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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2019

GoCritic! Review: Away


- Latvian filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis has written, animated, designed, edited, directed, composed the music and designed the sound for his feature debut himself, with impressive results

GoCritic! Review: Away
Away by Gints Zilbalodis

It’s hard not to be impressed by Latvian director Gints Zilbalodis’ feature debut Away [+see also:
film review
interview: Gints Zilbalodis
film profile
, which has just world-premiered in Animafest Zagreb's Grand Competition for Feature Films. It is a wondrous, wordless animated work of bright simplicity and subtle sophistication that is as compelling, moving and profound as a Studio Ghibli masterpiece (Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle comes to mind), but with a small budget more befitting of a short film than a feature. Even more impressive is the fact that this poetic, 75-minute CGI film was entirely animated, written, designed and edited by Zilbalodis himself. He also composed the marvellous music and designed the sound, which flawlessly function as an alternative to dialogue and orchestrate the events unfolding in the film.

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The story has a muted whimsical charm strengthened by Zilbalodis’ minimalist approach in terms of both the narrative and the style of the work. Even if dialogue-free, Away has a lot to say about our urge for connection, our fear of mortality and the question of environmental stewardship.

The film opens with the nameless protagonist - a teenage boy - hanging above the ground with his parachute caught up in a dead tree. Following a plane crash, he finds himself in an unfamiliar landscape, scared and alone if not for the presence of an enormous dark spirit slowly emerging from the mist surrounding him. The boy runs, while the nebulous giant follows him persistently.

He finds shelter in a green oasis, filled with tall vegetation, delicious fruits and fresh water. Even if his frightening stalker cannot enter this garden of Eden, the spirit remains immobile, waiting patiently at the entrance as if he has all the time in the world... and he probably does. It’s here that our protagonist encounters his only companion: a small yellow bird, small enough to fit into the pocket of his backpack. Just like the boy, this innocent birdie is lost in distant lands, abandoned by its flock because it’s unable to fly.

Although this idyllic paradise appears to have everything to offer, the oasis is not immune to danger. While exploring its fertile lands, the boy discovers the skeleton of a previous visitor who never left, perhaps petrified by the constant menace of the silent spirit. The dead man has left behind a motorbike, a key and a map leading to a distant location close to the sea that apparently shows traces of human civilisation. We join our hero as he embarks upon a quest across this metaphorical purgatory in the hope of finding his way back to the human world. To get there, he will need to cross arid deserts, fields of daisies, a bamboo forest, a crystalline lake that mirrors the blue sky and seemingly insurmountable frozen mountains. Just like the varying levels of a video game, each chapter of his journey differs in terms of landscape, mood and motifs without ever feeling scattered and inconsistent. What is consistent, though, is that no matter how fast the boy runs, the embodied darkness will still be there, marching steadily after him.

The creature is somewhat reminiscent of a monster from Patrick McHale’s instant cult classic Over the Garden Wall (2014), where two brothers find themselves lost in a strange woodland, a world lying somewhere between life and death, inhabited by grotesque characters and a terrifying shadowy beast. Much like this Cartoon Network monster, Zilbalodis’ creature is entirely black except for its bright white eyes. Although clearly malevolent, it exudes a quietude akin to the Kodama spirits in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1988).

Like Miyazaki, Zilbalodis seems particularly interested in placing human characters within wider worlds. In Away, the natural world seems untouched by the human presence that so often destroys it. Plants and animals all coexist in harmony and death is simply a natural process experienced by every being.

Though it might sound like a depressing film about death, Away is actually an ode to hope and kinship. Despite the lack of characterisation vis-à-vis the protagonist, Zilbalodis manages to build an emotional connection with its audience. As the director explained in the Q&A following the movie's world premiere at Animafest, the solo filmmaking process he embarked upon is reflected in this story about the journey of a boy in search of connection in a vast and isolated limbo.

It’s perfectly understandable that a feature film made by one single individual might struggle to excel in every aspect of production. That’s why it would be fantastic to see Zilbalodis enrich his incredible potential by collaborating with other like-minded artists in future. As Away suggests, strength can always be found in numbers.

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