. This is an open film, one that need not evoke a specific set of political and environmental sins.
Now, a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, Khitruk’s film remains relevant. The final blow upon this innocent atoll, the one that forces the islander off and into the open ocean, is oil. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out in 1973 that petroleum would still be a big issue decades later, but the point stands that Island has only gotten more potent with time. Just as a lone example, this year has already included two excellent documentaries looking into the abuses of the oil industry in Africa, Big Men and Virunga.
One need not even bring up the role of petroleum politics in the Iraq War or the current conflict in Ukraine. The political context of Khitruk’s Palme d’Or has faded, but the film itself is an ever stronger warning of how humanity at large is making a monstrous mess.