How Slamdance Winner Nienke Deutz Used Innovative Animation to Create a Powerful Short Film on Female Friendship

By

Justin Sanders

Puberty is not for the faint of heart. We know this. We remember the hormones and the emotions, and the changes in our bodies that sometimes made us feel like strangers to ourselves. It’s a challenging, discomforting rite of passage that we all go through – and yet rarely does puberty get its proper due in the cinematic arts.

That’s why Dutch filmmaker Nienke Deutz’ animated short film, “Bloeistraat 11,” is such a revelation. Telling a wordless tale of two young female friends on the brink of adolescence, Deutz renders her girl characters with a shimmering stop-motion translucence that quite literally exposes their fraught vulnerability. It’s a deceptively languid, sneakily heart-wrenching series of vignettes set in a single location, and packing more emotion, history, and character development into 10 minutes than many feature films do in 90. 

Deutz’ potent combination of nuanced storytelling and artful craft was more than enough to earn “Bloeistraat 11” the CreativeFuture Innovation Award at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival. It was one of many honors the film has picked up on the festival circuit, including a coveted Cristal for best short film at France’s renowned Annecy animation fest. This fall, it will screen in select theaters across the U.S. as part of the GLAS Animation Festival’s ANIMATION NEXT compilation.

Making this film very physical was a way to explore how we can empathize with animated characters,” Deutz told CreativeFuture from her apartment in Rotterdam. It was but one nugget of many in a lengthy interview about how she developed and funded the fascinating, beautiful technique that helps make “Bloeistraat 11” feel like “the epitome of what you can do as a child when you’re crafting.”

Snippet | Bloeistraat 11 (2018, Nienke Deutz) from CineSud NL on Vimeo.

JUSTIN SANDERS (JS): First of all, I must ask, how on earth do you pronounce "Bloeistraat 11"?

NIENKE DEUTZ (NK): [Laughs] It’s “blow-ee strawt” and then “eleven” in Dutch is “elf.” I like diversity of languages so I thought, let’s go for a Dutch name that nobody can pronounce.

JS: And what does it mean? 

NK: The full English translation is simply, “Bloom Street 11.” It’s the made-up address of the house where the film takes place. I liked it because there is a very obscure Dutch dialect in which “Bloei” also means “to bleed.” And blood, as you know, features in the film at key junctures.

JS : Yes, the characters in "Bloeistraat 11" are rendered as transparent figures, and we sometimes see emotional beats manifest as literal flesh and blood. You have another, much older short on your Vimeo page that is also called, perhaps not coincidentally, "Bloom", and that also revolves around a similiar anatomical motid. Where do you think this interest in visually "opening up" the inner workings of the human body comes from?

NK: Good question. I guess I am very much fascinated by our relation towards our bodies – that we are not really connected to them even though we would like to think we are. Even the most body-conscious people can grow sick without noticing. I can connect to my skin and my outside, but how often do I actually think about my liver or any other organ? I find this very fascinating.

In the case of “Bloeistraat 11,” I had an extra reason to use the body so explicitly: I think that it can sometimes be a bit hard to feel empathy for an animated character. We do not easily see the animated character as a representation of a human, so things can feel a bit far off.

I wanted to see if there are ways to feel more engaged with an animated figure. I had this idea that by showing the physicality of a character very explicitly and even making them go through unpleasant stuff, you can create a way to connect more easily with them. The unpleasantness can almost cause a mirroring reaction in our own body, which makes us understand that what we see on screen is not just lines or a puppet, but the representation of a human body.  

Making this film very physical was a way to explore how we can emphasize with animated characters.

 

JS: And that physicality takes on an extra layer of vulnerability because you are presenting two women on the brink of adolescence.

NK: For me, the friendship between two girls at the onset of puberty is like a symbol for a relationship between two people and how we are very unable to communicate sometimes. There is an under-the-skin feeling that you have sometimes when you are very close to someone at that stage of life. It is kind of the first moment when you make a relationship with another human being entirely on your own. Before that, relationships are not something you actively choose. And these first friendships that you make in puberty are kind of like the tryout for other relationships that you have later in life.

One of the main reasons why I chose this specific time period was because I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work with crafting materials in the animation. I think the aesthetics of very simple crafting materials fits very well with the beginning of puberty – with these moments at the end of childhood. I realized that this film should almost symbolize the epitome of what a child might be able to achieve when crafting.

 

JS: You bring those “crafty” materials to life in a very unusual way in “Bloeistraat 11.” How did you develop the animation technique utilized here?

ND: What I really love to do is build sets, and models. It was very important for me to make the space of the house where this friendship would take place feel very present – for the viewer to understand the physical space of the house.

So, I was designing this set, building it from cardboard, and at the same time, I was drawing, making puppets, trying to figure out the look and feel of the characters. I started doing some very simple black line drawings on a piece of plastic, in pencil, and put them inside one of the sets. I animated the figures on just a two-second loop and noticed that light would flicker behind the clear plastic. It was beautiful, but very inconsistent. The body during puberty is different almost every day. You develop breasts, hair grows in strange places. Your body doesn’t have a fixed form, and this animated plastic, with the light behind it, didn’t have a fixed form either. That’s when I thought, “This is great. I can work with this.”

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