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16th ÉCU Film Festival 2021

Arjan Brentjes  
Sad Beauty

In a heavily polluted world, a young woman mourns the disappearance of animal species. When she falls ill due to a bacterial infection, nature appears to send her a message in her hallucinations.


Hi Arjan thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you holding up during these very strange times?


Before the pandemic I spent most of my days sitting at a desk, working on my animation films. Since the pandemic I spend most of my days sitting at a desk, working on my animation films. So you see, practically it doesn’t affect me a lot. If anything, it gave me more time to work. However, that doesn’t mean I prefer these times. As short film maker, you look forward to visiting some of the festivals that show your work, and meet and communicate with other filmmakers. There hasn’t been a lot of that this time.


Has this time offered you any creative inspiration or opportunities?


All the festivals that went online made it possible to see many hundreds of short films, that otherwise would only have been available by traveling to the festivals. That, combined with the extra time I had to work and think about the work, gave me inspiration to come up with plans for future films. And with motivation to think a little bigger than I used to. 


Congratulations on having your Animation Sad Beauty selected for the 16th ÉCU Film Festival in Paris, what does it mean to you to be part of such an amazing line-up of short films?


The thing I most appreciate about ÉCU is the independent nature of the films, as well as the organisers. It’s really about independent filmmakers helping and inspiring each other. I won’t promise to stay away from cooperating with commercial partners in the future, but it was very good for me to get to where I am now on my own. I like it when people get their projects realised no matter the support. Make it mean something. For a long time my motto was (and had to be) – If you can’t join them, beat them.


Your festival run for Sad Beauty has been incredible with you collecting multiple awards for your film, did you imagine you would have gotten such a great reaction to your film?


When I was working on the film I was convinced it would be interesting enough to be selected at a few dozen festivals. Then, early 2020, when I was finishing the film, I was afraid it would not be received well. I made this short about a pandemic, and then suddenly there actually was one. At that time we didn’t know where things were going, and how people would respond to it. But it turned out that the fact that it’s about a pandemic generated a lot more interest in the film than expected. I’m happy with the production of the film, but I do realise that more than half of the film’s success is caused by the unfortunate situation we’re in.


"Like I said, this is my DIY approach, it’s all I know. If you’re going on a similar journey, borrow my motto – If you can’t join them, beat them."

Can you tell me a little bit about Sad Beauty, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?


In 2017 it felt like I had to recalibrate my view of humanity. Up to then I had the feeling that, despite all ups and downs, we were all slowly moving toward a more free, more democratic global situation. But a few years ago I realised this may not necessarily be the case. The shift toward authoritarianism is terrible on its own account, but also probably makes it impossible to avert the ecological disaster. Taking things to the extreme I thought, if everything falls apart, what’s the point of life anyway? Then I looked beyond humanity and found some beauty in life on earth in general, and down to the smallest micro-organisms. Even if we totally ruin ourselves and the planet, some beautiful life form will continue.


What where the biggest challenges you faced brining this Sad Beauty to life?


In practical sense I had only minor challenges. I had a lot of support from the Dutch Film Fund, that really wanted to give me a chance. The biggest challenges were in the content of the film, finding the right balance to bring across what I wanted to show. Even in final months of production there were some substantial changes in visualisation and in the tone of voice.


There is a powerful and profound message behind Sad Beauty, as a filmmaker how important is it for you to use your platform to highlight environmental issues?


This film is not in first place meant as an environmental warning. The audiences of film festivals in general are already very aware of the dangers we are facing. The most important message, if you will, is one of solace. Trying to make people find the same comfort I felt when I started seeing our existence on Earth as less important, and find beauty in the continuation of billions of years of evolution. And if that appreciation for life in the broader sense helps some people get more motivation to save the environment, that’s also great of course.


Where did your passion for animation come from?


When I was a child I was crazy about mid-century European comic books, and that motivated me to become an artist. Around the time I went to art school I was more interested in painting than drawing, so that was the direction in which I went. After Art Academy, I worked as painter for more than ten years. Then, looking for something with more storytelling aspects I switched to making short films. First live-action and then slowly, film by film, moving towards full animation. And now I see that animation gives me the possibility to create worlds that remind me of the comic books I loved when I was a kid.


How much has your approach to your projects changed since your first film?


The appearance and professionally of my films have changed noticeably since I started making them. But the thing that remains the same is that I look at every production as a journey to figure something out. I often combine a visual style from the past with subject matter from current events. And then during the production I will discover what I’m actually trying to bring across. This adventure is more interesting to me than exactly knowing in advance what you’re going to make.


What tips or advice you would you now offer a fellow animator making their debut film?


I don’t know how it is if you attend a film school. But if you’re going for the DIY approach like me, just go for it. Fail, and fail again. Don’t feel like you have to be Annecy-ready on the first attempt. First try to find out what makes your stories unique. Make a few shorts and see how they work, how viewers receive them. Maybe not immediately send the first attempts to big festivals, but nevertheless do share them. And as I said, fail, it’s okay. Actually, it’s more educational. And then, when you’re more confident, send your work around to festivals, lots of them. Don’t be afraid to be rejected by 90 percent of them. There are so many good films being made, it’s hard to be noticed. But if you persevere, one day you’ll have film that stands out. Like I said, this is my DIY approach, it’s all I know. If you’re going on a similar journey, borrow my motto – If you can’t join them, beat them.


And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Sad Beauty?


Most of all I challenge people to find some consolation in the fact that we are just a dot on the timeline of the planet. Just a blink, a single breath in the totality of life on Earth.

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