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Surrealist animation from Uzbekistan

Surrealist animation from Uzbekistan

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drawing, old man
"Ready or Not, Here I Come" (literal title, "I Go Seek") was directed in 1992 by the mysterious Vlad Fesenko. The actual story of how the film got made is a bit unclear; in the film itself, only the logo of Moscow's Pilot animation studio appears, while animator.ru says that it was made by Uzbekfilm and the Cinema Technologies Group. My guess about what this means is that it was made at Uzbekfilm (because all of the crew were Uzbekfilm employees), distributed by Pilot (who replaced other logos with their own), and partially funded by Cinema Technologies Group (this group worked with many different studios at this time).

What ended up getting made is one of the best examples of surrealism in animation.

Actually, most of the great examples of surrealism in Russian animation were released by Pilot studio at about this time (late 1980s, early 1990s), and they were mostly directed by new directors who made a brilliant film or two, and then immediately left their profession, often moving to the West to work as commercial animators or in advertising. Other examples include Andrey Svislotskiy's Hypnerotomachia, and Igor Kovalyov's His Wife the Hen and Andrey Svislotskiy (he named the film after his fellow director).

As for Vlad Fesenko, I could find very little information about him. He comes out of nowhere, directs a brilliant film, and then just disappears? Huh? The only film credit prior to this one that I could find is as co-director on "The Tales of Old Usto", a 1986 children's film (you can view a few seconds of it here). In the late 1980s (~1987-1988, maybe starting a year earlier and ending a year later), according to kinoart.ru, Fesenko enrolled in Moscow's Seniour Courses for Screenwriters and Directors, along with Aleksandr Petrov, Ivan Maximov, Mikhail Tumelya, Valeriy Olkovich, Vitaliy Bakunovich and Vadim Medzhibovskiy, with Mikhail Aldashin joining a bit later. There, he received instruction from Fyodor Khitruk, Yuriy Norshteyn and Eduard Nazarov. After 1992, I think I saw him credited for an early 1990s Ukrainian commercial - I can't seem to find it now, though.

Anyway, enough exposition. Please enjoy the film. Analysis and translation notes are below the video. (to make sure subtitles are turned on, click on the triangle on the bottom right and turn on CC) (the .srt subtitle file can be downloaded here)

The poem at the beginning is rather odd. The first four lines are a traditional counting rhyme for the game of hide-and-seek (although usually only the first two are spoken), while the next four are modified from a "children's poem" written by Valeriy Bryusov in August 1901

The result is a bit unsettling:

Раз, два, три, четыре, пять
Я иду искать
Кто за мной стоит,
тот в огне горит
Слово скажешь, на гулять -
Черной цепи не распять.
Снизу яма, сверху высь,
Между них вертись, вертись.
Кто не спрятался, я не виноват.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
I'll be searching high and low,
Stand behind my back,
and you'll be burned black.
Speak a word, and try to run;
the black chain won't be undone.
Pits below you, cliffs above;
in between, you'll spin and rove.
Ready or not, here I come!

After watching through the film many times, I've begun to see that there is definite purpose in it. Surrealism, after all, is not about being random; it's about using unconventional symbols to portray something that is invisible to the naked eye. I think I understand the beginning and end, but not the middle; if someone can see something that I missed, please leave a post. And so, let's begin.

The film's description on animator.ru says: "In childhood hide-and-seek is a game but in grown-up life it becomes a way of life."

The opening montage (after the counting rhyme) shows us that this kid could have lived in many places; some kids are born in the jungle, some are locked behind bars, and some are born to immediate fame. This particular kid is born in a decaying urban society. Everything in this film is a visual metaphor. Alcoholism is depicted as a hand literally reaching out from the gutter for a bottle, and closing the sewer lid over itself.

So our main character is born into a city that is falling apart, where authorities (represented by the walking hands) are chasing powerless undesirables (represented by flies that scatter when a police whistle blows), as well as other competing powerful figures (hands that give the finger to the police - 2:09 in the video). Lovers hide in the apartments. A sweeper lady tries to clean up some of the mess at first, before breaking her broom and leaving in disgust. Our protagonist witnesses how one of these powerless undesirables (depicted as an insect) is dealt with - the pleading falls on deaf ears as he (or she) is approached to be swatted with a newspaper. This is when an authority figure grabs the kid, stopping him from wandering around and seeing too many things, instead putting him onto a straight-and-narrow railroad to "success".

Our protagonist obediently takes his first steps on this railroad, and soon he's moving faster and faster. Night falls, and he no longer notices the surrounding scenery - his gaze is fixed on the promising lights in the distance, which he's sure to reach... sometime. This hope is represented by the blue ball that he absentmindedly rubs as he sits patiently (i.e. 2:56). The railroad becomes quite hilly, though, and the blue ball (which is revealed to be a bauble of the sort that decorates a New Year tree - in other words, representing hope for the future), is left unattended, falls to the ground and smashes. As soon as that happens, the passengers of the train have no reason to stay on it. Reality changes - the passengers now perceive themselves to not be on the train, but that the train is rolling over them. They stand up, confront the train, and it rolls away and rusts as if it had never been.

At 4:30 begins the middle part of the film that I don't understand very well right now. Having left the train behind, a new society needs to be built. Someone takes it upon himself to look through a theodolite and measure... people. Journalists, military. When some show disloyalty (I think, if I'm interpreting the spitting gesture correctly), he removes the floor beneath them. At 4:51, a single glass cup (in a metal cupholder, which were used on Soviet trains) is placed among other liquid-holders that are made completely of clay or metal. When the steel furnace begins pouring molten metal (maybe this represents the new ruler solidifying control), the glass breaks when the hot liquid reaches it. Again perception changes. The hot liquid has cooled, and everything is frozen. Lovers sitting in a frozen boat sink beneath the ice when consent (represented by the ring) is given. The call of "water!" is answered by a seagull, which flies toward us, and gives us... religion.

Five boys dutifully sit and listen to the completely incomprehensible words of an old rabbi who reads from pages whose actual meaning is much more basic than he lets on. I think that the religion here need not necessarily be Jewish; it could be any incomprehensible old dogma that keeps being repeated up until the point that it suddenly stops being mentioned and is almost like it never was. Only very young people will probably not know what I'm talking about. The rabbi falls silent, and his Torah pointer barely has the strength to flick away a wayward bug from the page. The other four boys tiptoe out of the room, but our protagonist goes up to the religious book.

He walks between the pages of religion, and uses its reassuring "holy text" to seal himself off from the world, reverting to the fetus position and finally to an egg. The view of the outside world from inside the egg is hazy; a woman kisses him, maybe someone throws a rotten egg at him, but it's all a bit far off. Finally, the final scene shows us what he looks like to people from the outside: a dirt-poor sweeper with his eyes symbolically tied shut. Just doing his part to keep the world a bit cleaner, but probably not doing a very good job, because opening his eyes would be too painful.

It strikes me that this film could be a self-portrait (though I stress that I know very little about the director).
  • Great analysis. I really enjoyed this.
  • couple comments

    What we see at 4:30 is the view trough a theodolite. What the first character is holding is a graduated rule, used when engineers try to level ground for some construction.
    And the huge jug looks like a steel furnace pouring molten metal.
    Hope those can be useful to you, i actually lack the patience to enjoy surrealism.
    • Re: couple comments

      Thank you; that does help. I don't know much about civil engineering. It also makes sense, because after the former "path" is gone, people have to build another... society. This really seems more and more like it could be about the collapse of the Soviet Union (represented by the train).
    • Re: couple comments

      I guess that's a safe bet for a 1992 production. Anyway, if it so, it's exceedingly opaque... If it was made 10 years earler i would interpret it differently, but it looks like the author whas somewhat stunned and perplexed himself.
    • Re: couple comments

      I guess that's a safe bet for a 1992 production. Anyway, if it so, it's exceedingly opaque... If it was made 10 years earler i would interpret it differently, but it looks like the author whas somewhat stunned and perplexed himself.
  • Music

    Does anyone know the name of the song at the end of the animation, during the sweeper scene and credits? It's been haunting me since I heard it, and I want to learn how to play in on the piano.

    • Re: Music

      I think it was composed specifically for the film by composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky (he is in the credits). If you Google his name, you'll find some biographical and contact information, so perhaps you can ask him about it.

      It's not a very hard piece to learn by ear, though, I think...
      • Re: Music

        Thanks a lot. I know, it's not TOO hard to learn by ear, but I was wondering if there was more. Thanks again
  • Thank you for a great analysis.

    I'm the son of Vlad Fesenko, this is a really good piece, I'd like to thank you from myself and my dad for writing this and paying attention to his work.
    • Re: Thank you for a great analysis.

      You're very welcome. And wow, I never imagined that Vlad Fesenko would see what I wrote! Please let me know, did I get things right?

      I'm still a bit unsure of the film's meaning between 4:30 and when the boy walks into the pages of the religious book - I see the symbols, but am not sure of what they all mean. What does the glass breaking represent? Why does the Torah pointer flick away a bug?

      I'm also quite curious about how the film was made and why your father made it at the time!

      Можете ответить по-русски. ))
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