Fairy tales are cruel. Just think of the story of Hansel and Gretel: abandoned in the forest, starving and at the mercy of wild animals, enslaved and almost cannibalized in the witch’s house, Gretel finally has to push an old woman into a red-hot oven to save herself and her brother.
So when Florence Miaihe tells an escape story like a fairy tale, it is by no means harmless. Shadow men in uniform burn down a village and torment its residents. Two siblings, Kyona and Adriel, flee with their parents and when they are arrested, the children are soon alone. You traverse a fictional country, maybe even a continent like a dark, evil forest, encounter fiends, a mysterious Baba Yaga and are sold “like puppies” to a rich couple to – well, what actually? To be “loved” as perfectly groomed surrogate children? Or exploited as child slaves and sexually abused? The film only hints at such horrors, after all it is also intended for a young audience.
Florence Miaihe tells the story in animated oil paintings that are beautiful, idiosyncratic and precious. Spray foams with wild brushstrokes of white against a night blue as the children cross a sea in a tiny boat. Parrot feathers explode in a riot of color as Kyona opens an aviary and the birds fly to freedom. Gray veils cover the images as smoke when a village is on fire and people in uniform are harassing them.
“The animation is executed frame by frame on several layers of glass directly below the camera,” explains Florence Miaihe of her elaborate animation technique. “This system is built in such a way that as much as possible everything is done at the same time and by the same person: the characters, the set, the effects, the color. This allows the image to be conceived in its entirety at any time. For animators Animators feel like they’re bringing a painting to life.”
The stations of the escape follow one another like chapters: a life on the streets, stealing and collecting garbage, the life-threatening crossing over the sea, the “surrogate parents”, at the end the arrest and internment in a camp whose catastrophic conditions are reminiscent of real refugee camps like Moria . But Kyona and Adriel also experience friendship and unexpected help. And the colors, applied with a broad brush, are not just literal rays of hope, but become real allies when, for example, the freed parrots pounce on the children’s pursuers as wild blobs of paint.
The adult Kyona tells all this using her sketchbook, which she always takes with her when she escapes. In the German version of the film, Kyona is spoken by Hanna Schygulla. The templates for her sketches come from the pad of Mireille Miailhe, the director’s mother, from the time of the Second World War. Like the heroine of the film, she constantly drew her family, friends, scenes from everyday life. “My family history is itself one of migration,” explains Florence Miaihe. “Like thousands of others, my great-grandparents left their homeland of Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century, fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms.”
They found a new home in France. The studio of the adult Kyona can be seen at the beginning of the film. A drawn window leads from there into a painted landscape, through which a bird, animated by animation, flies. In this way, the viewer is drawn into the animated world – and into the abstraction. The poetic narrative style keeps the descent into hell at a bit of a distance, otherwise it would be even harder to endure.
Florence Miaihe had the idea for “The Odyssey” back in the noughties, when more and more people from Africa and the Middle East came and ended up on the beaches of Malta or Lampedusa. When designing her film, she was heavily inspired by photographs of refugees, camps and looting, many from the Magnum agency, for which her husband Patrick Zachmann works as a photographer. The mix of fairy tales and reportage makes this story of two unaccompanied minor refugees a topical and realistic as well as timeless and universal story. Hansel and Gretel are fleeing the Ukraine war today.
La Traversee, France/D/Czech Republic 2021 – Director: Florence Miailhe. Book: Marie Desplechin, F. Miailhe. Voice actors in the German version: Hanna Schygulla, Derya Flechtner, Max Asmus, Nicolas Rathod, Viktor Neumann, Moritz Gottwald. Distribution: Grandfilm, 84 minutes. Theatrical release: April 28, 2022