ANNECY– “A Flemish Western where the Indians win,” says Jan Bultheel of his second feature currently in development. A romantic drama set during the emigration of millions of Europeans to the New World in around 1840, “Canaan” is the second directorial outing of Flemish animation director Bultheel, whose debut “Cafard” – “a straightforward tale of revenge, loss, survival and self-reckoning,” wrote Variety –  caught the attention of critics and animation geeks.

“Canaan” was one of the three Flemish feature projects pitched at Annecy in a Flanders Animation Focus session at fest’s Mifa market on June 17 . Event also showcased eight TV series and delivered detailed information about Belgium’s tax shelter scheme as well as regional incentives. Variety talked to “Canaan” producer Arielle Sleutel, at Tondo Films, and Bultheel. “Canaan” is scheduled to start production by summer 2017.

“Canaan” is your second feature,  after “Cafard.” Could you take us its plot?  

Bultheel: “Canaan” is the story of Roza, a young girl who enters the Black Sisters convent in Bruges around 1840, –a very interesting period because of the huge emigration wave to the New World. Father Pieter Jan De Smet, a historical Jesuit missionary, convinces the Mother Superior to send some of her Black Sisters with him to his missionary posts in the Far West. And so Roza is sent to America. By unfortunate circumstances, she gets lost on the prairie and is taken in by a nomadic Lakota Sioux clan. Her confrontation with the diametrically opposed worldview of the Native Americans, makes her see her destiny in another light. At the end, she has to make an existential choice.

Arielle, how do you hope to finance “Canaan? What  companies are involved?

Sleutel: We have just started the development. The financing structure will be more or less  the same as “Cafard.” We’ll finance 70% of the budget from Belgium. For the remaining 30% we would love to work with one or two E.U. co-producers –the whole of Europe was affected by the big emigration wave to the Far West– and also get Canada on board for the cultural endorsement of the story. “Cafard” was very important for Flanders because it made our national film fund VAF decide that they want to support one majority animation feature in Flanders each year. On top of that we can profit from the large economic incentives of Screen Flanders and the Belgian Tax Shelter.

Are any other companies involved in the project?

Superprod (France) and Tarantula (France-Belgium), both Cafard co-producers, have already expressed their desire to be part of Jan’s second feature.

Although it is your second feature, Jan, you have experience in shorts, theatre and animated TV series… What are your main artistic references?

Bultheel: I have been making films for over 30 years. Until 2000, they was mainly commercials, music videos and idents with my own company in Brussels. My artistic references are mainly late 19th century romantic painters –Singer Sargent, Anders  Zorn, Joaquin Sorolla. But I am also much influenced by graphic novel artists like Ashley Wood or José Muñoz, Gianni Pacinotti (Gipi) and Cyril Pedrosa.

As a creator, do you feel there’s a growing demand for animated films for adults?

Bultheel: I believe it is a huge potential market that hasn’t been explored fully yet. The possibilities are endless because animation film techniques are now acquired but the potential stories you can write for an adult audience are just much more open. Your imagination is the limit. You can tackle any subject in any historical time frame with any fantastic character. Writing stories for family and kids entertainment severely limits the possible themes. This has to conform to worldwide standards, which artistically and content-wise I do not find very interesting. So coming from the authors, directors, and animation film fanatics, I would say YES there is a growing demand. The question is: Will big audiences follow?

Has something happened after films such as Ari Folman’s “Bashir”?

Bultheel: Times are changing. “Waltz with Bashir” certainly has opened doors. An animated feature nominated for the Palme d’Or is an accomplishment already. More and more authors/directors and producers have come up with strong ideas, original graphics and intelligent content. We are on the verge of a new era where people consume entertainment in a completely different way to before. The digital distribution of content is now so easy that people are getting saturated. My hope is that individuals will look for new, consistent, pinpointed and intelligent ways of entertainment. I believe that animated features with their endless possibilities are surely one of the potential options.

What are your expectations at Annecy? Are you looking for partners, sales agents?

Bultheel: It is always best for co-production partners to be involved from the development stage. We hope to attract a German and Canadian partner, and want to see how far we can build on the French interest. Of course the genuine interest of an international sales agent increases the interest of everyone.