By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino y archivo particular
“Making an animated film is like directing a dream; you tiptoe through it trying not to wake the dreamers. You have the entire universe in your hands, and you can do what you like with avatars and hopes of men, like some kind of magnificent god. This will make you happy all your life and serve as your ineffable reward,” said mild-mannered Michel Ocelot, just six hours after arriving in Colombia with a schedule as busy as that of any rock star or politician. And, like in every city around the world, in Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín a legion of fans await him; people of all ages, who never lost touch with their childhood wonder or fantasies on the road to adulthood.
He seemed fully satisfied as he took stock of his long career, including the lean years filled with pilgrimages to the offices of fickle film producers and investors, who, in some cases, tried to bury his films. But instead of undermining his enthusiasm they made him stronger, prouder, and even more of a transgressor.
Now, he moves his hands as if accustomed to drawing in the air, and a slight smile lingers on his lips, as if translating a vast flood of memories and emotions. The cinema and his life, he claims, are so closely linked, and dance so closely intertwined, that he has trouble distinguishing the line that separates them.
“A shaman or a witch doctor decrypting the alphabet of the night, of the jungle, of men. Such is the creator of animated films,” insists Michel Ocelot, gently shaking his head, showering the room with the glow of a pair of eyes that look almost like those of a teenager.
“I see myself, in the beginning, as a child fascinated with the silver screen, wondering about the magical and scientific devices that managed to create a parallel world, immersed in cinematic adventures and episodes. From then on I longed to be part of this strange banquet. It’s a fanciful world, but more consistent and more certain than the one that permeates the streets or our homes, cities, and villages. It seems incredible but, actually, the lies created in films unravel the truth of life.”
The Unforgettable Kingdom
He is forever indebted to his parents, Pierre and Marie Louise, whose concept of culture and its significance was inclusive and ahead of its time. They were exceptional teachers, prepared to sacrifice everything to teach a small group of orphans in the remotest of regions, and avid travelers whose overpowering wanderlust took them to cities in Europe, Asia, and Africa, unfurling wherever they went the banner of understanding, humanism, tolerance, and respect. Never were they ruffled by or suspicious of people with different skin colors or religions or political opinions. This impressed Michel vividly and later permeated his creations. He tells of how, when just seven years old, his wandering family went to live in Guinea, in the heart of Africa.
“It was a perfect, musical, and harmonious world,” he recalls in a voice laden with nostalgia. “I see it as one of the places closest to a sense of harmony, understanding, and kinship that is now lost. The atmosphere in Guinea was so natural that I sometimes imagine a child there could have been unaware of the violence, bloodshed, and fatal arrogance so pervasive in other places. I never saw anything horrifying or scary, or felt any fear at all in Africa.”
“The glorious hours that return to us when we embrace nostalgia are, I believe, the genesis of my films and Kirikou, the astute, inquisitive and very successful African child who inhabits three of my most popular films: Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), Kirikou and the Wild Beasts (2005), and Kirikou and the Men and Women (2011). These films are, among other things, an attempt to recover that kingdom I miss, and a conscious tribute to a beautiful, essential, wise, and much maligned part of the world.”
It was the end of the French colonial era in Africa and other parts of the globe, and Michel’s parents recognized the signs of the times. Unlike other Europeans and Americans, they did not enroll their child in one of the special schools for foreigners, but sent him instead to study at a local country school. He studied alongside the young villagers, children of farmers and spice merchants, artisans and shepherds, musicians and carpenters, with the offspring of Guinea’s humble and traditional families. He was the only white child in a sea of onyx-colored boys and girls.
Gray and Overcast Skies
“One day that happy season came to an end. Thinking back, I believe it symbolized the end of childhood, the flight from the perfect kingdom,” recalls Michel, like a reader turning the pages of a novel, moving from one chapter to another. “We returned to the homeland, so-called Western civilization, specifically the city of Anjou, in northwestern France.” It came as a terrible blow to the little boy accustomed to living close to the benevolent forces of nature, beating in time with a world not yet divorced from the trees, the clouds, and a day’s work.
“I remember being very affected by the grey, overcast skies of the town, by the stubborn and monotonous drizzle, the gloomy church domes, and the wet asphalt that gave off flashes of melancholy. Moreover, the social codes and daily rituals were devoid of the grace and genuine lightness I had known in Africa. “
It wasn’t exactly the most longed for return. He missed life in Guinea, even surrounded by the gaiety of family life in France. His parents remained united always, carrying with them wherever they went the codes and wisdom that formed the foundation of their domestic philosophy.
Michel, however, is quick to avoid any misunderstanding: “These stories of mine about that period in France should by no means lead you to believe I was immersed in a distressing situation. Having left behind the state of true happiness embodied by Guinea, the splendid doors of joyful imagining opened to me: the happiness found in art. I found it in the books that whispered to me from the shelves of a fairly well nourished family library, and in the theaters that projected films that enchanted me.”
It was in one such theater that Michel discovered the possibilities animated films had to offer, specifically, the classic Czech film Toy Rebellion (1946). Here he found the forewarning and indomitable vitality that informed his own work. He seems fulfilled, even a little intoxicated, as he explains: “It’s a masterful piece of work and the predecessor of all the inventions Pixar animated years later. The desire to see objects come to life —an extraordinary miracle made possible through animated films!— lies within all men, perhaps because they feel overwhelmed by loneliness. And so, our infinite imagination makes it possible to give cars, toys, planes, flowers, houses, or clouds a voice, a soul, the ability to question, move, and gesture. This is what makes the director of an animated film feel like a true god.”
Michel jumps from one chapter to the next. We’re now in wonderful Paris with its iconoclastic avant-garde, where art and philosophy, rebellion and love call the shots, and it was possible to see an artistic chimera through to its happy conclusion.
“I came to Paris as a student. I loved all kinds of films but, with no way of acting on it, my true passion was animation. So, during this time, I studied the work of Walt Disney very closely, his dream passages, his human truth, and I also became aware of his limits. Today, after a thorough investigation of this American master, I believe his genius and greatness lasted until Sleeping Beauty (1959), which took seven and a half years to make. This was Art with a capital A. After this came an industrial period and Disney’s inspiration lost its power when it became a factory of garden variety fantasies.”
“Then followed, as it happens, I believe, in the formation of any artistic universe, a time of doubt, vacillation, and often very stormy reflection. I’d always been very sensitive and during my childhood in France and Africa I developed certain latent tendencies that remained trapped. Television producers gave me my first opportunity, but nothing very significant or resounding grew out of it. Certain detractors even spoke of failure.”
“Yes. At one point I suffered from vertigo and anxiety and my career was in jeopardy. Many experiments that took a lot of real effort failed to touch people. I remember how one hot night I went to bed late after sinking into a pit of uncertainty.”
In that fitful sleep, these amazing images started to appear, snatches of African voices I’d lost touch with ages ago, pictures I’d seen in distant places with customs very different from ours. And Kirikou appeared, and the Sorceress, and Azur and Asmar, and all their travel companions. They were the same and yet different, having passed through the filter of fantasy.”
Michel Ocelot rubbed his hands together and sat in silence for a few seconds, heightening the suspense. And then, in melodious French, he said: “The next morning, the story was on its way…”.