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Annecy: Michel Ocelot Talks ‘Dilili in Paris,’ ‘Kirikou and the Sorceress’ and His Biggest Pet Peeve

The animation elder statesman reflects on his career, his biggest shocks, and why he sometimes feels like 'the village fool’.

ANNECY – When director Michel Ocelot learned that Monday night’s Opening Ceremony screening of his film “Dilili in Paris” would only be open to festival invitees, he insisted that the organizers book an additional public screening. The filmmaker had just cause – that open-to-all-screening would go on to ​sell out in under five minutes times, and festival heads are now looking to book a third showing for Ocelot’s latest work, a female-led adventure set in Belle Époque Paris.

That fervent public demand speaks to the director’s impressive stature in the animation world. His 1998 hit “Kirikou and the Sorceress” proved there was a real market for auteurist animated fare, and the filmmaker has become something of an industry elder statesman in the two decades since. Variety spoke with him in ahead of Monday night’s world premiere.

This latest film mixes both 2D and 3D animated figures against a photorealist backdrop – in this case, pictures of Paris that you yourself took. This kind of approach is new to you, is it not?

Between us, there’s nothing new under the sun; someone will always have gotten there before you. I opted to use real photos for the décor because Paris is magnificent already, and I didn’t want to remake it all! I could just take photos and that would be enough. For example, at one point we cross the lobby of the Opéra and it’s a jumble of gold and sculptures and Venetian chandeliers, and I wasn’t about to redo all that with my little graphic palette!  I make animated figures because that’s what I know how to do, and I can do it well, but it seemed very logical to plainly show what was real around them.

[As to the photos], it’s already a creation. I’ve been exploring Paris for years, framing different parts of it with my camera, so they are really showing it from my perspective.

Not only do you incorporate the city’s many geographical landmarks, but you’ve also worked a number of real-life figures from the era into the plot. Is the film as much a valentine to them as well?

Your first instinct when making a film about Paris is to think of the monuments, but the most interesting monuments are the people who lived there and marked the era. I try to push people today to be as good as these monumental figures from yesterday. At least, I try to show audiences all that love and all whom I admire, hoping it will do them well!

I was initially inspired by Paris of 1900 because of its costumes and dress, independent of any particular story. But my research into this Belle Époque showed there were interesting people on every street corner, and that they had arrived from every corner of the world. And that made the film different, as it not only tells a story, it also talks about a civilizatio I love all the figures that I include in the film, because we continue to benefit from the progress that they made. Be it in art, technique, or political thought.

As in the Kirikou series, you once again center the narrative on a child protagonist. What makes that appealing? 

I think they make for fascinating figures. They begin the film new, fresh and innocent, as in life. They feel things more intensely than adults, do… and I identify with them. I sometimes feel like the village fool, and I can easily put myself in their shoes, seeing things as they really are, calling things as they see them without using the properly accepted language. It’s a really just a golden subject.

Because Dilili is a young girl, did that make it more important to explore the social/gender themes that you do in the film?

Every time I undertake a new big project, I ask myself what is the subject that holds my interest most? For what subject will I devote the next six years of my life? What really struck me, once I did a bit of learning, was how many abominable acts men commit against women and little girls. Every three days, in France, a woman is killed by her male partner.  That number is higher in in other countries, where the aggressor can also be the girl’s father or brother or even her son. If we count these daily worldwide deaths, the mortality rate for women is higher than for soldiers in all wars. We can’t pretend like we don’t know about it either​. ​

I decided that I had to talk about this subject, but don’t be concerned – I approached it with a light, fantasy touch! But the bad guys are there, and beware of them.

You’ve been outspoken in your distaste for certain kinds of modern animation. What is it that you dislike?

I don’t like when we cheat too much and try to make believe that something fake is real. There’s something touching about seeing how something is made. Often, the preparatory outline for a grand work of art is more moving than the finished painting itself. It’s the same for ‘realist’ digital 3D images. They annoy me, and I think that our brains appreciate having to do a bit of work. When we see images that are not fully realist or polished and then use our human intelligence to understand them, we derive a kind pleasure that can never be attained by having something explained to us again and again.

You make indisputably singular works, but often with the budget and scale that requires collaboration. How do you manage the two?

I’m in an ideal position: I’m surrounded by talented people who are happy to do whatever I tell them. It’s incredible! “Kirikou”, which came out 20 years ago, changed a lot of things in my life, and in the world of French animation. In a sense I helped raise these talented young adults, who watched and re-watched my films growing up, and now they are happy to work with me. They do everything with the utmost rigor and emotion, and I notice new elegant touches and places where they’ve gone above and beyond what was required of them every time I see the film. I see extras in the background, living their own stories independent of the plot, or little gestures, like a flick of Dilili’s shoulder that changes everything. So I’m in a position of immense privilege: people want to help me realize my dreams, and they’re glad to do so.

You certainly occupy an uncommon perch. What of your career path has proven most surprising?

After “Kirikou”, plenty of journalists asked me if was surprised by the film’s success. In fact, it wasn’t even a question, it was a declaration on their part. And I always responded that I wasn’t surprised at all – I was ready for both success and failure! I wasn’t surprised by the film’s box office success or global reach, but by its longevity. Kids wore out their VHS tapes watching and re-watching it, learning it by heart. Twenty years later people talk about the film as if it had just been released, and I did not foresee that.  I never expected the film to help raise a generation of kids, or to be included in our national educational curriculum. I had no intention to make a sequel, even if the producers clearly wanted one. But I made the films because of the number of people who asked over the years. At a certain point I couldn’t do anything else but make another one. Now they’re asking for fourth one, but I have no plans for that.

What are your plans going forward?

I’m going to be the godfather of the 2019 graduating class at the Gobelins animation school. There’s around 60 sixty students and I’m determined to work with them to develop their voices as storytellers. I’m passionate about working with, and offering them my unsparing opinions. There’s a Francophone section and Anglophone section, and I’m excited to offer them my fuller attention. Now that I can feel a bit more relaxed, and think about other things than “Dilili! Dilili! Dilili!” at all hours.

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