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Animator’s award-winning debut mixes mediums for a Holocaust film about a savior pig

Tal Kantor’s Ophir Prize-taking animated short ‘Letter to a Pig,’ which came from a dream she had in high school, will screen at Jerusalem’s upcoming AniNation Festival

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

From Tal Kantor's Ophir-winning animated short, 'Letter to a Pig,' which will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque's upcoming Anination Festival, November 16-19, 2022 (Courtesy Tal Kantor)
From Tal Kantor's Ophir-winning animated short, 'Letter to a Pig,' which will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque's upcoming Anination Festival, November 16-19, 2022 (Courtesy Tal Kantor)

When Tal Kantor’s award-winning animated short “Letter to a Pig” is screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s upcoming AniNation Festival, there will be plenty of recognition for the barriers broken by the fascinating film.

The 15-minute picture won the award for Best Short Film at the September Ophir Awards — Israel’s version of the Oscars — marking the first time an animated short was recognized by the Israeli film community, said Kantor.

“It’s still very emotional for me,” Kantor told The Times of Israel. “It was like getting a hug from the whole animation world in Israel, from the entire film world, really.”

Based on a dream Kantor, 34, had during high school, “Letter to a Pig” is a journey into Israel’s collective subconscious about the Holocaust, as seen through the eyes of a school girl.

Throughout the film, Kantor uses her signature monochromatic drawings — stark sketches made with thick black strokes and soft gray smudges, their effect heightened by her limited use of color, including the pinkish skin of the pig.

She also utilizes rotoscoping, a technique in which animators trace over motion picture footage, frame by frame, to produce realistic action.

 

On November 19, Kantor will speak on the closing day of the AniNation Festival, which takes its name from a portmanteau of animation and nation. The weekend of screenings, workshops and conversations, including events geared toward kids, kicks off November 16.

Bitten by the animation bug

Kantor, who grew up in Jerusalem and whose early art interests centered around plastic crafts, said she was eventually attracted to the animation medium because it allows the addition of other mediums.

Award-winning animator Tal Kantor whose Ophir-winning animated short, ‘Letter to a Pig,’ will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s upcoming AniNation Festival, November 16-19, 2022 (Courtesy Bezalel)

Like many kids, Kantor grew up watching Disney and Pixar movies, and appreciates those classic animated films but when she embarked on her own works, she saw “it wasn’t a language that suited her.”

“I didn’t know much, arthouse animation was a bug I got bitten by, I just loved it,” she said.

She now tends to use a unique technique that combines drawing, photography, video, painting and animation.

“Letter to a Pig” is her debut film, though a graduation project, the short animated film “In Other Words,” won 17 awards and was officially selected in more than 100 festivals worldwide.

She also worked as the animation art director on the award-winning documentary feature film “Advocate,” about Israeli human-rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, which incorporates animation in some parts to protect the identity of various people.

The seed for “Letter to a Pig” came from a dream Kantor had 17 years ago that stuck with her, though she only began working on the film in 2017.

The short took four or five years to create, “a lot of time for 15 minutes of film,” said Kantor.

The pig in question is from Kantor’s own memory, based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor who had spoken to her class. In the film, based on Kantor’s dream, a Holocaust survivor reads a letter he wrote to the pig who saved his life. A young schoolgirl hears his testimony in class and sinks into a twisted dream where she confronts questions of identity, collective trauma, and the extremes of human nature.

Kantor said she had images of survivors, who ran and fled and hid in sheds, and sought the ironies that came with bringing in the pig, the animal that in Judaism is considered untouchable, tying it to the Holocaust and turning the unkosher beast into the savior.

From Tal Kantor’s Ophir-winning animated short, ‘Letter to a Pig,’ which will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s upcoming AniNation Festival, November 16-19, 2022 (Courtesy Tal Kantor)

It was the first time Kantor dealt with the Holocaust in her own work. Her paternal grandparents and several other family members escaped the war, but it wasn’t something she thought about at the time.

“It just surprised me that I could feel so strongly about it,” said Kantor. “I wondered where it came from.”

What animation offered was a medium that could deal with realities and at the same time create another reality.

“It’s about creating worlds with feelings and to prove them in all kinds of ways that allow the viewer to become attached to them,” said Kantor. “I use imagination and memory and put it on the screen and show images and people and the inner world of them in a graphic way. Animation has that power to show our inner experiences.”

Kantor’s plan is to next work on something more lighthearted, even funny, but finds she often intuitively and naturally tends toward the melancholy and serious in her films.

As an instructor at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, her alma mater, Kantor is based in Israel but also works on international co-productions, often combining Israeli projects with European funding. Local budgets for animation aren’t ample enough for her work, she said.

“Letter to a Pig” was supported by Israel’s Gesher Multicultural Film Fund, the Pais Foundation and The New Fund for Cinema and TV as well as ARTE, CNC Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, ​Ciclic Animation and was a co-production with the Israeli The Hive Studio and French MIYU Productions.

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