Irish animation illuminates ancient secret



Secret of Kells was nominated for an Oscar

The Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth, running April 9 to 16 in Vancouver, was established in 1998 to provide “culturally diverse, authentic programming for youth.” While the festival has a younger audience in mind, with audiences engaging in the event through question and answer sessions, and linked classroom discussions, many of the films will have a broader appeal.

In particular, there’s a chance to see The Secret of Kells, a wonderful feature animation by the makers of The Triplets of Belleville that has picked up numerous festival awards and was nominated for an Oscar this year.

The Book of Kells, in real life, is one of the oldest Celtic manuscripts dating back to the times when Norsemen terrorized communities along European shores, raping and pillaging wherever they went. The manuscript itself is revered for its intricate and beautifully hand-drawn illustrations, but it is also surrounded by mystery. Drawn in appropriately flowing, exquisite colours, the film tells the story of how the book survived the marauding invaders that ransacked Kells.

The Abbott of Kells is busy fortifying the abbey compound against the expected Norse invaders. In the midst of their preparations, a master Illuminator drags himself through their gates after surviving a pillaging of the monastery on the isle of Iona – where Saint Columba established Scotland’s first Christian settlement – clutching his unfinished manuscript.

Young, red-haired orphan Brendan, against the wishes of his guardian the Abbott, secretly helps the newcomer Brother Aidan complete the magical and powerful work, a job that involves dangerous missions beyond the protective walls of the Abbey. There are beautifully rendered scenes of Brendan gathering rare berries for green ink in the enchanted forest where he meets ferocious, four-legged beasts and the playful faerie Aisling. When the loving, but authoritative, Abbot finds out about Brendan’s activities, it drives a schism between the two and he locks Brendan up. But the boy has found his vocation and will combat Vikings and a serpent god to find a crystal to complete the Book.

The storyline follows a fairly standard mythical quest trajectory, with gentle humour and a sharing in Brendan’s sense of wonderment at this magical world. It’s gorgeous to look at and the dark forces are memorably menacing (perhaps too much so for young children).

Canadian production Hungry Hills is a fifties, western melodrama about 15-year-old, Snit, who is overcoming a pained history in an abusive boys’ welfare residence after returning to his family farm in Saskatchewan. Faced with the animosity of small town folk, the essentially good Snit falls in with Johnny, a bootlegger his age and another outcast struggling with his own demons. The film, adapted from the novel by George Ryga, has a brooding atmosphere although I felt there were too many gaps in the narrative for the story to gel. Scenes are thoughtfully composed, with impressive wide-open vistas. The cast is good, especially John Pyper-Ferguson as Kane, an unorthodox and laconic cop. Yet because of narrative shortcomings, the film misses the mark.

Also showing at R2R is Home is Where the Food Is, a chatty, six-minute animation made by Jodi Kramer for the 100-Mile Diet Society in Vancouver. As Vancouver Island resident Tina Biello cooks up a classic Italian pasta dish, the flowing black and white line-drawing (there are only a few splashes of colour here and there) traces the ingredients to their source: pasta made from Red Fife wheat grains (the popular heritage grain) sourced from a Cowichan Bay mill, prawns from the local marina, veggies from the garden, eggs from an honour stand, and cheese from a nearby farm. Only the cooking fat – butter packaged in Abbotsford, but sourced from Quebec – has a heavy carbon footprint. This slice of wholesomeness is also online at vimeo.com/7409888

The full program for Reel to Real is at www.r2rfestival.org

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never Bike Alone. www.youneverbikealone.com. He writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.