Animated autobiography is a unique form of self-representation which allows its creators to assemble a variety of conventions and elements to help explore and represent an aspect of their identity. This essay considers how identity is represented through narrative, specifically autobiographical animation. I will examine theories of identity and narrative, consider the discourses, conventions and definition of animated autobiography, and the way cultural identity in autobiographical work impacts on identity and narrative. I reference a 10-minute autobiographical animation called Greensplat, made in 2011. This film focuses on my personal experiences between 1984 and 1990, incorporating memories, recontextualised archival audio, and documentary elements, and is set in the wider context of mining and its environmental consequences. I conclude by examining how this work utilises the conventions and influences discussed to create a personal narrative that constructs individual identity.
Keywords: animated documentary – biography
The construction of identity in autobiographical animation.
Animated autobiography, also called animated memoir, is emerging as a unique form of self-representation that allows its creators to bring together a variety of conventions and elements to help explore and represent an aspect of their identity. Similar to the artistic medium of assemblage, found objects and selected memories can combine to form a new whole - a type of moving image collage.
In this essay I will look at how identity is represented through narrative, specifically autobiographical animation. I will examine theories of identity, including those posited by Hall and Benveniste and how they relate to the construction of autobiographical narrative. Accepting the link between constructing an autobiographical narrative and the strengthening or formation of identity raises questions about this process. For instance, how has the author of the work selected the content to include, and why? What forms of visual or literary representation are employed? These choices impact significantly on the reading of the work.
After considering the discourses, conventions and definition of animated autobiography as a form, I then discuss the way cultural identity in autobiographical work impacts on identity and narrative. As noted by Stabile and Harrison, the opportunity for the re-interrogation and repositioning of representational forms is an intrinsic quality of animation. ‘Further, it is a context in which the comparatively insular field of animators can re-engage and reproduce variations on historically determined forms and approaches but with an inevitably fresh approach.’ (Stabile & Harrison 2003: 31). To understand the discursive conventions of animated autobiography and how they can be utilised in the construction of identity, I examine this emerging form of filmmaking in more detail with reference to key works.
I end by referencing a 10-minute autobiographical animation called Greensplat. This film focuses on selected personal experiences between 1984 and 1990, incorporating memories, recontextualised archival audio, and documentary elements, and is set in the wider context of mining and its environmental consequences. I conclude by examining how this work utilises the conventions and influences discussed to curate and create a personal and political narrative.
Self and story
When it comes to autobiography, narrative and identity are so intimately linked that each constantly and properly gravitates into the conceptual field of the other. Thus, narrative is not merely a literary form but a mode of phenomenological and cognitive self-experience, while self – the self of autobiographical discourse – does not necessarily precede its constitution in narrative (Eakin 1999: 100).
Oliver Sacks writes about the importance of this self-narrative. ‘It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and that this narrative is us, our identities’ (cited in Eakin 1999: 101). As Eakin notes, Sacks is talking here about living autobiography, ‘performing it in our daily lives’, in the context of memory as a sustaining factor in individual identity (1999: 101).
The creation of an autobiographical work, including an animated production, can be seen as complementary to this ongoing process: reflecting, contributing to and reshaping personal narrative identity.
Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a 'production', which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation. (Hall 1989: 222)
One reason for the selection of particular content is related to the individual’s conscious or subconscious wish to maintain or create particular aspects of their identity. ‘Individuals actively seek information that helps to confirm their desired self views. Personal memory plays an important role in identity construction because it provides pertinent and plentiful information’ (Wilson & Ross 2003: 147). For instance, when constructing an autobiographical narrative focusing on the past, an individual may choose to include childhood behaviour demonstrating elements of originality and creativity if they consider this an important and desirable aspect of their current adult identity. Alternately, the rationale for selection may be based on demonstrating the subject’s strength of character in enduring traumatic or difficult events, or aim to offer therapeutic or educational insights. This is a reflexive process and will have an impact on current and future self-stories.
The person creating the autobiographical work may be different in some notable ways from the character represented – i.e. the adult recreating the world and attitudes of themselves as a child – but this still has relevance to their self-view. Wilson and Ross’ essay also suggests that ‘autobiographical memory may serve an identity function by enhancing feelings of personal consistency through time’ (2003: 138). Therefore, if the aforementioned example of creativity applied, the individual might also find it affirming to emphasise that this trait has always been present in their character. Or, potentially not – if the later discovery of their creativity constitutes a key episode in their self-story.
These examples demonstrate the selective nature of identity construction: while the components emphasised in a personal narrative are based on existing life events and personality traits, the significance attributed to each will depend on how the narrative is constructed.
Benveniste suggests that the process of asserting oneself as an ‘I’ to others is a vital part of creating a subject’s identity. Therefore, ‘Ego is he who says ego. That is where we see the foundation of “subjectivity”, which is determined by the linguistic status of “person”… Consciousness of self is only possible if it is experienced by contrast. I use I only when speaking to someone who will be a you in my address.’ (Benveniste 1958: 224).
While Benveniste’s ‘ego is he who says ego’ example is linguistically based, appearing in his essay ‘Subjectivity in Language’, the concept can potentially be extended wider – i.e. to incorporate the idea that, in terms of identity, the individual is, to an extent, the narrative he constructs to represent himself.
Consequently, the content selection process for an autobiography is highly complex. Wilson and Ross (2003: 147) note that people can revise previous self-appraisals and shift recollections subjectively. Arguably, the flexible nature of animation and its ability to include a range of media makes it ideal for representing identity as reflexive.
Stewart aligns autobiography with the acquisition of a sort of ‘souvenir’, implying that depicting a memory immediately elevates it above the prosaic while also fixing it in place as part of identity. ‘We do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable. Rather we need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that exist only through the invention of narrative.’ (Stewart cited in Ross 1992: 138)
This in itself has the potential to become self-referential - ‘the narration of the photograph will itself become an object of nostalgia’, says Stewart. He goes on to discuss how the ‘souvenirs’ become intertwined with generating a sense of self worth, and alludes to the suggestion by Calvin Hall and Vernon Nordby that ‘it is only the reported dream that has any objective existence’ (Ross 1992: 139). As individuals curate the appearance of a desirable life on social media, so autobiographers build a representation of what they are and have been.
The creation of an autobiography has a variety of functions in terms of constituting and affirming individual identity, but can also contribute to a wider cultural identity by reflecting, criticising and reinterpreting social discourse.
Cultural identity and narratives of displacement
Cultural identity is a particular area of interest for Stuart Hall, who has written extensively about narratives of displacement, or what he refers to as the diaspora experience. His essay ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ (Hall 1989) outlines useful concepts to examine in relation to identity and autobiography.
In the essay, Hall suggests there are two different but related ways of thinking about cultural identity. Firstly, the construction of a type of ‘common self’ based on shared history and ancestry – a unity underlying superficial differences. This suggests that an ‘essential’ cultural identity which has been lost through a collective trauma can be reconstructed through research, or ‘imaginative rediscovery’. ‘Crucially, such images offer a way of imposing an imaginary coherence on the experience of dispersal and fragmentation, which is the history of all enforced diasporas’ (Hall 1989: 244).
The second position focuses on the points of difference as opposed to the points of similarity, acknowledging that the ruptures and discontinuities that may have occurred subsequent to a shared past experience constitute an equal part of cultural identities. ‘Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous “play” of history, culture and power.’ (Hall 1989: 225). Hall admits this way of thinking is more unsettling, lacking the simplicity of a fixed origin, but notes that identities can be framed by the simultaneous ‘vectors’ of similarity and difference. Thus, a cultural identity can incorporate both a past continuity and the experience of discontinuity or diaspora, but both of these are formative rather than fixed, and develop constantly through interpretation. ‘Identities are therefore constructed within, not outside representation. They relate to the invention of tradition as much as to tradition itself’ (Hall 1996: 4).
Consequently, it becomes up to displaced individuals to construct their identity from the factors and knowledge they have available. Hall uses the example of Jamaicans discovering their shared Afro-Caribbean identity in the 1970s thanks to the ‘mediation’ of factors such as Rastafarianism, civil rights struggles and reggae music – ‘the metaphors, the figures or signifiers of a new construction of “Jamaican-ness”. These signified a 'new' Africa of the New World, grounded in an 'old' Africa.’ (Hall 1989: 231).
The term ‘diaspora’ is used here partly in a metaphorical sense, to recognise diversity, difference and hybridity. ‘Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference’ (Hall 1989: 235). Of course, this does not exclude diaspora in its literal meaning of the dispersion of people originally sharing a common culture, but does suggest that the original or ‘essential’ identity is basically unattainable and therefore ripe for reinterpretation. ‘This “return to the beginning” is like the imaginary in Lacan - it can neither be fulfilled nor requited, and hence is the beginning of the symbolic, of representation, the infinitely renewable source of desire, memory, myth, search, discovery - in short, the reservoir of our cinematic narratives’ (Hall 1989: 236).
Autobiographical narratives are particularly likely to draw on this reservoir, given the form is based on a personalised, imagined representation of the past. Animation is also particularly suited to incorporating symbolism and memory through its flexible visual possibilities. Hall refers to a ‘diaspora aesthetic’ which is represented in language and post-colonial creative cultural forms, involving the re-articulation of elements and symbols taken from dominant ‘master codes’. The focus is then on the reinvention and reconstruction of identity through the combination of hybrid aspects and mediums.
The diaspora experience as I intend it here is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of 'identity' which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. (Hall 1989: 235)
Hybridity can also be seen at work in autobiographical animations, where appropriation and recontextualisation of material forms one of the primary interpretive tools. Motifs from different codes can be combined to create an original whole. Intertextuality also plays an important part, as different works and mediums draw on each other for inspiration and imagery.
The experience of diaspora appears frequently as a central aspect of animated autobiographical narrative. My production includes the consequences of a mine expansion, which eventually necessitated the forced dispersal of all Greensplat residents. Nichols claims that these politics of location point to the importance of first-person filmmaking. ‘Such work explores the personal as political at the level of textual self-representation as well as at the level of lived experience…The ‘I’ of testimonials embodies social affinities but is also acutely aware of social difference, marginality, and its own place among the so-called Others of hegemonic discourse’ (Nichols 2001: 8).
Pilgrims to the past
Bauman’s essay ‘From Pilgrim to Tourist’ looks at the idea of an identity search involving individual ‘pilgrimage’ or identity-building. ‘Pilgrims had a stake in the solidity of the world they walked; in a kind of world in which one can tell life as a continuous story, a “sense-making” story’ (Bauman 1996: 23). This concept is useful in identifying a convention of animated autobiographies: they often contain elements of pilgrimage – metaphorically, in the sense of researching and revisiting the past, and often also literally, where the filmmaker takes a physical journey to help inform their creative process. In the case of Waltz with Bashir (Folman 2008), the director’s efforts to fill in the gaps in his recollections involves travelling to interview past friends, using animation to recreate both this process and what he finds out. This structure of framing a depiction of memories or imagination within a description of contemporary real-world travel or exploration appears in other animated memoirs such as Persepolis (Sartrapi & Peronnaud 2007), where a flashback is often preceded by the protagonist being shown at the airport about to return to her homeland.
Bauman’s essay goes on to suggest that the postmodern search for identity no longer has the simplicity of a pilgrimage where the record of past travels is preserved, and instead is defined by avoidance of fixation. The consistency of one linear journey has become fragmented into self-enclosed episodes: ‘time is no longer a river, but a collection of ponds and pools.’ (25) This has similarities with both Hall’s reservoir and Stewart’s idea of selected memories forming a type of souvenir, in the sense that a single resonating episode lacks the point-to-point flow of a river. A ‘pond’ might form due to a significant event or blockage, creating a repository for specific images and feelings that may then have no clear autobiographical link explored to the parallel pool around the corner. If an individual perceives one pond of memory as an intrinsic part of who they are, and represents it as such, they become architects of their identity and place in the world.
Conceptually, both Bauman and Hall refer to a general dispersal of identity experience and representation, making the research and construction of self-stories a potentially fraught and complex process. Within this, individual testimonials are themselves complex constructions. Brewer suggests that the self is composed of an experiencing ego, a self-schema of generic knowledge, and the memories and facts associated with these (Rubin 1986: 27). Thus in the Greensplat section where the caravan near the mine pit burns down, my recall includes the intensity of my mother’s voice telling us to get outside (personal memory), the fact that the fire happened while she was baking bread (autobiographical fact) and an approximation of what the garden looked like (generic personal memory). The subsequent animated depiction can bring all three together, making it a flexible tool to either preserve the footprints of the pilgrim for posterity as part of a linear narrative or effectively illustrate a self-enclosed episode within that.
Animated autobiography as a form
Precisely because identities are constructed within, not outside, discourse, we need to understand them as produced in specific historical and institutional sites within specific discursive formations and practices, by specific enunciative strategies. (Hall 1996: 4)
Autobiography is well established within literary and oral traditions but what are the parameters of animated autobiography? It can be classed as a sub-genre of both autobiographical film and animated documentary. Given that animation tends to be a wholly constructed medium and documentary is generally perceived to reflect the ‘real’ world, this latter form, hybrid in name as well as content, seems at first glance contradictory in scope.
However, Strøm suggests that ‘animation’ is a technical term, and ‘documentary’ a content-related approach, meaning that the terms are not exclusive. He attempts to offer a pragmatic definition of what constitutes an animated documentary – ‘a documentary in which an extensive part…is animated’ – but realises the difficulty of establishing further boundaries around both animation and documentary. (2003: 47–63). Grierson famously defined documentary as ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (cited in Nichols 1991: 10), which offers room for interpretation around the nature and medium of that creativity.
It can also be argued that the live action documentary is as reliant on subjective authorial processes as its animated equivalent. As Yadin (2003) suggests, all documentary films are representations of reality, and in this sense animation is just another style to utilise. The primary aspect to examine may be the film’s intent rather than its medium. ‘In the non-fiction film…the typical stance taken is assertive; the states of affairs represented are asserted to occur in the actual world as portrayed’ (Wolterstorff cited in Plantinga 1997: 17). This is a useful statement in the context of animated documentary as it allows for a departure from indexical representation while acknowledging a work’s non-fiction position, or assertion to a truth claim.
It has also been suggested that the transparency of animation’s visual re-creation can more accurately reflect the level of construction involved in the documentary process. Yadin (2003) argues that animation and its obvious intervention with the subject can be the most honest form of documentary filmmaking, as it can be difficult for viewers to remember that live action is still interpreted by a filmmaker rather than being a transparent reflection of reality. This intervention comes in the form of the medium – animation that is clearly illustration or 3D modeling, for instance, will generally not appear to be depicting direct reality in the sense that a live-action film might.
Having said this, it is still reasonable to question the veracity of the narrative within animated documentary, while simultaneously acknowledging the difficulty of ascertaining the author’s original intent. Nostalgic stimulus can prompt a melding of fact and fantasy, suggests Ross, and in a meta sense, even be formed by the depiction of the event. ‘On the affective side nostalgia is not so much an attempt to recall experienced emotions as to engender them’ (Ross 1992: 186). The question then revolves around how much importance to attribute to factual authenticity as opposed to emotional verisimilitude, which I consider in more detail later on.
Conventions and identity construction in animated autobiography
Traditionally, animation is utilised in a documentary context to perform a number of functions. Documentaries have featured animated inserts to demonstrate scientific or geographic concepts in an accessible manner. It offers a wide range of visual options to explore personal memories, and can also illustrate historical eras and events of which no footage exists, as in the case of Windsor McKay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). The fact that the imagery has been created specifically for the purpose allows a great flexibility and is easily interpreted by the audience as a construction. Also, as Sofian (2009) states, iconogaphic images can often have more impact than live action.
More recently, it has become popular to recontextualise audio recordings with realistic or non-realistic animated interpretations to offer new angles on a topic. Aardman Animations have created successful productions using both methods, including War Story (Lord 1989), a realistic but stylised interpretation, and Creature Comforts (Park & Goleszowski 1989) which uses a non-realistic representation, placing genuine interview responses about housing issues in the mouths of zoo animals to add both novelty and commentary on the topic.
Autobiographical animation can be considered as a subset of animated documentary, as it aims to present a version of events occurring in the real world, albeit an overtly personal one. Therefore, an individual creating an animation based on autobiographical themes has a range of interpretive tools to utilise. They may include archival material from the historical world such as photographs, video or audio, in the manner of traditional indexical-based documentary. This can then be combined with created elements such as traditional drawn animation, Flash or stop-motion, or be used as reference and interpreted though them. The conventions emerging from these tools and techniques offer a framework to examine how identity is constructed.
The use of visual motifs and symbolism
In animated autobiography, visual representations of the topic being presented are often symbolic and/or significantly simplified. This can provide a shorthand approach to a topic, essentially creating a visual motif to represent a complex or intense experience. ‘The selectiveness of the animation process allows metaphorical aspects of the characters’ stories to become clear, helping the audience to connect with them on a more direct level’ (Purves 2010: 70).
An example of this would be the dancing soldiers in Yuri Norstein’s Tale of Tales (Norstein 1979), who disappear abruptly from their partners’ arms as a train rattles past and they are called off to war. Motifs can be aural as well as visual, and the example of the soldiers is accompanied by a mournful wartime tango tune, familiar to Soviet viewers from the era being portrayed. Norstein is asserting his connection to this timeframe and event in a way that communicates clearly and quickly.
Norstein also includes a subtle symbolism in much of his characterisation. An aggressive drunken father represents what he saw as bullying from the authoritarian Soviet society at the time. For instance, despite Norstein’s films winning major prizes around the world, he was never allowed to attend an overseas festival (Kitson 2005: 48).
In Waltz with Bashir (Folman 2008), the imagery of one strong sequence based on director Ari Folman’s personal experience emerged as a resonant motif for many Israeli viewers.
The response I got from many people back home was that the most symbolic shot in the film, the one that represented war better than anything else, was the one of the armed vehicle going through the night and the soldiers shooting like crazy into the darkness without knowing where or why. A lot of people told me that’s what war was like for them. (Folman cited in Anderson 2008).
The ability to caricature and compress information into an easily read image, or several images in quick succession, is one of the main techniques used by an effective animated autobiography. Hubley (2008) states that an allegorical complement can complete a personal narrative. The filmmaker working with animation is able to isolate and emphasise important elements to an intricate degree, controlling the speed and representation of how they appear. Using symbols or simplified visuals makes it possible to include a large amount of information in a short period of time. ‘Sometimes drawings can pinpoint the truth better than photography; for instance most guides to bird identification choose to be illustrated by drawings…I create such exaggerations to make the truth more salient in all my films’ (Fierlinger 2009: n.pag.).
Metamorphosis, or the shifting of one form into another, is a significant convention of animation due to the technical possibilities of the frame-by-frame technique. ‘Animation is the intrinsic language of metamorphosis, and the literal illustration of change and progress.’ (Stabile & Harrison 2003: 31). In animated documentary or autobiography, morphing is often used to offer a simultaneous visual commentary to a voiceover track that may shift focus and topic often, allowing the imagery to change at an equal pace and help with comprehension of the content.
With regard to identity, the morphing technique allows for a voiceover or stream-of-consciousness monologue to be simultaneously visually represented as it is heard. This assists with comprehension, and the nature and movement of the created visuals can also allow for a complementary layer of expression.
A good example is One Self: Fish/Girl (Hubley 1997), a collection of short episodes featuring animator Emily Hubley talking about ideas and perceptions from her childhood. The film is constantly morphing to reflect Hubley’s narration visually. As she speaks about her memories of childhood conversations with God and the Devil, in the ‘Secret Religion’ segment, the animation offers a representation of the characters and the story, using Hubley’s illustrations and collage.
This whimsical personal reminiscence is a good example of an autobiographical film that would be difficult to present using any other medium. A traditional live action documentary might accompany the narrative with close-up shots of Hubley speaking the monologue, perhaps intercut with images of her current surroundings or historical photographs where relevant. While this might be an appropriate technique in many cases, it falls short in comparison to animation as a method of representing a narrative based entirely on memory and imagination.
As primary writer and animator, Hubley is able to control all the production elements of the film, creating the slightly childlike imagery and the particular metamorphoses to reflect as accurately as possible the depiction of herself that she wishes to present. From an identity perspective, she is able to intricately re-create her actual experience using imagery of her own construction.
Depiction of memory
Film can also be used to fabricate connections between disjointed memories, but the transparency of the re-creation in animation, since we can see these images are rendered and not real, becomes even more clear, placing more emphasis on the art of remembrance. (Collmer n.d.)
Memory is a primary subject in autobiographical animation, and often the reason for utilising such a flexible visual form. As well as showing unfilmed aspects of the past, animation can explore emotional depths (Yadin 2003). Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman says animation was chosen as a medium for his film due to the freedom it offered. ‘I never treated it as a war story. It is, but not in my mind. In my mind, it’s a search after memory, and memory in animation is perfect’ (Folman cited in Strike 2008).
The quality of memory can be difficult to represent in film, but animation at least offers the opportunity to draw on a wide history of visual culture to find an appropriately evocative form and technique. ‘Animations are closer to the ethereal quality that memories have’ (Sullivan cited in Collmer: 4). The choice of visual approach and animation method then offers an additional insight into the identity construction process of the filmmaker.
It has been suggested that in some cases an animated memoir or documentary can potentially represent the memories or topic with more emotional accuracy than its live-action equivalent. ‘Once we, the audience, accept that we are entering an animated world, we tend to suspend disbelief and the animation acquires a verisimilitude that drama-documentaries hardly ever achieve’ (Yadin 2003).
This is an interesting comment, in that suspension of disbelief is a concept more commonly associated with fiction than documentary, which would technically contradict the claim of ‘verisimilitude’. However, the term is also applied by Eakin (1999: 100) who says, ‘I regard narrative as peculiarly suited on the grounds of verisimilitude to the task of representing our lives in time’.
In both instances, verisimilitude can be interpreted as being truthful in terms of the narrator’s intent and vision - an accurate evocation of otherwise elusive content. It can also relate to the fact that the temporal nature of a film can mimic in miniature the unfolding narrative of the personal life being represented.
Collmer points out that the frame-by-frame technique of constructing animation relies itself on the animator’s ability to remember the previous frame and find a connection to the following image. ‘The very act of comprehending the animated form is therefore one of visual remembrance, of connecting separate images into one continuous narrative, one long string of visual memories’ (Collmer: 9).
Degrees of separation
Animation also offers a way of visually representing difficult, embarrassing or controversial issues, and generally includes visual information not possible in live action to complement the audio component. This can include topics that would be potentially difficult to present through more traditional documentary methods, requiring a level of visual anonymity and discretion that may distract from the narrative.
When helping recreate a child’s-eye view of the Holocaust on film, director Orly Yadin had to find a method that could effectively present the experiences of survivor Tana Ross from her perspective while respecting her privacy. Ross was ‘determined to end her silence, but didn’t want to face an audience herself.’ (Yadin 2003) The resulting film, Silence (Yadin & Bringas 1998), uses different styles of animation to accompany a voiceover by Ross – a stark woodcut style for the concentration camp, and a fluid watercolour style for life in Sweden after her escape.
This technique refers back to the ability of animation to provide a symbolic representation where required, which can also be used to protect the subject. Yadin (2003) mentions that an advantage of using the medium of animation to represent a living person’s life was that it removed the danger of being voyeuristic. This degree of visual separation allows an individual to construct a narrative drawing on their identity experience without requiring them to represent themselves in a live action context, which may seem prohibitive or unsuited to the story.
Another degree of separation can be temporal or spatial, if, for instance, there is no existing footage or reference material of a historical event available but the filmmaker wishes to include it visually. When creating Greensplat, I wanted to include the fact that the house we used to live in received a brief stay of execution from demolition due to a number of native bats who were living in the roof. Bat houses on poles were installed near the house to help evacuate the bats. While I did not witness this event or have the opportunity to see reference footage, I could animate a representation of it drawing on my imagined version (figure 2).
Assembling of archival objects, audio or images
Another convention of animated autobiography is the integration of archival material such as drawings, posters, and photographs, to add richness and authenticity to the production. When creating a memoir, a childhood drawing, for instance, can be scanned and animated, offering an additional personal connection to the time period being presented. The selection and usage of this material is a strong indicator of which aspects of childhood or past experience resonate with the film’s creator.
The animation and reappropriation of these objects combined with the historical aura they contain adds another layer of memory to the work. (Collmer n.d.)
Archival audio can also be used and reinterpreted, as in my production, which includes audio taken from 1980s cassette tapes that were sent to my grandmother.
Cultural identity and history within autobiography
Autobiographical narrative often positions the protagonist clearly within the wider cultural environment – perhaps a dominant regime, figure or event, to the point where this additional element can be identified in the narrative as a significant subject in its own right. Eakin calls this form of life writing ‘relational’, while contending that, to a degree, all selfhood is relational. This form is defined by a particular focus on the self in relation to a social milieu or persons who have had a decisive impact (Eakin 1999: 69). ‘The growing acceptance of a relational model of identity is conditioning us to accept an increasingly large component of ‘we’-experience in the ‘I’-narratives we associate with autobiography.’ (Eakin 1999: 74-75)
This idea of a ‘we-experience’ in an ‘I-narrative’ can be related to Hall’s ideas around diaspora, in the sense that a personal narrative will always be originating from an individual who is intrinsically linked with his or her environment, whether this is through attachment to it or alienation from it, and can consequently help define that environment through their re-construction of cultural identity (Hall 1989).
Examples of this focus on the individual versus his or her circumstances arise often in animated documentary narratives. For instance, coming to terms with the social environment and personal experience resulting from war forms the central narratives of films such as Persepolis (Sartrapi & Paronnaud 2007), Silence (Yadin & Bringas 1998) and Waltz with Bashir (Folman 2008).
One reason for positioning a personal narrative overtly within a historical or cultural setting could be related to a perception that documentary conventions require an element of historical relevance. Bill Nichols suggests audiences have a notion of the history lesson being a central aspect of documentary, and certain expectations of objectivity regarding its ‘discourses of sobriety – the ones that address the historical world of politics and economics, policy and action’ (Nichols 1991: 29). Therefore, films containing elements of these discourses can fulfill these expectations.
A factual or cultural element to a narrative also provides the audience with a connection point and a sense of learning something relevant. Nichols uses the term ‘epistephilia’ to describe the organising agency that delivers information to a subject through a text (1991: 31). This epistephilia, or desire to know, combined with a human tendency towards voyeurism, suggests a reason for the appeal of the animated autobiography, which often offers a historical perspective combined with a unique insight into a personal life.
Nichols also refers to performative documentaries such as personal autobiographies playing a role in shifting identity politics ‘from unity to affinity’. ‘By relying on a dispersed, associative, contextualizing, but also social and dialectical mode of evocation, performative documentary is a particularly apt choice in a time when master narratives, like master plans, are in disrepute.’ (Nichols 1994: 109)
However, the popularity of a relational approach in autobiographical animation is likely to be due less to any conscious consideration of these factors than the weight of circumstantial experience. When the filmmaker is selecting autobiographical themes to explore, a particularly strong or, potentially, traumatic memory is likely to stand out. Regarding the construction of identity, the subject/filmmaker is then outlining and affirming their connection to the particular culture, issue or event relating to this trauma. The connection may be positive or negative, but nonetheless has played a significant part in shaping the identity being presented.
Creating Greensplat – putting conventions into practice
My ten-minute animated autobiographical film entitled Greensplat offers a glimpse of what it was like living in that Cornish mining village as a child, and examines the village’s subsequent disappearance as the local china clay mine operations engulfed it.
This production is primarily an autobiographical narrative, told through a voiceover, and incorporating archival elements such as family cassette audio, photographic elements, and drawings from the 1980s time period. These combine to represent an impression of inhabiting that world as a child.
However, there is a sequence of traditional expository documentary in the content around the mining, included in the film as a sub-section presenting history and facts as a background to the personal story. Overall the film follows a clear linear structure, with the voiceover providing an accessible guide to the events and memories being presented.
The narrative as a whole is set within the mining environment and the environmental consequences of the Greensplat mine expansion. All the original inhabitants of Greensplat have now been forcibly dispersed due to this progressive expansion, which can also be related to Hall’s theories of diasporic cultural identity. There is an underlying, and age-old, tension between the simple ‘alternative’ lifestyle enjoyed by my family (living in a caravan in the garden on a low income) and the corporate financial factors prompting increased production of china clay.
As noted earlier, the association of a political or environmental subtext to an autobiographical narrative can offer an additional way of connecting with an audience, relating to Nichols’ concept of ‘epistophelia’ and the viewers’ desire to learn (Nichols 1991: 31). Mining and its environmental consequences is an issue with resonance beyond a particular situation and time. Audiences may also respond symbolically to a concept, relating it to examples within their own life. For instance, the idea of a remembered environment no longer being in physical existence is a reality for many, whether as a result of mining, development or decay, and can consequently evoke a strong nostalgic or politically charged response. This has been evident in reactions to the film.
The main visual medium used is sand animation, combined with 2D animation created on the computer. The morphing sand animation technique, which was tested in an initial short film called Last First Time (Tuffery 2009), has connotations of impermanence and simple imagery, which relates well to both the themes of disappearance and the sense of inhabiting a child’s world. The technique also links to china clay mining, where the waste byproduct of sand is dumped in heaps around the pits.
The chosen content and approach provides the other initial indications of identity. There is a focus on family and imagination. Memorable events and activities such as our caravan burning down, and playing in the maple tree, are featured. Stick figures adapted from early drawings become sand motifs to represent myself and my family throughout the film, and the additional use of archival audio and photos from the era depicted adds a layer of authenticity. The drawings comment descriptively on the audio as it unfolds, with the images offering additional commentary. For instance, the loose caricature of Margaret Thatcher and her pole is a combination of retrospective knowledge and a childhood misinterpretation of ‘poll tax’ (figure 3).
Greensplat relates to a number of intertextual influences, including a number of the autobiographical animations from my research. Examples include a homage to Tale of Tales (Norstein 1979) in the representation of the boarding-up of the old home – an abrupt occurrence, with the boards’ appearance synchronised with 4 bangs of the hammer. Despite being a linear narrative with a clear, expositional voiceover, Greensplat also shares other conventions with Tale of Tales: a popular childhood song plays an important part, and its featured character ‘Nellie the Elephant’ is personified in the film like Norstein’s ‘Little Wolf’, although in this case it doesn’t represent the author. The use of recontextualised audio is influenced by Cockaboody (Hubley & Hubley 1979), and the visual morphing to accompany musing on childhood imagination is reminiscent of Emily Hubley’s work.
At the end of Greensplat, several snatched live action shots show the stark mining pit and a Cornish flag flapping in the wind. This placement is influenced by Waltz with Bashir (2008). While these shots lack the impact of seeing live-action footage following a massacre, there is a sense of reality intervening, and knowledge that the narrative is finished.
The initial research, gathering of material, and subsequent crafting of Greensplat have contributed to an absorbing process, resulting in increased self-knowledge and, hopefully, a work that conveys a sense of my own history and identity.
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