Generation after generation, artists have turned to this most fantastical of mediums to capture real-life horrors they can express in no other way. From Chinese animators depicting the Japanese invasion of Shanghai to Bosnian animators portraying the siege of Sarajevo, from African animators documenting ethnic cleansing to South American animators reflecting on torture and civil war, from Vietnam-era protest films to the films of the French Resistance, from firsthand memories of Hiroshima to the haunting work of Holocaust survivors, the animated medium has for more than a century served as a visual repository for some of the darkest chapters in human history. It is a tradition that continues even to this day, in animated shorts made by Russian dissidents decrying the fighting in Ukraine, American soldiers returning from Iraq, or Middle Eastern artists commenting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab Spring, or the ongoing crisis in Yemen.
Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary: War and the Animated Film vividly tells the story of these works and many others, covering the full history of animated film and spanning the entire globe. A rich, serious, and deeply felt work of groundbreaking media history, it is also an emotional testament to the power of art to capture the endurance of the human spirit in the face of atrocity.
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A young architecture student named Walter Tournier is huddled in the darkroom at the Laboratory Roca, home to some of the only film development facilities in all of Uruguay. It is peaceful outside at the moment: the film lab is tucked into a quiet, residential section of Montevideo full of one-story storefronts and the occasional high-rise apartment. The trees that line the streets are all in bloom. But the calm at the moment is deceiving. It is 1973, and a guerilla war has been plaguing the city for nearly a decade. The Tupamaros National Liberation Movement, a leftist group, has been conducting kidnappings and assassinations for years alongside more flamboyant operations, robbing banks and openly distributing the money in the city's slums. American agents from the CIA have been helping the Uruguayan authorities plan their counterinsurgency operations. Political arrests are a regular part of life in the city, and torture is common.
Tournier knows this all too well. A member of the left-wing film society Cinemateca del Tercer Mundo, or C3M, he has been involved for years in organizing screenings of revolutionary cinema around the city: fictional and documentary films from Cuba and Colombia as well as a few homegrown works by local Uruguayan filmmakers. He has already been arrested once for his activities, grabbed and hooded on the street and taken to a secret location. Years later he would still vividly recall being gripped by "a brutal fear" during the ordeal. By the time of his release, C3M was nearly gone, most of its members having been arrested and imprisoned or else having fled the country. With only a few stalwarts left, Tournier and the others decide to commit to one last project before disbanding and going underground: a film they will all make together, in secret. It will take them nearly a year and a half to complete, and in the midst of their production, in June 1973, there will be a coup: President Juan María Bordaberry will dissolve the Parliament and begin to rule the country with a junta of generals, vastly increasing the pressure on the country's insurgents and dissidents. Still, Tournier and his three fellow filmmakers press on, filming and compositing and editing all on their own, with no production apparatus to speak of. Even with the crisis unfolding around them, they are desperate to complete their film: a work they are calling In the Jungle There Is Much to Do, a fifteen-minute animated short, a film for children.
Specifically, it is a film for one child: the three-year-old daughter of the imprisoned Uruguayan artist Mauricio Gatti. In the Jungle is framed as a story for her, though in truth she was already older and had already heard its story many times before. Confined to the marine barracks in Montevideo for interrogation in the early 1970s, Gatti drew his daughter pictures of animals from the jungle who had been taken off to a zoo, and he gave them to her along with some lines of verse whenever she was allowed to visit, a father's way to explain his incarceration to his child. One of Tournier's associates in C3M had the idea of turning the pictures into an animated film, one that could be shown to all the children of the country's many political prisoners. Even as their world dissolved and nearly all their friends and contacts vanished into secret prisons or unmarked graves, Tournier and three other animators labored ceaselessly on the project, crafting a complicated work of cutout animation made by layering paper figures over a colored board, which they slid over and past one another one painstaking frame at a time with needles. The final product is mesmerizing. The Uruguayan folk musician Jorge Estela sings Gatti's verses over a guitar while images taken from his drawings dance and play on screen. Set in a striking palette of primary colors, with every inch of the screen dashed in pigment, the figures move in two dimensions only, left and right, up and down, like they have commandeered the pages of a book. The story the film tells is as simple as it is poignant: the animals, once happy and free in the jungle, working and sharing and playing with their families and their friends, are rounded up by hunters from the city and put inside a zoo. A kindly girl hatches a plan with the animals who still remain in the jungle, and together they pull off a daring escape, rescuing their captured friends through a secret tunnel. The scene where the plucky little girl, her hands thrust casually into her pockets, nonchalantly leads her jungle menagerie down a busy city boulevard, much to the delight of a trolley full of screaming children in the background, is a delightful act of fancy, as perfect an example of animated whimsy as you will ever find. The film ends with the happy animal families reunited, the hunters thwarted, and the world set right again.
For Uruguay's military authorities, this simple fable — as seemingly innocuous as any Disney fare — was an unacceptable act of political subversion. Tournier and the remaining C3M members managed to organize only a single screening of the film, specifically for the relatives of political prisoners who had not yet returned. Tournier was arrested again shortly thereafter, and, after being released on a technicality, decided it was time at last to leave the country. The extensive film collection of C3M, which numbered into the hundreds, was confiscated by the police, but a few copies of In the Jungle managed to get smuggled out. The film spread across Latin America and then around the world and became a signal point for anyone facing political persecution, "a symbol of denunciation" in the words of one account. Tournier would go on to become one of the preeminent animators in Latin America, decorated with numerous international awards for films both political and nonpolitical. One of his latest, Seven Seas Pirates from 2012, is an old-fashioned children's adventure story, with no particular political overtones attached.
Were the authorities in Uruguay wrong to fear In the Jungle and treat this children's tale as a deeply subversive film? From their perspective, not at all. Though its story is one that you could tell to any three-year-old, its creation was an act of defiance and its content was laced with messages of resistance against authority and solidarity for the victims of the state. The animals in Tournier's jungle live in an anarchistic utopia, unconstrained by any forces other than kinship and love and unattached to any source of authority other than themselves. Meanwhile, the hunters — evil urban-dwellers whose stark black-and-white uniforms contrast with the rainbow-tinted animals and mark them as both wardens and as unwitting prisoners themselves — possess no legitimate claim to impose their system on the coterie they capture. The mission to free the creatures in the zoo, though as charming an adventure as you will find in any child's story, is also an obvious act of insurgency: a mission planned carefully in the jungle (plate 3) and executed in the city through means of subterfuge, eventually spilling out spectacularly into the city's streets.
But there is also another, entirely different register in which the film is dangerous — not as an instance of counterpropaganda but as an act of witness to crimes that were supposed to be invisible. The images that populate Tournier's frame are taken directly from Gatti's sketches when he was confined in the marine barracks; the verses are the ones he wrote in that prison. Although they do not speak specifically to Gatti's particular condition — he shields his daughter scrupulously from any aspect of his incarceration except the cage — they speak in general terms about the fact of his imprisonment. They constitute what literary critic Shoshana Felman discusses as the mandate to universalism so often seen in acts of witness, "the appointment to bear witness" being "an appointment to transgress the confines of that isolated stance, to speak for others and to others." One of the fundamental conditions of most political imprisonment is its secrecy: after the 1973 coup, conditions in Uruguay's prisons would grow far harsher and the kind of minimal communication with his daughter that Gatti was permitted back in 1971 would become completely impossible. Citizens would no longer even be arrested, as Gatti and Tournier both were — for someone who is formally arrested can still be released. Instead, the state's perceived enemies would mostly be "disappeared," taken away without notice or explanation, never to be seen or heard from again. In the Jungle runs counter to that policy of disappearance. It offers us a voice from someone whose voice was never supposed to be heard. The very fact of its witness, abstracted though it may be, is an act of resistance: it is exposing to international view that which the officialdom of its nation does not want to be seen. Embedded in this whimsical story of a handful of animals trapped inside a zoo is the terrible narrative of a country that before the decade's end would come to have the highest percentage of political prisoners anywhere in the world, a nation that would come to be known as "the torture chamber of Latin America."
Resistance and the Public Transcript
In the Jungle is beautiful and powerful, but it is not unique. Where there are conditions of systemic oppression and violence — where one nation is occupied by another after war or where the levers of state are violently seized from inside and turned against a people — you will frequently find works of animation that tell the story of that ugly process and give voice to those subject people. This is the work of what I call resistance animation. If the work of the propagandist in times of war and conflict is to support and justify the mission of the state, then the goal of the dissident is to subvert and oppose that mission. The defining feature of this dissidence is that it is offered from within the state but in opposition to its aims, either because the state has been occupied, because it is viewed by the artist as in some way illegitimate, as in civil war, or because the state is engaged in military actions that the artist feels deeply to be an abuse of its powers. The work of resistance is in some sense the most natural political purpose to which animation can be applied. As many commentators have noted since the beginnings of the medium, animation always carries within it the potential for subversion. It is, as critic WilliamKozlenko wrote in the 1930s, the only filmic form "that has freed itself almost entirely from the restrictions of an oppressive reality." We might think of this capacity as the inversion of the Pixar animator's observation that "you can do anything in animation." In animation, you can always also undo anything — be they lines or characters or ideologies. This ingrained capacity for critique and constant tendency toward change is a formal feature of the animated medium that the propagandist must always struggle to control, most especially in times of war. For the resistance artist, the formal freedom of animation can become an embodiment of the physical or ideological freedom that they seek. In the truest possible sense, to borrow from media theorist Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase, the medium will thus become the message.
Yet that message must never be made too apparent. In other words, the work of resistance animation must always speak in a double voice, for it is always addressing two audiences at once: those in power, whom it is usually not in a position to openly offend, and those without, for whom and to whom it actually means to speak. In the one case, its message must remain opaque, lest it draw the ire of those who could prevent it from ever being seen; in the other, it must simultaneously be perfectly clear, lest its purpose as an expression of solidarity and a rallying cry for the opposition be missed by those who need it most. This is the reason that In the Jungle had to be told as a children's fable: it had to be innocuous enough to be shown in public and yet powerful enough to raise hopes. Within its own historical moment in Uruguay during the period of the 1973 coup and the ongoing guerilla war, the film was, on these terms, a failure: Tournier's known status as a leftist and his affiliation with C3M marked the work as dangerous from the start, no matter its content. Every single film in C3M's possession was considered to be a threat: it was an archive understood by state and subversive alike to be a weapon. But the covert nature of the film's message, even if it was known to the authorities in Uruguay, was a major factor in its circulation and success once it passed beyond the borders of Tournier's home country, into the places where he was unknown: in Argentina during the years of the Dirty War or in Chile under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet and in so many places beyond. To the officialdom of these authoritarian states, In the Jungle was a children's cartoon about a zoo. To the loved ones of the disappeared, it was a revelation, a message made just for them and a witness to their suffering.
The oppressed and the marginalized, says historian James Scott in his seminal Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, are always used to speaking with a double voice and listening for others who might be doing the same. It is a condition of power that it regulates the expression of those who are subject to it, and it is a condition of being subject to power that one learns to echo its dictates in public while speaking one's own truth out of earshot. With few exceptions, Scott writes, "the public performance of the subordinate will, out of prudence, fear, and the desire to curry favor, be shaped to appeal to the expectations of the powerful." Scott calls the open discourse of a nation sanctioned by and acceptable to those who hold the power the public transcript of the historical record and observes that the material entered into this record will always exist "in close conformity with how the dominant group would wish to have things appear." The often unrecorded instances of subject peoples conversing among themselves — the hushed conversations and sideways glances, the inside jokes, the unheralded songs and stories of folk culture — he calls the hidden transcript of an era. This is the "discourse that takes place 'offstage,' beyond direct observation by powerholders," Scott writes, and its function among the subordinates of any situation is to "contradict or inflect what appears in the public transcript." Though Scott does not consider the place of animation within a nation's media and public discourse, his framework is illuminating: it reveals the utter rareness of animation's condition in situations of tremendous power imbalance, animation being that strangest of forms that can exist openly within the public transcript even as it contributes to a subject people's hidden transcript. From occupied France to the Soviet satellite states, from the screening rooms of Latin America to the authoritarian states of the Middle East, animators have again and again made work with the real or implicit approval of the same authorities whose crimes they most wish to expose. In times of crisis and in the face of authoritarian inhumanity, animation has time and again promised to conform to the record of history's continuum, even as it has then used that opportunity as a chance to secretly speak for its discontinuum, its forgotten and its silenced voices. Just as the propagandist loudly makes animation a tool of the state in times of crisis and of war, so does the resistance artist quietly make it a tool of that same state's deliberate subversion.
Which is not, it should be said, necessarily the same as bearing witness. Resistance and witness stand in an important relationship to one another, but they are neither synonymous nor interchangeable. At one extreme, the animation of resistance can become simply a form of regurgitated propaganda presented in code — this is often the case with animators working in recently occupied nations hoping to recycle the tools of war propaganda under a thin layer of allegorical cover. At the other, one may bear witness in such a way that serves to trouble the offending state not at all, layering that hidden transcript so deep under the public one that it becomes effectively unrecoverable. Thus, in situations of resistance, especially in the midst of conflicts still unfolding, the animator of conscience is faced with a powerful and perplexing dilemma: how to bear witness to the suffering of a people and then conscientiously turn that act of witness into an effective tool for change, all without the one undermining or negating the important work of the other. Or, to put it another way: how to weaponize witness. The true use of resistance animation is as a kind of weapon. But it is more the weapon of the saboteur than the soldier, more about dismantling the intellectual or moral infrastructure of the enemy regime than dehumanizing and dismissing its people. The absolute best works of resistance animation — the ones that serve an urgent political and ethical purpose in their own time and go on to assume an artistic one in ours — are powerfully motivated by this tension between efficacy and honesty, politics and witness. Many, in fact, are openly about this tension and the strains it inevitably puts on the artist, who may or may not have ever yearned for a political role but also may or may not currently have a choice. The situation of powerlessness that is always the condition of the resistance animator tends to have a way of forcing difficult ethical decisions. Speak up or say nothing? Serve the cause or make art? Bear witness or look away? Sometimes, confoundingly but also powerfully, the answer may actually be both.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary"
Copyright © 2020 Donna Kornhaber.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Part One: At War
Chapter 1: Resistance
Chapter 2: Pacifism
Part Two: After War
Chapter 3: Memory
Chapter 4: Memorial