Plus: animation news.
Welcome back. The Animation Obsessive newsletter returns with a new Sunday issue, and it goes like this:
1️⃣ Fatenah’s portrayal of a life.
2️⃣ The animation news of the world.
Today’s lead story deals with subject matter that may make some readers uncomfortable. Our readership is extremely diverse and international, and we can’t account for every point of view or emotional state that a person might bring to the article. So, please proceed with that in mind.
1: A big hassle
At Animation Obsessive, we aren’t war reporters. This newsletter is meant to be a bright spot — we tell plenty of difficult stories, but we leave real horror to the regular news. Everyone in the world has already seen what’s happened this month in Israel and Palestine. Not a single person has asked us to comment on it.
That adds up, in a sad sense. Putting an end to a cycle of bloodshed and protecting the civilians in harm’s way aren’t things that an animation newsletter can do. Given the small presence that Israeli and Palestinian animation have, we haven’t even found any related news to cover.
But we have to write something. We don’t want to pretend that nothing is happening. So, today, we’re talking a little about Fatenah (2009).
In the words of Animation: A World History, Fatenah is the “first-ever Palestinian animated commercial film.” It’s a story about Gaza from a team in the West Bank. Here, a Gazan woman named Fatenah discovers a lump on her breast.
Local doctors ignore it (“these things disappear after marriage,” one tells her), but she and her family fight to get a real diagnosis. It takes six months to confirm that it’s cancer. Even then, medical care is limited. She goes to Israel for better treatment, but the border guards are cruel and capricious. Despite help from Israeli doctors and activists, she often can’t get what she needs.
It’s a dark, harshly honest story. But it has moments of humor and lightness, too — and the Muslim faith of Fatenah and her family adds a feeling of hope. This isn’t just misery. It’s not a cliche. It’s real, and that gives it power.
The production’s rawness adds to this general sense of desperate authenticity. Fatenah’s characters are basic 3D models, and they walk around in a mashed-up world of photos, 3D assets and video footage. The team did what it could with what it had — around $60,000, mostly invested by WHO. The conditions in the West Bank were tough, the crew small. Fatenah’s director, Ahmad Habash, was its sole animator.
“For a year and a half I worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week,” Habash has said. “I definitely overdid it, but it was the only way it was going to get done.”
See the film with subtitles below:
The inspiration behind Fatenah came from a life. It was the life of Fatma Bargouth, a 29-year-old who died of breast cancer in 2004. Israeli activists fought to get her care, but bureaucracy and border guards stood in her way.1
Bargouth’s story was told in an activist report from Israel, which caught the eye of two people in the region. These were film editor Saed Andoni (Palestine) and his friend Ambrogio Manenti — at one time the head of WHO West Bank and Gaza. They adapted it into a fictionalized screenplay, which Andoni produced.
Andoni came from documentaries, but he chose animation this time. It suited the subject, he said, and made its heavy themes more approachable. “Breast cancer and illness and death and Gaza and the siege, it’s all heavy stuff, it’s all harsh stuff,” he told CNN. “Put it in an animation style, [and you] give it a new dimension, give it a new perspective.”
Ahmad Habash, who also lived in the West Bank but had recently graduated in animation from a British school, was their choice to direct. As he wrote:
The World Health Organization contacted me after seeing my graduation project and they told me, “Yup, we just want you to do this film for us.” That was how it happened.
The point of it wasn’t geopolitics, at least not entirely. Habash told The Jerusalem Post that Fatenah doesn’t focus on “taking sides; in reality, there are good and bad people on both sides.” Or, like Andoni said, “We didn’t want to deal with slogans and we didn’t want to address the ‘Palestinian cause.’ What we care about is the individual, her life and her story.”
A joint statement from Habash and Andoni put it this way:
Usually Palestinians are treated or are looked at as numbers. You hear that five people were killed, or that ten Palestinians died. But this is not the case. The case is that behind each number there is a long human story, and that’s why we focused on this one story and individual; we wanted to tell the untold human story behind the numbers.
Fatenah is allowed to breathe as a person. She’s a seamstress in a blooming relationship with a man who sews beside her at work. Her sister is a journalism student with a temper. The two are close, and they joke together, after the fact, about the doctor who claimed that “these things disappear after marriage.” Fatenah dreams of getting married herself, but she fears what her husband will think after her mastectomy. She laughs, cries and prays, and, during chemo, vomits into a bucket.
It has the details of life. Despite the simple and (at first glance) crude look, Fatenah leans into a kind of documentary realism.
That extends to the animation. Habash’s work isn’t Pixar — but it does have strengths. As one writer argued, he conveys the story’s “seriousness via slow, subdued character movements that seem designed to encourage careful attention to visual detail and emotional identification.”2
Call it floaty or stiff, but what other approach would work here? The same goes for the stripped-back character modeling. “We tried not to be hyper-realistic in their form,” Habash said, “because 3D tends to build alienated characters that no one can believe if you try to be too lifelike.” El Confidencial called the look “voluntarily naive.”
It all shifts your gaze toward the little details of Gazan life. These pile up: Andoni said that the aim was “to ground it on earth.” Travel restrictions blocked the crew from visiting either the Gaza Strip or Israel while making Fatenah, but they used extensive photographs (and hired a photographer in Gaza) to build this world.
In her book Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary, author Donna Kornhaber wrote:
... the macrolevel story of the film, while undoubtedly compelling, serves foremost as a vehicle for reflections on the daily conditions of life inside the Gaza Strip: the family dinner interrupted by an enforced power outage, the teacher’s strike to protest unpaid wages, the workday at a tailor’s shop broken up by sounds of nearby gunfire that make everyone freeze in place, the exasperation of the doctors and nurses trying to work in a medical facility with the electricity turned off, and most of all, the seemingly endless waiting that makes up one of the primary activities of life within this heavily militarized and supply-deprived zone — waiting for hours upon hours at military checkpoints trying to get to medical facilities in Israel, waiting for whole days in doctor’s offices and hospital waiting rooms inside Gaza as the region’s limited medical staff travel from clinic to clinic, waiting repeatedly in bureaucratic offices trying to obtain the necessary paperwork and permissions.
In the last issue of our newsletter, there’s a quote from John Hubley. Late in life, in the ‘70s, he expressed his desire for a type of animation able “to increase awareness, to warn, to humanize, to elevate vision, to suggest goals, to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with each other.”3 This is what Fatenah does, rough spots and all.
Ahmad Habash and the team get past the headlines, buzzwords and abstractions. They allow you to watch a life play out. Viewers in the West Bank felt it. When Fatenah premiered in Ramallah, the theater was full.
The film did well. For the first Palestinian animation of its kind, it did amazingly well. Fatenah “was translated into English and Hebrew, screened at many festivals and received many awards,” according to Animation: A World History. Yet the life that it portrays — happy, sad, hopeful and ultimately cut short — looks almost utopian compared to the footage coming out of Gaza now.
Saed Andoni was realistic about Fatenah’s potential effect on politics. “I don’t believe that films can change the world,” he said. That didn’t mean it was meaningless. To him, the point was to humanize, and “filmmakers do much more than politicians” to make these lives real to the world.
In 2009, after the film’s premiere in the West Bank, one of the attendees spoke to a journalist. Fatenah expressed a truth, she said, about these individual lives and the way they’re viewed. She said, “If hundreds of us die, it’s not [seen as] a problem. But behind each one of us is a big story and a big hassle.”
Drawing for Nothing is a new, free American book. It collects the art of unmade or underappreciated animation — Me and My Shadow and Satoshi Kon’s Dreaming Machine both have sections. Definitely worth a look.
Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron hit first place at the South Korean box office — by an overwhelming margin. Kobis reports that it’s earned the equivalent of around $6.8 million already. Meanwhile, its success in Taiwan continues.
The Russian stop-motion feature Hoffmaniada (2018) is now on YouTube — no subtitles so far. It took 17 years to produce.
The Bull of Cold won the “Indigenous Language Production Award” at Canada’s imagineNATIVE festival. It comes from Yakutia in Russia. The goal of director Alexander Moruo is to “revive [Yakut] culture through animation” — he and his team worked for 8–9 months on the film. Watch it here with English subtitles.
Since last year, Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon has partnered with a distributor to sell its work as in-flight movies. American Airlines, Lufthansa and more have bought Wolfwalkers, and the studio’s new Puffin Rock film seems to be next.
In Turkey, the people behind the Canlandıranlar Film Festival say that Turkish animation remains “in the background,” with little support or distribution. “Organizing the festival seems to become more difficult every year,” one notes.
More details have emerged about Mexico’s Insectario, the upcoming feature by stop-motion animator Sofìa Carrillo. Radix spoke to its producer Nicolás Celis (Roma). “In short, imagine a world without insects,” he says.
French director Véra Belmont, age 90, has an animated film coming to the UK: My Father’s Secrets. It’s about a Jewish family in the ‘60s, a father haunted by his memories of the Holocaust and his children who don’t know the history. See a trailer via Skwigly.
Lastly, we wrote about the making and meaning of Faith and John Hubley’s Maypo commercials.
See you again soon!