Fairytale, Folktale, Fable: charting the fantastik through international cinema
by Herb Shellenberger
Fantastika, this year’s thematic strand of the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, is a prop- osition towards a new categorisation of cinema. It’s not easy to describe it outright, but with these five screenings and eleven films—and through this introductory essay—I hope to sketch out some of its parameters. Because while this series is ostensibly based around works which engage fairytales, folktales and fables through their story and imagery, it’s even more an attempt to define connections beyond that in bringing together films made around the world over the last six decades. By letting them rub against each other to expose the frictions, crossovers and complications that result.
The starting point to this project was Niki de Saint Phalle’s Un rêve plus long que la nuit (1976, France).1 Though I had previously seen Saint Phalle and Peter Whitehead’s Daddy (1973)—a bad trip through dark psychedelic trauma—I didn’t realise for many years that she had made a second feature. This past winter, I had the good fortune to witness an exceedingly rare screening of the film at Anthology Film Archives in New York. And what I found was that the film is emphatically a fairytale, but not in the sense of being a familiar old story. Instead, the artist devised her own fairytale, showing the coming of age of Princess Camelia, who encounters strange creatures and unthinkable situations on the road towards adulthood.
Though the concept of fairytale revisionism wasn’t completely new to me, it was an exceedingly rare experience to see a film geared towards adults working out serious ideas while using such predictable, childish devices as dragons, court jesters and battlefield sequences.2 Un rêve fires on all cylinders but is also constantly switching gears: scenes of adolescent idealism give way to tech-dystopia, bawdy pornography, delirious action and art-fried performance sequences. Critic Amy Taubin calls it “a modern surrealist film masterpiece” and it’s truly unlike any film I’ve ever seen or will ever see again. 3
This memorable experience not only sent me on a quest to screen Un rêve plus long que la nuit at this year’s festival, but also to think about films which are doing something really very different in their depiction of fairytale and fantasy, as well as folklore and fable—their siblings. Just as Saint Phalle’s film lacks a genre that it fits into neatly, the research and selection of this series knows no bounds: animation, documentary or music clips; forms of narrative both experimental and traditional; content both adults-only and family-friendly are all on the table.
A good technique became focusing on films which innovate in the sensual, visual and aural elements of cinema. Instead of looking simply for fantastikal masterpieces of
cinema—a dubious technique in putting together any thematic series—why not lead with the inquiry of films that feature interesting production and set design, costumes and makeup, sound and music or cinematography? Casting out the net for special films with these priorities in mind was a fruitful method in which to work.
All cultures around the world cherish their own myths, legends, superstitions and fables. For this reason, fairytale, folktale and fable can be found in cinema internationally and throughout history. We see these themes and forms engaged by some of the earliest pioneers like Georges Méliès (French) and Segundo de Chomón (Spanish); high priests of the classic animated fable Lotte Reiniger (German) and Ladislas Starevich (Polish-Russian); surreal avant-gardists Maya Deren (Ukrainian) and Jan Švankmajer (Czech); or folklorists Souleymane Cissé (Malian) and Moustapha Alassane (Beninese-Nigerien). The wealth of material available to filmmakers across cultures is one explanation as to why Sergei Parajanov’s four feature film masterpieces adapted legends and customs from Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan respectively, each country in turn counting him amongst their national cinema heroes.4
For this reason, Fantastika was organised to be a panorama of international perspectives, disregarding forms and genres while at the same time being drawn across many years. Each of the eleven films was produced in a different country, and this plurality of voices is intended to stack onto each other, providing compelling evidence of this hard-to-define section of cinema which I was seeking out.
Exclusion became another method through which to define my search for the fantastik. Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950, United States) was not fit for inclusion, but Michael Pataki’s The Other Cinderella, a 1977 American erotic musical starring Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, was. Whereas Hollywood crud like Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013, United States) and Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders, 2012, United States) were out, other huge national films like The Cave of the Golden Rose (aka Fantaghirò, Lamberto Bava, 1991, Italy) and Perinbaba (aka The Feather Fairy, Juraj Jakubisko, 1985, Czechoslovakia) fit the bill nicely. Ari Aster’s Midsommer arrived in theatres during the period of research and pleasingly hit the target for what I was searching for.
Out of the mass of films that flashed across my eyes during the period of research for Fantastika, there were many which could have surely been included. Restrictions on duration, budget or format impacted some of the exclusions. Even more common were films with no screenable materials, unknown rightsholders or unreachable contacts. The work of a film programmer is sometimes searching only to come up empty-handed.
With that in mind, it feels like a feat to be able to exhibit such rarely-shown films as Mari Terashima’s experimental fever dream Hatsukoi (1989, Japan), Moustapha Alas- sane’s Zarma folk legend The Ring of King Koda (1962, Niger) and Nana Tchitchoua’s poetic 16mm short Impressions from Rustaveli (2001, Georgia/United States). Some of the films are distributed by the filmmakers themselves, whereas others have been loaned by national film archives, production companies or progressive rock groups. Many thanks to all those who have made this series possible.
In the spirit of highlighting exclusions, a supplemental list of potential Fantastika titles follows. Each film belongs to the canon of fantastik cinema in development, and could have been selected for this series. Perhaps future iterations will combine the selected films with those below.
Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy, J. Stuart Blackton, 1909, United States
Elsie & the Brown Bunny, 1921, United Kingdom
Jack’s Dream, Joseph Cornell, 1938, United States
Heaven and Earth Magic, Harry Smith, 1962, United States
El Paramo de Cumanday, Ray Witlin & Gabriela Samper, 1965, Colombia
Emotion, Nobuhiko Ōbayashi, 1966, Japan
In the Thirteenth Hour of the Night, Larisa Shepitko, 1969, USSR
Donkey Skin, Jacques Demy, 1970, France
Pandora, Derek May, 1971, Canada
Szindbád, Zoltán Huszárik, 1971, Hungary
Bible!, Wakefield Poole, 1974, United States
Angel’s Egg, Mamoru Oshii, 1975, Japan
Harpya, Raoul Servais, 1979, Belgium
Savage Hunt of King Stakh, Valeri Rubinchik, 1979, USSR
Freak Orlando, Ulrike Ottinger, 1981, Germany
Conquest, Lucio Fulci, 1983, Italy
Yeelen, Souleymane Cissé, 1987, Mali
A Tale of the Wind, Joris Ivens & Marceline Loridan Ivens, 1988, France/China
Lost in New York, Jean Rollin, 1989, France
Cheese, Mika Rottenberg, 2007, United States
Finisterrae, Sergio Caballero, 2010, Spain
The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland, Karrabing Film Collective, 2018, Australia
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady, Gabriel Abrantes, 2019, Portugal
- Since this series has a purposeful focus on internationalism, I will identify each film’s country of production alongside the filmmaker and year of release.
- Feminist revisions of fairytales have been a particularly fruitful subgenre. Examples include Rapunzel Let Down Your Hair (Susan Shapiro, 1978, United Kingdom) and Oh Rapunzel (Cecilia Condit, 1996, United States).
- Taubin, Amy, ‘Shadow Play’, Artforum, 2019, https://www.artforum.com/film/amy-taubin-on-out- of-the-shadows-experimental-feminist-films-by-jane-arden-niki-de-saint-phalle-and-penny- slinger-at-anthology-film-archives-78407
- Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), The Colour of Pomegranates (1969), The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985) and Ashik Kerib (1988) were all produced in the Soviet Union but situated within different national specificities outlined above.