Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Breathless Animals, Glimpses at the Personal

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This year, we are pleased to have been able to commission articles on each new feature film in the 2019 programme. In this piece, Lilly Husbands looks at Lei Lei’s Breathless Animals.

Experimental animator Lei Lei’s first feature film Breathless Animals is in many ways reminiscent of what film scholar Bill Nichols has called the poetic mode of documentary. Harking back to modernist works of the 1920s like Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera and Ruttmann’s Berlin: A Symphony of a Great City, poetic documentaries tend to emphasise rhythmic, formal and visual associations much more than ‘displays of knowledge or acts of persuasion.’ In Breathless Animals, Lei Lei meticulously composes visual documents and oral family history less into a symphony than a kind of electro-acousmatic rap exploring a generational gap in Chinese cultural identity. 

The film’s formal language is precise yet playful, varied yet patterned, rhythmic yet unpredictable—it exhibits an animator’s exacting material control throughout. At the start, we hear a Chinese woman (Lei Lei’s mother) agree to answer her interviewer’s (Lei Lei) questions. She is not the little girl holding a toy phone to her ear in the black and white photograph that we first see on screen, nor does she feature in any of the images thereafter. Instead we see found photographs, halftone catalogue images and official documentary footage taken during the intensely transformative period in China from the 1950s to the 1980s. The film’s five sections are seemingly arranged according to particular themes (furniture, landscapes and mountains, people on bicycles, street views, buildings), and each exhibits different techniques (rapid and vacillating editing, collage animation, superimposition, even an abstract 3D sequence of architectural exteriors). Periods of blackness punctuate the film, and certain sequences—like the one featuring animated cutout figures gyrating within a landscape of potted Bonsai trees—recur with minor alterations that feel significant if evasive in meaning. 

Some sections are tightly synchronised to the mechanical sounds of an analogue tape player, yet in general the images rarely correspond to the stories being told in voiceover. Lei Lei’s mother is heard in fits and starts (sometimes being interrupted mid-story), but we gather fragments of a more or less chronological account of her childhood in Maoist China leading up to Lei Lei’s post-Maoist childhood in the 1980s. Much of China’s ‘official’ history during this period is left for the audience to infer. We get glimpses of personal/national experiences from the soundtrack and the anonymous images: a mother dying young, a father sent to a rehabilitation farm during the Cultural Revolution, a brother blacklisted for being a ‘thug’, masses of bicycling workers, state owned furniture in austere work-unit housing, the reinstating of university exams in 1977 and the population controlling one child policy. Lei Lei’s mother reveals more inner turmoil in her descriptions of dreams she has had throughout her life (mainly nightmares about animals she has seen maimed or killed) than in her straightforward accounts of difficult family history. The film hints at a story of a nation undergoing massive structural change and the toll it took on the people who lived through it, but its experimental formalism disrupts and complicates our access to this history. Its formal challenges offer us an opportunity to experience Lei Lei’s own searching struggle to put pieces of an older generation’s memory and history together in a way that makes a kind of sense, reminding us that this sense is always partial, personal and idiosyncratically organised

Lilly Husbands is a Lecturer in Animation and Visual Culture at Middlesex University whose research is broadly concerned with the legacy and evolution of experimental animation in the context of contemporary multimedia practice. 

Lei Lei’s Breathless Animals screens on Sunday 8th September at ICA London.