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Interview with Fan Sissoko, director of On the Surface
Saturday 29 January 2022, by ,
Ada goes swimming in the Icelandic sea and reflects on raising a child in a country that feels nothing like home. As she enters the freezing water, she relives her traumatic pregnancy. Soon her swimming eases. Facing her fears is helping her heal.
Has animation always been an area of interest to you?
I’ve always loved animation, as a child of course, but also as a grown up. It’s such a beautiful and fascinating process. But it hasn’t been part of my practice until On the Surface. It’s my first animated short.
Your film explores difficult topics such as migration, racism and post-natal depression, yet the colours, the landscape, and the sounds of the sea make it a highly calming film. Would you say that making this film was a cathartic experience?
Yes, it was definitely cathartic. Making this film was about trying to turn painful and confusing experiences into something beautiful. This film is fictional but builds heavily on my own experience as a Black mixed race person and an immigrant. I was born in France, from a Malian father and a French mother. I now live in Iceland and this film is about raising a child in a country that feels nothing like home and trying to pass down a sense of belonging when you yourself doesn’t feel like you belong anywhere. It is also inspired by conversations I have had with other immigrants about how they relate to the beautiful but harsh Icelandic landscape. One conversation with a woman who has taken up cold water swimming as a way to face her fears stuck out. Swimming felt like a powerful metaphor to convey the character’s emotional journey. I wanted to show her confront the landscape through literally diving into it, even though it’s unfamiliar and hostile. Also, it’s simply about the fact that nature is healing.
Can you tell us a bit about the animation technique?
It’s 2D computer animation. I mostly composed each scene as a still image in Photoshop, then animated each of the elements (the sea, the body, the sky, etc) frame-by-frame. It was a huge learning curve, but I found the process quite meditative. For the more complex movements, I used video references that I shot myself. I’m lucky to live by the ocean, so going for walks to film the movements of the sea became part of my process.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
This is a hard question. In terms of animation, I really loved Genius Loci by Adrien Mérigeau, which was nominated for an Oscar this year. It’s so beautiful, the animation is mesmerizing, it’s like a feast for the eyes. It’s a film I could watch again and again because there is so much that is open to interpretation in the way the story is told. In terms of live action, the film Hanging On by Alfie Barker is a very clever documentary that tells a serious story with magical visuals.
What’s your definition of a good film?
For me, a good film is a film that’s hard to describe. It immerses you in a world and makes you care about its characters but also doesn’t tell too much. It leaves you with questions.