Politically Animated: Reflections from UTP Author Jennifer Nagtegaal

Politically Animated studies the convergence of animation and actuality within films, television series, and digital shorts from across the Spanish-speaking world. Read the full blog post by author Jennifer Nagtegaal here.


A gateway to animated non-fiction

It was actually my research around animated fiction for adult audiences that served as a gateway to the topic of animated non-fiction, which became central to my book (if you have not seen Arrugas/Wrinkles by Spanish director Ignacio Ferreras, run. And maybe grab a box of tissues on the way). Ferreras’s tale of old age and Alzheimer’s, based on the comic of the same title by Paco Roca, opened my eyes to animation’s tremendous storytelling capabilities, and the reality that an animated film’s awesomeness stems partly from the story it tells, no doubt, but largely from the way that it tells a particular story; that is, decisions related to form that are made at the (often literal) drawing board. Working with Wrinkles led to a deep dive into the ways that filmmakers from the Spanish-speaking world have been using animation, with its vast array of styles and techniques, as a storytelling device for narratives of fiction as well as non-fiction. In this context, this has been taking place for well over one hundred years now! (More about this below.)

In Politically Animated, I explore the convergence of animation and actuality within films, television series, and digital shorts from across the Spanish-speaking world. I interrogate many of the ways in which animation as a stylistic tool and storytelling device participates in political projects that underpin an array of non-fiction works. The phrase “politically animated” refers to, on the one hand, the ideological implications of employing specific techniques and styles of animation within certain socio-historical and cultural contexts, and, on the other hand, the fact that it is a political project that inspires or moves the film and television director or digital content creator to action. By paying particular attention to cultural production beyond the realm of cinema, my book continues to stretch the bounds of current animated documentary scholarship, just as it does by pointing to animated journalism and the animated essay as relatively new and definitively exciting areas of study within this burgeoning field that has now seen two full decades of fruitful investigation. That the focus of Politically Animated is on the Hispanic world also works to rectify an anglocentrism that has largely characterized the field to date. In order to make my book as widely accessibly as possible to the field, I have consistently translated into English the many Spanish-language film titles and quotes, as well as non-English scholarly criticism.

“Disney was big, but I arrived first”: 100+ years of (political) animation from the Hispanic World

I am not sure how well known it is that animation has some of its deepest roots in the Spanish-speaking world, and an animation that is very much political at that (this is something my introductory chapter aims to demonstrate). The first feature-length animated production in the history of cinema was Argentine filmmaker Quirino Cristiani’s El Apóstol / The Apostle (Argentina, 1917), a political satire featuring a cardboard cut-out technique that portrays the intervention by Radical Party leader, and then president, Hipólito Irigoyen against the governor of Buenos Aires, Marcelino Ugarte. Cristiani, who enjoyed a prolific career, and who once received a personal offer to relocate to the United States and work for Disney’s animation studios, famously stated that “Disney fue grande, pero yo llegué primero” (Disney was big, but I arrived first). Alfredo Serey’s ten-minute short La transmisión del mando presidencial /The Transfer of the President’s Power (Chile, 1921), is another example of early animation that happened to be political. These and other films form part of the foundation of a century-long, rich history of documentary storytelling through animation found within Spain and Latin America. Unfortunately, however, many of these early and pioneering works are lost to us (vaults ravaged by fires, confiscation by Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and other misfortunes that you can read about in the introduction to the book).

Focusing on the other end of this trajectory, Politically Animated examines feature-length films, digital shorts, and television series from the 2010s that stand as several culminating points in the production of animated non-fiction from the Hispanic World. And, it should be mentioned, thanks to great advances in technologies for the production and distribution of animation, as well as changing political climates, these productions remain accessible to us today. Although animation technologies have progressed from the rudimentary cardboard cut-outs patented by Cristiani and employed in his films, what we can learn from looking back to just over a century ago is that seemingly simplistic forms of animation should not be equated with the notion of unsophisticated content. My central claim is that the political power that animation holds is made possible through a wide array of styles and techniques: children’s hand-drawn and recorded testimonies of their wartime experience; an “animated comic” aesthetic; a graphic novel-esque documentary style; motion-injected political cartoons; rotoscoped footage found on social media; and even one series’ use of trans-stylistic animation. As this list reveals, creative connections to comics is a particularly pervasive case. As a result, a necessary sub-focus that runs throughout half of the book’s chapters is the creative union of animated documentary and the comics medium currently being exploited by Spanish and Latin American cartoonists and filmmakers alike.

About the cover image

A prime example of this can be seen in María Seoane’s Eva de la Argentina (Eva from Argentina, 2011), which she created in collaboration with the late Eternaut illustrator, Francisco Solano López (1928–2011). Seoane kindly granted me permission to reproduce a still frame from her film for the cover of my book. The image not only sums up the book’s focus on political animation, as well as its sub-focus on connections to comics art, but it also points to the way that animation as an art form is, as they say, all-inclusive. An art form that can draw on all of the other arts. In this magnetizing image we also find multiple references to painting and to sculpture. Exactly how I read this image is the subject of Chapter 2, “What’s in a ‘cómic animado’ (Animated Comic)? Poetics, Politics, and Personal Myths of Peronism in María Seoane’s Eva de la Argentina / Eva from Argentina (2011).”

Animation and politics, animation and the pandemic

The six works of animated non-fiction that I study were released between 2010 and 2019. It was in 2020, while taking a parental leave with my third child and during the height of the pandemic, that I wrote the proposal for this book. The COVID-19 pandemic brought unexpected challenges as well as opportunities for writing. Interestingly, it did the same for animation. While the global health crisis had negative economic repercussions on myriad service and entertainment industries across the globe, animation industries came out in relatively good health. As the live-action film industry came to a grinding halt, an increased production of animated works was fuelled by a boom in demand for streamable content amidst mandates to social distance and isolate, as well as the unexpected growth of jobs in what was already a largely virtual sector. In the wake of this all, what remains to be seen (and what is already being seen, with, for example, Jordi García’s viral short Hermann from 2020, or the National Film Board of Canada’s project The Curve, which invited filmmakers to document through animation, live action, and digital storytelling formats their personal experiences related to the COVID-19 pandemic) is how animators will engage with the sociopolitical in the wake of this crisis, as they look to reanimate the events of the early 2020s, as well as the many other events and crises that are unfolding in the years that follow, affecting lives and the way we view the world.


Learn more about Politically Animated, here.

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