Artists Use Animation to Tell Diverse, Adult-Skewing Stories

- VARIETY, Carole Horst, 02/03/21

Director Ilze Burkovska-Jacobsen used animation for her documentary-memoir “My Favorite War,” which tells her story of growing up in Latvia during the Cold War.

Using animation opened up unlimited possibilities in telling her story and the story of her family under the Soviet government during the 1970s and 1980s. Her father was a communist official who was killed in a car crash when she was 7. Her mother was pressured to join the Communist Party in order to keep a decent job — against the wishes of her strong-willed family.

Burkovska-Jacobsen, who has been living in Norway for almost 30 years and working in the television and film business, also used family photos as well as new footage of recent family events to enhance the storytelling.

“Animation leaves very big possibilities to emphasize a reality of how I felt,” she says. “There are many reasons why it’s animated, because I wanted to tell the story in the context of the military objects and the military threats around us, and there is no archive [for me to use]. Maybe there are some archives in Russia, but I guess I can never get them out.”

She adds that she didn’t want to go the reenactment route.

Animation allowed her to “tell the story in the richness of the experience,” to show the happy times and the bad, the tense moments and the triumphs.

Norwegian children’s book artist Svein Nyhus led the animation team as the concept artist. She went out to Nyhus because she liked his style. “In his characters you always feel this thing that you take the child seriously, the child is someone who can think by themself,” combining elements that would please a child grounded in curiosity. “There is something scary also.”

But at first he said no, he didn’t want to take on a feature film. His wife persuaded him to sign on.

“He was so very respectful to the animators and the other artists; they were looking very much up to him. So each time is when Svein delivered the character designs it was like Christmas,” she says.

“My Favorite War” refers to WWII, which the Soviets exploited in order to keep a sense of their identity across the diverse Soviet Union. As a girl during the 1970s and 1980s, Burkovska-Jacobsen watched TV shows, listened to radio broadcasts and was taught in school about the heroics of the Red Army and especially of the Courland Pocket, where she lived and where several bitter battles were fought. But as she ages in the film, the stories become more tragic, less heroic. Such as the story of German soldiers toward the end of the war loading stolen cows from a Latvian farm on a plane (“They must be really hungry in Berlin,” says the farmer), then dropping them out mid-flight in order to conserve fuel. There’s also a scene in which thousands of bones from soldiers — both Soviet and German — were unearthed at a construction site next to her school. She says she felt like a skeletal hand was waving at her, adding that the whole episode was surreal.

There was also her memories of school, her teachers and activities as a leader in the Young Pioneers, the Soviet youth clubs.

“The only way to make those episodes is to go back to animation,” she says.

“If you’re not allowed to tell this tragedy, how we are smashed between those two forces, and big armies … if you don’t speak out, their trauma still haunts you for generations and the new generations,” she says.

While the style of animation is evocative of a sophisticated children’s book, “I was a bit scared that the characters would be too stiff in this technique, but then I worked through it with the animators, and I found out that there is something of this Soviet stiffness,” she says.

She thinks we should take young people seriously, and their concerns. “And this is why I am, in this film, worried about his childhood trauma — we can even see how we were manipulated in the communist system, which used us to believe that we are contributing to something good in the world.”

But the film also illuminates the beauty of the countryside in which she spent time as a little kid, as well as her grandfather’s paintings. He was labeled as an enemy of the state and was never allowed to exhibit his work. All in all, Burkovska-Jacobsen uses the freedom of animation lays out a rich and complicated world.

“I will say that I don’t understand our current time, I think we need a perspective of the time to understand what has happened to us. So I think that is the way I was not able, as a younger person, understand like I do now. I want people to appreciate what democracy is, what they have achieved, and to do this [give a] perspective of that time, and understand how valuable those things are that have been achieved. And this is not only in Eastern Europe, but all the democratic countries.”