Sunday, March 08, 2009

ANIMATION: AZUR & ASMAR—A Few Questions for Michel Ocelot

Michel Ocelot's Azur & Asmar arrives in San Francisco adorned and bejeweled with superlatives. "The year's most beautiful animated film!," writes Andrew O'Hehir at Salon, "Impossibly gorgeous ... the sheer storybook rapture swept me away!" "So gloriously bright," writes Leslie Felperin at Variety, "audiences with sensitive eyes may need shades." And at Film Journey, Doug Cummings writes: "Sets a new bar for digital animation! Closer to a handsome storybook than a mainstream CGI film, lending the narrative a significant degree of visual enchantment." Rather than rack the thesaurus for additional adjectives—"bewitching ensorcellments" comes to mind—I focus on Ocelot's presentation at the film's first screening at Landmark's Opera Plaza. As a disgruntled aside, the beauty of this film deserved a much larger screen than the woefully inadequate Opera Plaza. The film, properly projected, should be—as Ocelot put it—"like diamonds getting into your eyes." I'm hoping its placement at the Opera Plaza doesn't keep audiences away.

As Ocelot officially synopsizes: "Azur and Asmar is the story of two boys raised as brothers. Blonde, blue-eyed, white skinned Azur and black-haired, brown-eyed, dark-skinned Asmar are lovingly cared for by Asmar's gentle mother, who tells them magical stories of her faraway homeland and of a beautiful, imprisoned Fairy Djinn waiting to be set free. Time passes, and one day Azur's father, the master of the house, provokes a brutal separation. Azur is sent away to study, while Asmar and his mother are driven out, homeless and penniless.

"Years later, as a young adult, Azur remains haunted by memories of the sunny land of his nanny, and sets sail south across the high seas to find the country of his dreams. Arriving as an immigrant in a strange land, Azur is rejected by everyone he meets on account of his 'unlucky' blue eyes, until finally he resolves never to open those eyes again. The once-beautiful child clad in gold is reduced to a blind beggar. Yet, blind though he is, little by little and step by step, he discovers a beautiful and mysterious country. Meanwhile, back in her homeland, Azur's nanny has become a wealthy merchant and Asmar has grown into a dashing horseman. Reunited but now as adversaries, the two brothers set off on a dangerous quest to find and free the Fairy of the Djinns."

* * *

Michael Guillén: Michel, could you please talk about the techniques used to achieve such stunning animation?

Michel Ocelot: Although it doesn't quite show, all the characters are CGI 3D and the backgrounds are 2D; but, I was the boss, not the computer. I decided what I wanted. A lot of computer films tell a lot about what the computer can do instead of telling the story but here I was thinking about the story with the image of the fairy tale, nothing realistic, where we all play together at make believe. I'm not trying to have all the trees look real—if you say it's flat, that's fine with me—but, little by little, you play with my imagery and you believe what I say is true. The image is invented but the sentiment is genuine.

Guillén: What inspired this story?

Ocelot: This story is in the here and now. Although a fairy tale, it is about the conflict between two countries, two cultures. Now there is a Western bloc and a Muslim bloc, rich people and poor people, and I wanted to talk about that. Little by little, the story came to me. At the beginning I didn't think about North Africa, but—as a Frenchman—I thought it would be a good idea to talk about what I knew. So the first country for me is France—though here, now, the translation into English is fine with me—and the other country is North Africa because most of the immigrants in France are from North Africa. I decided that the country on the other side of the sea would be North Africa because it rings true for me.

That allowed me something else. Azur & Asmar is a fable and you can use a fable for anything else. While we were making the film, there was some violence in certain segments of Paris. I had no idea anything was happening. I was rollerskating to work, crossing Paris, enjoying the beauty and the peace of the city. When I got to where I was working on the film, where a lot of people were thinking of making something beautiful and good, and where we were all friends, I received phone calls from Japan, Great Britain and the United States asking me if I was okay? If Paris was burning? I didn't understand the question. They explained what they had heard on the news. As more people phoned to ask if Paris was burning—by now I knew what was happening—I told them, "You watch too much CNN." If one of the reporters from CNN had been following me, they would have seen the opposite of what they were showing on TV: a totally peaceful city where people of diverse origins were working together, never thinking of fighting, wanting instead to create something beautiful like Azur & Asmar. That is why in the closing credits I mention that the film is made in Paris with friends from different origins. I asked people on the crew where their parents were from—not their grandparents but their parents—and I wrote these countries down and the list represented the whole planet.

As I was saying, Azur & Asmar is a fable and can be used in any time in any country; but, because I was thinking of North Africa, I added something historical, the Muslim civilization from the Middle Ages when it was brilliant and open. That's a historical "extra" to the fable. It's important to remember that Muslim culture at a certain point was much more interesting and open than Western civilization.

Guillén: Why did you elect not to translate the Arabic spoken in the film, either through dubbing or subtitles?

Ocelot: Arabic was important because I was talking about this civilization. The Muslim civilization put many civilizations together through this language. For example, in Japan they respected my rule: you dub the French, you don't touch the Arabic, you don't subtitle it, that's the clockwork.

Guillén: What do you mean by "the clockwork"?

Ocelot: The way the film works is that you have to know there are several languages in the world and—in reality—there are no subtitles. I think the film is better that way. If you buy the French DVD and—if you look for it—you can find subtitles for the Arabic so you can know what they say; but, it's not the default option. If you just play the film, it has no subtitles. That's the way I want people to see Azur & Asmar. After they've seen it, they can go back and watch it again with the subtitles if they like. My concern now is that I'm afraid the American distributor of the DVD has ruined my film by putting subtitles over the Arabic in both English and French. Tomorrow I am flying to New York to try to stop them. I told them by contract that it's forbidden to dub or subtitle for general viewing. I don't mind if it's an option in the DVD extras. The U.S. launch of the DVD was supposed to be tomorrow; but—if there are subtitles you cannot take off—I will try to stop it.

Guillén: What influenced the look of the film?

Ocelot: I love Persian miniatures very much. They're refined and pretty and are not afraid of being beautiful and understandable. The faces are nice. The costumes are intricate and well-made. I combined those with real things because I was celebrating a civilization that is still beautiful, with gardens and decorative art. I'm encouraging you to go and see the real thing.

Guillén: The African influence on your films is quite striking.

Ocelot: Well, when I was a kid I was Black. [Chuckles.] I was going to school in New Guinea. In the beginning me and my brother were the first two white children in our school. So my primary schooling was in Africa. I have only good recollections from this time. It was a time of total peace and harmony with only good people around me. No violence. At least five religions living well together. And beautiful people who did not hide their bodies, which I tried to show in
Kirikou et la sorcière (1998). Don't be ashamed; it's right. But it was almost impossible to sell to the United States because of the way the women were dressed and the way the hero wasn't dressed at all.

Guillén: Do you have a sense of how your films are received by children?

Ocelot: Children love my films. I feel this film is for everybody beginning from the age of seven, the age of reason, because it is a serious story. Some people told me they felt the film would work for five-year-olds but I thought they were lying until I saw some five-year-olds watching Azur & Asmar more intensely than the grown-ups. A lot of parents have told me that children can start appreciating films at 1½ years of age; but, I think that's a little early. My trick is that I'm not creating my films for children. I make them for human beings just like me. I'm only making films which excite me and interest me today. But I know that in the house there will be kids so I'm trying not to harm them but I tell them all. For kids it's all right if you don't understand; but even when you don't understand, a kid can tell if someone is making fun of them or taking them seriously. They might not understand my films but they see that I'm taking them seriously. The film registers and will help them later. They will understand later. The job of kids is to learn.

Guillén: When Princess Chamsous Sabah sneaks out of the palace to survey her city, she notes the various houses of worship, including a Christian church with—what was to me—a familiar Byzantine representation of Christ. This was a lovely historical decoupage.

Ocelot: In that scene I am telling the history of North Africa backwards. Before the Muslims invaded North Africa, it was a Christian country under Byzantine rule and that's why I show Christ. Before then it was Greco-Roman and I show an arena with the huge sculptured head of Jupiter. Before Greco-Roman, there were Cathaginian and Phoenician images. In those ruins there's another big head of Baal. And before that there were cave paintings.

Guillén: What is next for you?

Ocelot: Azur & Asmar was a relatively heavy work. It was expensive, involving a lot of people, a lot of hardware, software, and it took a long time. I want to come back to short films because animation works very well in short films. Animation is like jewelry making; it's not making big trucks. I have many different stories to tell and—though some are expecting me to make another feature film—I'm going back to short films and television. It's not that I like television that much but television is important because it reaches people and children in their homes. Some people don't go to the movies. I'm going to try to make 10 little masterpieces with the very simple technique of black silhouette, shadow puppet theatre. That's what I'm doing. I'm trying to combine the simplicity of cut-out—which I was used to doing when I had no money—with the convenient aspects of digital animation. I very much enjoy making feature films—I should have started earlier—but, I'm enjoying going back to short stories.

Azur & Asmar is showing at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco (415) 267-4893. Tickets are $10.50 for general admission and $7:50 for seniors and children. Showtimes (valid through March 12): Fri-Thu at 1:50, 4:15, 7:00, 9:30. Advance tickets can be purchased online at: and at the theatre box office.

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