Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Blinky & Me: An Animator’s Survivor Story

Children of the 1980’s might recognize Dot and the Bunny from its cable broadcasts. That was the work of Polish-born animated filmmaker Yoram Gross, who is best known in his adopted Australian homeland (by way of Israel), for his Blinky Bill series.  The story of the beloved children’s book character has deep personal resonance for the animator that he explains to his family and to viewers in Tomasz Magierski’s documentary-profile Blinky & Me (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Gross was born to a well-respected Jewish merchant family in 1926.  Blinky Bill is a koala bear.  However, both lost their fathers at a young age and would spend years separated from their mothers.  Gross and his mother would survive the war thanks to fellow Poles who sheltered them, but the years apart were difficult.  Immigrating to Israel soon after liberation, the Gross family was essentially spared the repression of the Communist era, but they were not immune from personal tragedy. 

Though a difficult period, Gross’s international reputation blossomed during his Israeli years.  Having seen enough of war, Gross immigrated once again to Australia, where he would create his best known work, featuring the likes of Dot and Blinky Bill, drawn from the country’s favorite children’s literature.  For those unfamiliar with Blinky Bill, the clips Magierski shows look like a budget version of Don Bluth’s Secret of NIMH, but they are clearly quite heartfelt.  Presumably, Gross engendered the sort of trust with Australian parents their American counterparts once invested in the Disney name.

In established documentary tradition, Gross revisits Poland for the first time since the war with his large brood of children and grandchildren. Although these scenes are undeniably well intentioned, they do not break any new ground, at least for those who have seen more than one Holocaust related documentary over the last two or three years.  However, Gross’s animation could serve as the thin edged of the wedge, introducing some legitimate oral history of the National Socialist occupation to younger or otherwise resistant viewers.  (Sadly, it is still hard to envision Ahmadinejad watching B&M, even if he knew there were animated koalas in it.)

B&M will surely spur interest in Gross’s films, particularly his breakout Joseph the Dreamer, the first animated feature produced in Israel.  While unflaggingly respectful, Magierski’s straight forward approach looks a bit workaday.  Nonetheless it is accessible as a survivor’s testimony and a profile of a prolific filmmaker.  Recommended for animation fans and as a teaching tool for parents ready to start explaining the horrors of WWII to their children, Blinky & Me opens this Friday (9/21) in New York at the Quad Cinema.