On Mega Tricks, Red Wine and the Art of the Artless Commentary
Anne Isensee likes getting right to the point. And that in both her works and conversation. With her at times very short films, the animator artist who lives in Berlin has enjoyed success at numerous festivals for years now. In 2017, she achieved an impressive debut with her mere 101-second-long film “Mega Trick” (2017), which garnered the Golden Dove for the Best German Short Film at the DOK Leipzig International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film.
Yet for that, “Mega Trick”, created in an animation workshop headed by Gil Alkabetz at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF, was actually intended as an artistic exercise aiming at associative brainstorming and creative work conducted under time pressure. One week of production time was available for the animated short – meaning that it was good not to wrestle overly long with the situation and get to the point fast. Anne Isensee was up to the challenge and developed a filmic pearl in which – using dry humour – she debunks streamlined lifestyle optimisation as cowardly and just plain boring.
With this simple yet captivatingly accomplished line animation, her self-spoken, casually incidental commentary and a film score composed by other participants in the workshop, “Mega Trick” achieves more in the briefest of time than do some feature-length films. The film surprises and amuses, yet still also manages to arouse our thoughts. And it is this mixture that has made it a festival darling, one still being well-booked by various short film distributors up to today. Even for the purpose of film education, “Mega Trick” has been utilised successfully. Which is little wonder, as the question of how we realise our own dreams is capable as such of being highly interesting for young people. The education material prepared especially for the film can be viewed online – just like the film itself.
You can view “Mega Trick” online here
Anne Isensee is delighted that a film would result from a student experiment whose humour also works across borders. And that not least because she accords a central position to humour – in both her films and her life. She would probably not succeed at all in making a completely serious film, as she mentions in conversation. A drama or an exciting thriller: Now that really would be a challenge. And although she loves challenges, she is still not prepared to forego humour, at least not for now.
„My basic mood is a kind of black humour. Even when I’m feeling bleak and gloomy, I can’t stop myself negating it by being sarcastic or ironic, or even a bit cynical at times. I just don’t want to tell something tragic in a tragic way, but always treat the things and stories with just a little humorous twist instead.“
Also in reality when dealing with difficult or sad situations, she likes to be the one who “flicks on the lights” and lets in a breath of fresh air which matches the clear and positive attitude that Anne Isensee has when facing life. Where others see difficulties, she finds opportunities and at times new routes to take, as well as a chance to learn something new. And this openness to what is new, as indeed to what has been unknown to date, helps her to reinvent herself a bit more with each film.
After “Mega Trick”, with which she spent more than a year doing the festival circuit, she became involved in the animation and layout work on the production of the animated documentary “Tracing Addai” (2018). This animadoc from the director-studies student Esther Niemeier was nominated for the Emmy Awards and was one of the finalists in the Student Academy Awards. The work combines archival footage with documentary material and re-enacted scenes lavishly animated by hand so as to tell the true story of a young man from Berlin who went to Syria at the age of 20 and perished there.
“Tracing Addai” can be viewed online here
The following year, Anne Isensee released “I Want” (2019), her own next film. It does not come across as being even remotely like the “straight line” found in “Mega Trick”. “I Want” is a dizzying trip swept along by beats and rhythms, immersed in colours and with a similarly powerful commentary, yet one that is driven by a different dynamic. The film would ultimately prove to be almost as successful as its predecessor.
You can view “I Want” online here
The text forming the basis for the film blazes between poetry and song texts, while celebrating female self-determination – full of relish, cheerful and loud. Anne Isensee speaks her own texts herself, or to put it more precisely: She whispers, cries out and screams. Beyond doubt, the film is marked by the experiences and the findings she gained penning her Bachelor thesis on female heroic figures in animated films. After viewing countless historic and current animated films, it became clear that the overwhelming share of the animated film heroines is stuck in outdated female clichés. While the male heroes are “drawn” powerfully, assertively and single-mindedly, the female identification figures are more likely to dip into the pool of typical housewifely virtues, with them being self-effacing, patient and willing to selflessly sacrifice themselves for others. It seems that right up to the present day, it is good form in animated film for the female figures to set aside their own interests, as they remain stuck in the last century.
Binary categories and outdated societal attributions get relayed to all who view these films, be they children, youth or adults. “I Want” rebels against exactly these obsolete viewpoints and counters the clichés with a powerful female figure who is there in her entirety and simply stands by what she herself wants, rather than hastily accepting compromises.
The deliberately abstract animation of the female figure is intended to permit the widest possible circle of people to identify with it. Likewise, the partly “overdriven” assertions belong just as much to the concept as does the vigorous and fast-paced manner of speaking. “I Want” works like an empowerment shot – fast, powerful, loud and good. Through which the film has enthused many people and is already even regarded by some as a small feminist manifesto. In a highly readable interview (in German only), Anne emphasises that having a sense of being on a mission seems quiet alien to her and she regards herself more as a practical feminist that an activist. She also emphasises how important it is to discuss feminism without it being detached from intersectional limitations; in this context she even speaks self-critically about there being a point in “I Want” at which this is potentially neglected somewhat. Today, she would accord more space to the moments in which people no longer have the taking of self-determined decisions in their own hands. Moments in which “one even loses the game on occasion”, as she observes at the end of the film. Even if this situation seemed very distant to her during the film production process, because she felt strong and unassailable, it would not have been amiss to also make the other side more visible. On a side note, the soundscape to “I Want” was created by the Berlin-based DJ Sarah Farina, ), who also acted as producer on the film, as well as by the sound designer and composer Artur Sommerfeld, with whom Isensee has also worked together on her latest film “Yay” (2021). But more on that later.
Now to the short film that arguably has the longest title in her filmography: “Due to Legal Reasons this Film Is Called Breaking Bert”, which was released in the 2020 corona year, but already begun in the summer of 2018. This wonderfully ambiguous title, around which the film ultimately evolved, had in fact been set at the start of the project.
A lightly drawn stick figure is cleaning its apartment when it chances upon a book with poems by Bertolt Brecht. The message is clear: Whoever does not commit themselves to a cause is playing into the hands of the opposite side. This appeal to take a stance causes the figure to reach out to the audience: It feels caught out and is seeking a way out of its agony, but the three big reactions announced by it prove to be mere variants on doing nothing. Ultimately the figure (whom Anne Isensee accords its voice – electronically high pitched this time) steps outside the scene and begins to spin its apartment around, thus revealing it to be a theatrical backdrop. Not only does this moment incorporate the Brechtian dialectical-theatre idea of not wanting to captivate the audience (emotionally); quite the contrary, it works repeatedly with having the actors step outside or beyond their roles, in order to make the staging or enactment itself visible as such. For Brecht, who despised each and every form of position-less l‘art pour l‘art, theatre (just like film) was a tool for gaining political awareness. And by ironically rupturing this exact idea, Anne has created a multi-layered film that repeatedly holds new discoveries even at the second or third viewing.
You can view the trailer of “Due to Legal Reasons this Film Is Called Breaking Bert” online here
Consequently, “Due to Legal Reasons this Film Is Called Breaking Bert” permits the most varied and diverse of interpretations. The release of the film in the midst of the corona crisis has meant that it was often “read wearing a pair of pandemic spectacles”. In fact, its chamber theatre-like setting and the backdrops “imported” from China are by themselves reminiscent of the cramped living situations during the lockdown and the original source of the virus. This interpretative route is even supported by the title of the Brechtian poem quoted: “Who Stays at Home”, with the result that numerous interpreters were certain all of these indications could not have been by chance or coincidence…
But it must be explicitly stated here yet again: Yes, indeed they could. Coincidences do occur. It is truly astounding the extent to which a film can gain new readings and interpretations from and through changing contexts and new developments. In the autumn of 2020 when the film celebrated its premiere at DOK Leipzig, Anne Isensee availed of this unexpected “framing” to clarify the context of its creation once more. And regardless of how much it may look like this – it is not about forced isolation during a pandemic at all, but rather about the equally topical question of what actually must happen in order for us to break free from our own daily routines and our comforting analytical sense of restraint. And of course – quite incidentally – also about critically illuminating the Brechtian concept of theatre in the shape of an animated film.
Although they were not intended, Anne Isensee can easily accept and live with these highly diverse interpretative approaches, especially when they provide opportunities for discussions. And as she herself says, sometimes she only first becomes aware during such discussions of the varied interpretative possibilities arising from this or that setting or film scene. For her, these exchanges are extremely helpful, as it is not uncommon that “suddenly other people are explaining my own ideas to me”, permitting to achieve more progress together than she would do alone.
Generally speaking, Anne Isensee cherishes the freedom to decide whether she would like to realise a project on her own or in a team. During the first corona lockdown in 2020, with “1 Bottle o’wine” she created a small self-produced concept film whose title vividly illustrates the confusion of emotions into which a person in isolation (accompanied by a plentiful sip of wine) can descend.
You can view “1 Bottle o’wine” online here
For her most recent film “YAY” (2021), she deliberately chose a radically different approach. The dialogue-free, colourful animation with a myriad of shapes and forms was crafted when, as a Fulbright Scholarship fellow, she attended the School of Visual Arts in New York. This scholarship was obviously also powerfully impacted by the pandemic. When all of the international students there were obliged to return to their remote online workplaces, Anne Isensee consciously decided to break the isolation by collaborating with her fellow students. She developed the animated sequences, which are somewhat reminiscent of classic cartoons and Talus Taylor’s Barbapapas, together with students from South Korea, the USA, Brazil and Australia. The impact of this international collaboration was also reflected in the film’s story, which – without words – narrates how by working together and cooperating different levels can be reached. In another respect too, Isensee is taking a new narrative route with “YAY”. Through the complete foregoing of language, the film differs quite a lot from her other works to date, which are shaped especially by her commentaries.
You can view the trailer of “YAY” online here
In her latest project, Anne Isensee deliberately accords language in film a more powerful position again. Or to put it more precisely, how animated films can also be received by blind or visually impaired people. The short film “Intro” (working title) is at the centre of the overall “Cinaesthesie. Translating Animation” project. Here, together with two academics from the humanities, she focuses on the question of how to make animated films perceptible even for people with visual impairments. By considering the film’s audio description from the start, rather than adding it subsequently after the film is made, she has opened up new channels and routes to perceiving the film – and has herself learned more each day with this project. Her new discoveries and knowledge (as indeed any wrong conclusions) are being reviewed and elucidated in an accompanying blog. Ultimately, this is concerned with more than the production of inclusive film versions. Rather, it is examining the question of how we perceive (animated) films, and whether it would not long be time to develop alternatives to the tried and tested methods.
The blog to the “Cinaesthesie. Translating Animation” is available here
Wanted: An animated film that captivates people even with impaired perception, yet still permits the audience the freedom and space for they themselves to also be able to connect with and relate to the film. Or – by letting Anne Isensee have the last word:
„I think films are dangerous that are overly one-to-one and completely self-contained and suggest they’ve discovered some truth. I’m glad for the grey areas and the scope for interpretations and associations, and I’m even completely determined to defend these open spaces and freedoms.“