It can be a real privilege to witness an emerging talent starting to make their mark on the world, and breathe new life into an industry. To think what it must have felt like to be in the audience when Steven Spielberg debuted 'Duel', or getting your hands on the first copies of Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility'; feeling that excitement and anticipation knowing that this person is destined for greatness. Raw talent is a treat - and should be nurtured.
And that's what makes 'Away', the debut feature from Latvian director Gints Zilbalodis, so intriguing. There is serious talent evident from the get-go, and whilst this film is far from perfect, you'd be foolish to suggest that Zilbalodis isn't going places. 'Away' won the inaugural Contrechamp Award at the prestigious Annecy International Film Festival, dedicated to the best emerging animation talent from around the world, so he's certainly doing something right.
The film opens on a young boy hanging by his parachute, swinging from a tree after a plane crash and trying to set himself free. He'll have to hurry, as approaching him from the distance in this vast mysterious land is a monster - or rather a malignant spirit - and sanctuary is necessary before it's too late. Thus begins the journey with strange creatures and even stranger lands, on the run - and trying to escape this incessant monster.
Everything in this film is done with a singular vision, as Zilbalodis was the sole creator on this project. Part budgetary restrictions and part artistic integrity, Zilbalodis composed all the music, drew all the storyboards, and ultimately put everything together in his own way. It took three and a half years to make, and that sheer ambition has to be applauded. It's minimalist without feeling cheap, and it's complex without being pretentious. Zilbalodis is able to achieve a real vidual depth with his experimental CG animations, which is especially impressive seeing as our no-name protagonist doesn't really have a detailed face.
There is no dialogue throughout, so the audience must rely on all other elements to understand the story and feel the emotions, which Zilbalodis does a remarkable job of. The musical composition particularly was so vibrant, drawing on personal memories of family car rides playing Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf', where entire character journeys can be felt through music alone. There are scenes where you could close your eyes, and just the sounds of the birds chirping or fire crackling tell a whole story. There is a freedom in the camera movement and a clear Hayao Miyazaki influence when it comes to world-building, which is no bad thing. I loved the decision to leave this dialogue-free, because it gives the audience a chance to experience the hero's journey as they see fit. Everyone will take something different from this and there are no "right" answers.
During its festival runs, many categorised 'Away' as being for children or young adults, and whilst kids would certainly gain something from this, this is a very allegorical story. It would be great to have group discussions about what everyone took from it, especially the interpretations of our "monster". Without giving too much away, this slow-moving, non-aggressive and seemingly unopinionated creature is more natural force than evil, but it's purposeful and continued pursuit speaks volumes. This monster - and the story in general - reflects the creative process. There are hurdles, blockades, and other macro influences out of our control, always appearing to hurt our every attempt, leaving one with a feeling of isolation and negative emotions. But the journey is so important, whether you find the destination or not.
There is serious talent evident from the get-go, and whilst this film is far from perfect, you'd be foolish to suggest that Zilbalodis isn't going places.
This really is a stunning debut feature. There are certain sequences I would project onto my living room walls, having it on loop all day long. There is an advantage in animation that the artist isn't constrained by real-world anchors, where one can showcase the complexities of emotions purely through visual storytelling. It's why often my favourite scenes in a film can be the dream sequence - and 'Away' feels like one long dream. The pacing is slow, which is not to suggest it's boring, but it could be tighter. Zilbalodis speaks about how he quartered his feature into four chapters, paving the way for easier funding and a much less harassing schedule. He essentially made four short films and cut them together, however, perhaps this meant it was just a step too far. It's almost like when making the transition from short film to feature-length, Zilbalodis felt he just had to take one of his shorts and make it longer. There is more to it than that, and perhaps in time when he has a bigger team by his side, he will learn that.
I was so close to giving this four stars, and the review probably reads closer to a four than anything else, but it just falls short for me as I found I respected it more than enjoyed it. 'Away' isn't perfect, and it's not for everyone. However, with such an impressive and often stunning debut, I can't wait to see what Zilbalodis produces next - this Latvian animator is certainly one to watch.