Made between 1959–2019, these international films provide original takes on fairytales and folk legends from Hungary, Niger, Chile and elsewhere.
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Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles
Part-pagan ritual, part-fairytale, this dance around the Maypole produced by venerable English progressive rock stalwarts Jethro Tull is a fantastical, psychedelic happening. With music and spoken word taken from the group’s 1973 album A Passion Play, the film was made as a visual component of their elaborately-produced tour for the album. As such, it is rarely considered on its own outside of the band’s context, but the short film is an exhilarating and humourous work that touches on many aspects of fairytale and folklore.
The film begins with a forest dance. We see two ballerinas emerge from the wood into a field where a maypole is surrounded by potted plants. One eats a giant apple and streamers come flowing down from the top, while a rushing instrumental track builds. The girls are joined by a number of dancing animals, each weaving around the other in a joyous dance.
The second sequence is the story itself: Tull bassist Jeffrey Hammond serves as the narrator, or rather commentator, relating the story to the camera with a microphone. Dressed in a green Houndstooth suit and with an exaggerated Lancashire accent, our host relates an absurd fable, in which anthropomorphic animals try to help the hare find his missing spectacles. All the while during these first two sections, deft little filmmaking touches keep the clip interesting, especially when the action cuts seamlessly from the outdoors to the painted theatrical stage and back again.
With his spectacles finally recovered, the final sequence is—you guessed it—yet another forest dance. This time, the action moves completely outdoors and at night, our ballerinas and animals carrying torches for the surely impending bonfire. The familiar rushing refrain heard at the beginning returns, with the animals and humans dancing around a strange cupcake fountain. Revelry turns into a mosh pit and the action suddenly stops with an abrupt musical finale. —Herb Shellenberger
Busójáráskor is an ethnographic documentary on the celebration of Busójárás, a six-day festival in the southern town of Mohács, Hungary held each February to mark the end of Carnival season and the death of winter. Busójárás is a tradition of the Šokci people, a South Slavic ethnic group spanning parts of Croatia, Serbia and Hungary who self-identify as Croats. The celebration’s mythology looks back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when the region was under Ottoman rule. The legend states that the Šokci left the town to avoid Turkish troops, living instead in the swamps and forest. One night, an old man suddenly appeared, telling them to carve scary masks and weapons, and that a knight would arrive to tell them when it was time to storm the troops. Wearing animal pelts and carved wooden masks, armed with pikes and spears, and carrying noise-makers, the Šokci stormed the Turks who ran away in fear.
The film shows what a traditional Busójárás celebration might look like, though it would be misleading to consider it a simple documentary. Though there is no dialogue, staged scenes are developed in a linear fashion, with the hazy outline of a love story threaded throughout the tapestry of a narrative. While the film’s ethnographic and educational function is clearly fulfilled, the filmmakers’ consistently breathtaking cinematography, the mixture of traditional Slavic outfits and fantastical monster costumes, and the interplay between humans and seemingly non-human monsters inject a sense of awe and wonder into what could have been quite standard documentary fare. —Herb Shellenberger.
The Cat is an interesting meeting of the Yugoslavian animation studio Zagreb Film and Rome’s Corona Cinematografica, a prominent producer of documentaries, animation and experimental films. The short film was directed by Zlatko Bourek, one of the prized animators in the Zagreb School, a term for a group of Yugoslav animators whose works of social satire and modernist design became inter- nationally recognised from the late 1950s through the 1970s. A day-glo adaptation of Aesop’s ‘Venus and the Cat’, The Cat holds many hallmarks of psychedelic-era art and design: shocking colours, marbled or textured backgrounds and Aubrey Beardsley-esque figures, both nude and clothed.
‘Venus and the Cat’ tells of a man who falls in love with his cat. One version of the fable is written as such:
A Young Man became so fond of his Cat, that he made her his constant companion, and used to declare that if she were a woman he would marry her. Venus, seeing how sincere was his affection, gratified his wishes and changed the Cat into a young and blooming woman. They were accordingly married; but at night, hearing a Mouse in the room, the young bride sprang from the arms of her husband, caught the Mouse, and killed it. Angry at this behaviour, and seeing that under the form of a Woman there was still hidden the nature of a Cat, Venus changed her back again to a Cat.
The fable points to the conclusion that nature exceeds nurture. The Cat follows the story closely but with one special twist: the narration is delivered through song. The Italian libretto was purpose- fully left unsubtitled, the filmmakers finding the words less important than the mood and emotion of the singer. — Herb Shellenberger
The Ring of King Koda
Moustapha Alassane—a pioneering African filmmaker born in Benin and living in Niger for most of his life—came to cinema with an already-developed flair for storytelling. According to writer Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, “His extreme talent for drawing and his quest for invention prompted him, before he even knew what cinema was, to organize a one-man exhibition in which he projected his color drawings for his audience by using transparent cellophane wrappers from cigarette packets.”
With the support of the Institut Français
The Ring of King Koda, his second film, adapts a folk legend of the Zarma people, predominantly found in Niger. The cruel King Koda, also known as Koda ‘Black Heart’, decides to test the loyalty a poor village fisherman, the so-called Loi de Dieu (Law of God). He gives Law of God his gold ring, saying that he must keep it for three years. If he keeps the ring, King Koda will cede his kingdom to him; if loses it, he will be killed. The conniving king summons Law of God’s wife Mina, who he tells to steal the ring and return it to him. Though she betrays her husband, Law of God again finds the ring through a twist of fate, moments before he is summoned by the king.
The film’s action is related entirely through voiceover narration by Alassane himself, and Nikolaus Perneczky describes it as “among the earliest attempts to extend oral storytelling traditions practiced among tribal communities… to the medium of film”. Though Alassane’s work took many forms—including diverse forms of narrative, documentary and animation—The Ring of King Koda is an exemplary case of illustrating a folk legend while at the same time keeping the function of the storyteller intact. —Herb Shellenberger
“Nothing could alter the calm of the forest… or so it seemed”. Strange Creatures is a beautifully stylistic papier-mâché animation which can be understood as a modern fable. The film is the first collaboration between Cristóbal Léon—who has made a number of successful short and feature films over the past years in collaboration with Joaquín Cociña—and illustrator and animator Cristina Sitja. It is an adaptation of Sitja’s 2014 children’s book of the same title (Extrañas Criaturas in Spanish) in which she wanted to talk about the effects of human actions on nature.
The film begins in the idyllic forest, with all the creatures—bears, birds and bunnies—enjoying each others’ company in harmony. Frolicking in the grass or eating communally, they share joyous moments together within the safety and comfort of their environment. Until one day, they return from an outing to find the forest cleared and their home destroyed. They immediately set about to find a solution, cobbling together a new domicile out of waste materials left by the loggers, but this doesn’t weather the elements. It’s only when they truly encounter the strange creatures of the film’s title— humans—that a solution begins to take shape. They impress on them the importance of the forest and ecosystem, and convince them they all need to work together to create a solution that works for everyone.
Strange Creatures is a fairytale story that is ripped from our current realities of climate change and eco-disaster. The film has relevance for viewers of any age, and by centring its story around the animals in the forest, it demonstrates how we need to work together to make the planet a balanced ecosystem for the benefit of all forms of life. — Herb Shellenberger