Divers in the Rain: Tarmo Vaarmets, Marje Ale, Ulle Metsur, Tiina Ubar-Sauter (animators)
The Manipulate Festival continued on Wednesday night with a doublebill from Priit Pärn. Introduced as, ‘a genuine giant of world animation’ the man himself was there in person to discuss his work with Kevin Williamson (director of Neu Reekie), who chaired a half-hour question-and-answer session after the screening.
Beginning as an artist in 1960’s Estonia, Pärn negotiated a path through the boundaries imposed by a state-controlled, Soviet film industry, and survived to enjoy the opportunities of creative freedom when the barriers came down. Earning a reputation as Estonia’s Black Knight, he has been credited with forging his own one-man revolution, working against the system of Soviet rule. So how subversive is he?
Night of the Carrots, made in 1998, was the first of the two films to be shown and is typical of Pärn’s surreal and wacky style. The voiced narrative bounces, often in a series of disconnections, between bizarre characters in impossible situations – like the glutinous brown mass called The Great Cellist whose enemies are K, G and B.
There is movement towards a looming catastrophe, which comes to nothing when the evil rabbits in charge of the world turn into carrots – without warning, for one unpredictable night only. On the surface, the animation is cartoony - colourful and fun; but the dialogue draws out the sinister undercurrents - about which you can draw your own conclusions… or not.
While still mulling this over, the next film flickered into life. Made 10 years later, in 2008, Divers in the Rain represents a shift and development in style, yet is still discernibly Pärn. The story shows 24 hours in the life of a couple with a strange, melancholy routine. He is a deep-sea diver by day and she is a dentist by night: they just have time to share a kiss in the morning, before he goes off to work and she settles down to sleep.
His day is full of mishaps, accidents and incidental cigarettes, while the rain pours incessantly down. Her dreams are full of disturbing, grating noises against the background of a constant drip from the leaky roof. At the end of the day they share another kiss, before she goes out to work and he submerges himself in the bath. No words are spoken during this animation, allowing the visual language to speak for itself. The impact of this is powerful, but no less playful.
During his conversation with Williamson, Pärn talked about how he saw making animation under Soviet rule as a sport, a game. Soviet animation was regarded as a propaganda tool, a way of consolidating the ‘right’ way to think: Pärn enjoyed telling deliberately mad or strange stories that demonstrated there were different ways of thinking. It was a dangerous but clever game, managing to take money from the system and using it to undermine its authority while appearing, for the most part, to obey.
So there are no ‘messages’ as such hidden in his work – he was very clear about that – and so where does that leave his subversive reputation? Given his history, it is not surprising that Pärn has no desire to feed people with propaganda messages of his own. And perhaps, in that climate, the most subversive act is to open up the possibility for other ways of thinking and just allow people the freedom to think for themselves.
One night, 5th Feb