This weekend sees the release of The Congress, from visionary director Ari Folman. It’s the Israeli filmmaker’s first feature since his 2008 masterpiece, Waltz with Bashir, but unlike its predecessor, the new film is not a documentary. It’s in English, rather than Hebrew, and stars a handful of recognizable Hollywood actors. It is, to say the least, something of a departure. Yet it shares one very significant piece of DNA with the earlier film: it’s animated, under the leadership of the great Yoni Goodman.
A masterpiece, after all, is not always the work of a single genius. Waltz with Bashir may have sprung from the mind of Folman, but the execution owes a great deal to Goodman’s ingenuity, particularly in the pioneering of Adobe Flash cutout animation. It looks like rotoscope, the tracing over live-action footage, but it’s not. This approach to design gave the film its rich style, vividly evocative of forgotten memories and blurred nightmares. Moreover, Goodman’s contribution was more than just the brilliant utilization of a technique. His stylistic vision is consistent across a number of his other accomplishments, though most of them aren’t on the grand scale of his collaborations with Folman. Let’s take a look at three examples, riveting cartoons with an almost eerie beauty.
The first is Closed Zone, a short commissioned back in 2009 by Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom and Movement. The organization’s goals are pretty clear on their website: “To protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Gaza residents.” This isn’t the place to unpack Goodman’s politics, nor his motivations for taking the ad. It is, however, the place to talk about this fascinating 95 second piece of the animator’s developing style. It’s the miniature story of a young man, stuck in Gaza and trying to catch a bluebird who keeps taunting him, just out of reach. He goes every direction on foot and even tries taking a boat out to sea, but is consistently met with resistance in the form of giant, real hands. This blend of styles is another example of Goodman’s knack for experimentation, equally crucial for Waltz with Bashir.
The following year, the animator entered the Maratoon competition and walked away with the first prize. The conditions of the 2010 edition of the contest were as follows: an artist was given five days to complete a short film that had to include the words “gong,” “tail” and “extortion” in its script. Goodman’s final product, Chinese Tale, is a one-minute cartoon in which a mobster shows up in a Chinatown shop to shake down its owner, only to be met with some creative and vengeful magic. It’s a dark, witty triumph, particularly in the way that he plays with light and shadow. The scene has a sinister warmth, as if lit entirely by flame and echoing the haze of lost memories that characterize Waltz with Bashir. The detail work on the rats in the shop is particularly impressive, convincingly rabid in a way that matches the terrifying hounds in the feature film.
The final short is a bit different in both style and scope. The Story of Cholera was commissioned by the Global Health Media Project to spread awareness of the disease and promote prevention in villages all over the world. As such it doesn’t have a creative script like Chinese Tale or Closed Zone, but makes up for it in the really intriguing style Goodman brings to this unattractive issue. Cholera, aside from being a major threat to world health, is really gross. “Vomit and diarrhea at the same time” gross. Yet for a project like this, one has to explain the effects and spread of the illness in such a way that sticks in the mind beyond the initial shock.
His method is to portray the village stricken with the disease in black and white. The germs of cholera are bright, nauseous green. They are shown flowing into the river as a result of sanitation problems, surviving in water and finding their way into food. It’s unpleasant but not grotesque, and entirely effective. When the nurse arrives to explain both treatment and prevention techniques, Goodman keeps those as clear as possible. Then, when the town recovers and develops new methods for prioritizing cleanliness and health, color returns to the world. The animator’s gift for washed out backgrounds and harshly faded landscapes finds new use here, and for an excellent cause.