Sand animator Naomi van Niekerk was thrilled when her first film – a stop-motion short entitled ’n GEWONE BLOU MANDAGOGGEND (An Ordinary Blue Monday Morning) – was one of 200 films chosen from among 2600 entries to be screened in competition at The Annecy International Animated Film Festival this year, making her one of three local filmmakers to be given this accolade in 2016.
This adaptation of Ronelda Kamfer’s poem of the same name was created for the FilmVerse project, which asked animation filmmakers to create films inspired by acclaimed Afrikaans poems.
We spoke to Naomi about her unusual work, her background studying puppetry in France, and what Annecy means to her.
Q: How did you create your film and how did this project come about?
A: I created my film drawing with sand on a light box using paintbrushes and my fingers. It was a very long and slow process because of the medium, as well as the fact that this was the first proper animation film I’ve ever made. It was a huge learning curve!
For this film, I only used Dragonframe and an old Canon 1000D that I had found in my dad’s study.
I started using a light box in live performances in 2013. Diek Grobler (Creative Director of Filmverse) came to see one of my shows and then encouraged me to apply for Filmverse.
Q: Kamfer’s poem is harrowing; it brings to light the harsh/ordinary reality facing many young South Africans today. How did you feel when you first read it and what images did it cast in your own mind?
A: At the first Filmverse meeting we were given a selection of poems and Kamfer’s poem was included. I immediately knew then that this was the poem I needed to make a film for; it just drew me in immediately. The poem says so much and so effectively speaks of a community where the fathers are absent and the every day is overshadowed by violence. The first images I had were the school shoes stumping out a cigarette and the mother crying over her dead child. When one makes a film for a poem images emerge over a period of time, it happens as you discover the many layers of meaning embedded in the writing.
What I love about Kamfer’s work is that it portrays a whole reality but in a very personal way, meaning that the story unfolds through the viewpoint of a young girl going to school. I’m passionate about telling these types of stories that would not normally feature in mainstream cinema.
Q: What does it mean to you to get into Annecy?
A: I am very excited and a little overwhelmed at the moment. Getting into Annecy has been a distant dream and the fact that the first film I’ve made is accepted…well, it’s a big surprise! I see it also as motivation to keep making films. This specific project I worked on in my past time—mostly evenings and weekends—and the fact that it is screened all over the world now, wow, it is such an honour.
Q: How did you get into animation as an art form?
A: I studied puppetry in France and always enjoyed drawing. Animation has a lot in common with puppetry so I guess making animation films was the next step in sending my work to a bigger audience. The logistics of traveling for live shows internationally can be overwhelming while submitting films to festivals is much easier, just throw it in a Dropbox folder and off you go!
Q: What can SA learn from France about supporting and investing in animation beyond the commercial aspects?
Animation is such a powerful tool for telling stories, and when you have a good story you can attain international attention even if you’re doing it using very basic techniques and software. I believe that there is lots of potential in reaching a huge audience using animation as a medium—especially stop-motion animation, which is my passion. For my second film By alle skone dinge, which is also touring the international festival circuit at the moment, I literally had no budget. So I just made the film, closed my eyes and hoped for the best. In France, animators work with producers and distributors, this makes things easier in that it buys one time, time to storyboard, and to storyboard again… until the film flows. This affects the quality of your film!
Q: I love the fact that your short has your fingerprints all over it, that you translated such a powerful poem through such intimate means. Did you find the process itself cathartic and what does the story gain by being told in sand and light?
A: Thanks! I do think that the process was cathartic – you’re right, sand animation is such a tactile and intimate medium. You’re literally creating this world and telling the story through touch.
Light and dark is a very strong theme in the poem; at one point the narrator (Kamfer) quotes Dylan Thomas, “do not go gentle into that good night”: the character’s constant struggle not to be drawn into darkness, like “the girl who jokes with her future murderers.” So yes, I’d like to think that telling the story by using sand to block out the light supported this idea.
Q: What animated shorts or artists have influenced your work?
A: I discovered sand animation a couple of years ago through the work of Caroline Leaf, she made the classic The Owl and the Goose. An animator’s work who I adore is Simone Massi (The Memories of Dogs), he works in black and white on scraperboard, and Svetlana Filippova (Brutus).
We wish the best of luck to Naomi in Annecy and we look forward to seeing more of her beautiful work.
Interview by Chris Wheeler