Returning with an Annecy’s Work in Progress presentation two years after pitching as a project in MIFA Pitches Animation du Monde, “Len And The Song Of The Wales” has been garnering attention since 2014 after winning its first grant from the Colombia Film Fund.
It’s no wonder, given the milestone that the ambitious film represents for Colombian animation, a sector of the industry which during recent years has slowly yet steadily grown and now finds itself capable of demonstrating its artists technical prowess in an attempt to showcase Latin American narratives with high-end animation.
Distributed by Spain’s Latido Films, the film tells the story of Len, a 9-year-old girl from the Mapui tribe (a fictional matriarchy of the “people who return to the breath of the water”) who dreams of being Kashami (spiritual leader) and singing underwater with humpback whales to guide her people, although the circumstances of her birth hide secrets that make her unsuitable for the role.
Sudden storms hit the village, interrupting the ritual encounter with the Whales. In the jungle, Len encounters a mysterious jaguar man who entrusts her with an almost impossible task: convincing her tribe to leave the coast to survive. This sees Len and Kaká, her best friend, face her asthma, fears and doubts of her own as well as those of her elders. Nature will initiate her as the Green Hummingbird and put Kaká face to face against the jaguar to conjoin the tribes of Mount Njüngaia, liberate their people, and learn the mysteries of their origin.
Variety interviewed directors Manuel Alejandro Victoria and Joan Manuel Millán Torres.
Could you talk briefly about the state of Colombian animation?
Victoria: The potential for Colombian animation was never realized due to low number of trained animators for films and the high costs of production. So, out of fear, there has been little investment. And of course, with no animation schools there can be no industry. I think the task ahead is not only to make high-end animation in a country where there are no schools but to create workshops and start managing them between ourselves, because if there are no people you have to start training them.
Looking at other countries for guidance also begs the question of the aesthetic references regarding the still young Latin American animation….
Victoria: In France, the U.S. and Japan, they have clear domestic references, but here in Latin America we must look to what is happening elsewhere. So to some extent there’s a multicultural world of the imagination that marks us as filmmakers and that has taken us to a certain middle ground. We like the dynamism of the U.S. laws of animation and how their characters come to life, but also the way of editing and framing of Japan with such visual economy. And you also have France’s “poetic” way of observing landscape.
Millán: I think we will find our place. What transcends borders in Latin American is the will to tell stories about cultural heroes. “Len” shares some narratives with other animation movies telling the story of a native kid that belongs to an ancestral culture living close to nature who pushes to come back to the philosophical roots of their ancestors. This intersects with a political need, an urgency of a continent that is so deeply influenced by the fantastic narratives of our ancestors. There is so much fantasy in our own narratives that there’s a need for animation to portray it.
It’s clear that beyond a production limitation, Colombian cinema struggles with distribution and exhibition. How do you see your role as creators in this loop between industry and audience?
Victoria: I think you build the country and the people that you want to become by what you show them on the screens. You can see in Japanese animation an emphasis on their customs. Their daily lives become a point of reference. Globalization has allowed us to see each other and allowed us to share our thoughts and concerns and we want movies that connect. Drug trafficking exists, but we don’t identify with it: It’s a sort of boogeyman that is always there. How do you show new dynamics in which daily life and prosperity don’t revolve around drug trafficking? You show other realities. That is our responsibility.
A theme of the film is an ongoing need to take responsibility for our origins, a reconciliation with our past, rebuilding our sense of belonging. Could you expand?
Millán: Len’s story manages to coincide with a broader narrative in our country. It’s the story of a tribe with origins in the mountains. It borders on and resonates with a structural denial that we, as most Colombians, have had about having two or three ancestors who were peasants from the mountains. That denial comes from a hidden pain, a traumatic damage to the social tissue. Our story involved long research: Time spent with shamans, speaking Yajé, chewing coca, conversations with the Mamos in the mountains asking their permission to use cultural elements in our film. We reinterpret several Kogui elements for to understand their universe and relationship with the sea as well as the dynamics of a good life for the Nasa of Cauca, and the cosmography of the Desana from Vaupés and the Inga of the Putumayo. Our fictional tribe, Mapui, does not belong to any one tribe, but allows us to say what our grandparents, the wise men, passed down. That includes messages of universal love, collective work, dialog and individual responsibility which are not only represented in the film, but ideals we strive to carry out in our industrial processes.