War and Art
Why animators matter in a time of conflict.
We had something else planned for today. We’re setting it aside for now.
As you know, the Russian military began its invasion of Ukraine under 24 hours ago. At the time of this writing, we don’t have the full picture of what’s happening on the ground, but the general idea is clear. Vladimir Putin’s monstrous ambitions are putting millions of innocent lives at risk, and have ended many already.
Russia’s military seems to be doing what the expert Brian Nichiporuk predicted a few years ago. Like a Time writer explained back in 2019:
Nichiporuk […] raised the specter of what he called a “smash and grab” operation — where Russia uses the capabilities it has honed […] to launch a rapid invasion of, say, Estonia, immediately incorporate the invaded nation into its formidable defense perimeter, and present the invasion to the world as a virtual “fait accompli.”
That said, the Animation Obsessive newsletter isn’t about military strategy, foreign policy or war reportage. We cover animation from around the world. And what does animation have to say at a time like this? Today is a day when many artists are feeling powerless, even useless. What can animators offer to a world in crisis?
A lot, as we see it.
At its best, animation is an artform capable of expressing deep, eternal truths. Films like the recent Flee, about a refugee from Afghanistan, don’t shrink into irrelevance during times of war. Neither do My Neighbor Totoro or The Man Who Planted Trees. Their importance, as enriching and truth-telling art, only grows.
From the start, the act of making that art has often been a defiant one. To circle back to a recent issue, China’s animators invented ink-wash animation during the Great Famine. They were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. When their persecution ended, they went right back to animating — producing beautiful work like A Da’s Three Monks.
And that film proved to be intensely meaningful for China. In the words of writer David Ehrlich, Three Monks was:
A Da’s special cry that the split in China caused by the Cultural Revolution, the split that turned one family member against another, would result only in destruction and should never be repeated.
All that from a quiet, funny little cartoon. Both the story behind it and the wonderful end result speak to painful times. Animation isn’t simply an escapist lie we tell ourselves when life is easy. So often, it’s a hard-won victory over suffering.
That’s the story of Ukrainian animation, too.
As the country fights for its freedom, it’s worth remembering and celebrating Ukraine’s animators. They’ve practiced their craft amid incredible hardship, and yet they’ve produced animated classics that have touched the world — including Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1982), maybe the best animated adaptation of Lewis Carroll in existence.
Ukrainian animation was born in painful times. It began in the late 1920s, just a few years before Holodomor — the Ukrainian genocide carried out under Stalin. Some of the earliest surviving cartoons from Ukraine, like Tuk-Tuk and His Friend Zhuk (1935), were released right after the end of that atrocity.
As the 20th century wore on, Ukraine transformed into one of the world’s most inventive producers of animation. Many Ukrainian cartoons of that time, Alice included, are wildly creative — often jumping freely from cel animation to stop-motion paper cutouts, and beyond.
Kievnauchfilm, which created Alice, was the main animation studio in Ukraine back then. A number of its films grew hugely popular around the USSR. Alice itself remains iconic not just in Ukraine, but in Russia.
When we shared that above clip of Alice, we received comments from a few agitators and Russian nationalists upset that we’d credited Ukraine with its creation. One person told us that the country “didn’t exist then and soon won’t anymore.” But Russia can’t claim ownership over Alice — the whole look and feel of it is Ukrainian. Even invading Ukraine can’t change that, just as the Soviet occupation didn’t.
Kievnauchfilm produced so many gems, a complete list would be impossible here. A few are The Young Crane and Dr. Aybolit, and the immortal Treasure Island — another film beloved in Russia, but with a Ukrainian soul. Then there’s The Meeting, which still mesmerizes us whenever we see it:
Even after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early ‘90s, Ukrainian creativity continued. Captain Tussy (1991) is an obscure piece, but we’ve loved it for years. In 2020, as fighting raged in eastern Ukraine and Russian forces occupied Crimea, Ukrainian animators brought out the awesome-looking indie feature Viktor_Robot.
The mere existence of Ukrainian animation is a century-long story of human tenacity, resilience, joy, sadness, creativity and overcoming. And the best art produced by that process stands up, like all great art, even against the real-world horror and tragedy that Ukraine has faced. Not only stands up, but fights back. Ukraine has needed animation not in spite of evil, but because of it.
That’s true for animation as a whole. At its best, it’s light. There’s always a need for light. When the darkness grows thicker, that need only gets more intense.
If you’re reading this, you’re very likely involved in animation or art more generally. The attack on Ukraine may make you wonder why you’re doing this at all. Don’t let that feeling defeat you — channel it. The world is desperate for meaningful art right now. It needs light. You have the power to offer some, even if it’s just a little.
Until next time.