In the past year, there’s been countless stories and documentaries made from inside retirement homes. These usually aim to inform the public on how COVID-19 impacts elder people’s mental wellbeing as much as their physical health, touching upon themes of isolation and loneliness. The context of a global pandemic has indeed pushed many people – young and old – to reflect about ageing and the inevitable process of life. For many, it’s been a time to ponder upon how society treats its elder population, and how – or if – there is a best way to approach death.
But for Swiss-German illustrator and animation film director Samuel Patthey, the pandemic wasn’t necessary to think about such themes. Before COVID-19 brought lockdowns and restricted travels, Patthey spent over a year sketching at a retirement home in Switzerland and then adapting the drawings for the screen with co-director Silvain Monney.
The two used a technique of analogue animation, consisting of hand-drawn illustrations with a few collages that would be scanned and turned into a short film, “Peel” (“Écorce”) that reflects upon passing time.
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This poetic film with sparse colors and no dialogue is produced by Swiss production company Dok Mobile and distributed by Interfilm Berlin Sales and Square Eyes. The short is in competition at the prestigious Annecy International Animation Film Festival, running from June 14-19. Patthey spoke to Variety ahead of the festival.
Your film depicts the daily routine of a retirement home. What did you want to tell with this story?
The basic idea came when I was visiting my grandmother’s retirement home close to Lake Geneva. I was just so intrigued by this microcosm and this world in another world, that I felt there is something I want to tell about this sort of place, and I want to tell it in another way from what was already made. I thought I needed to do this, this experience of being emerged in this place and trying to get to the core of it.
We [Patthey and co-director Silvain Monney] spent one year at a specific retirement home that we chose in Fribourg, and that accepted to let us work there. We spent two to three days a week drawing there. We really wanted to be just observers and as neutral as possible – not getting too close to people, not getting too attached – because the idea was really [to focus on] the place, and not specifically one person or the other. We made friendships and all that for sure, but that was not the purpose.
Why did you choose “Écorce” (“bark” in English) as the title for the short film?
“Écorce” means a tree bark in French. There is a special story behind the title: There is a forest surrounding a bit of the retirement home, and this forest was called “le bois des morts,” (“the wood of the dead”). We figured that many of the residents go for a walk in the forest, and sometimes get lost. We thought that this connection between this nature and freedom was very interesting to put in contrast to this space of the retirement home.
There’s been many media documenting retirement homes. Why do you think animation was a good format to tell this story?
Animation was a good format because we felt that there’s so much life and privacy in those places. To go without purpose, just with a camera and photos and filming people – I felt that that’s so annoying for them and for us. It was not the right medium to use there. When you’re drawing you observe much longer and much better I think, you’re feeling stuff. I don’t go to places to film, I go with my sketchbook and that’s how I can tell stories or imagine stuff.
When you spent so much time at the retirement home, was it during COVID-19 or was it before?
It’s a bit of a sad story. We really ended the movie two or three days before the COVID-19 pandemic really closed down everything, so it was not during the time of the pandemic. It was really incredible to see how this movie now kind of made sense without the purpose of a pandemic. It was not our intention to make a movie because those people are [now] even more isolated. I felt they are still isolated enough even without a pandemic. I hope that the movie gives an idea [allowing audiences] to rethink a bit and then reanalyze that death is here, and is always here.