Small People with Hats asks us to imagine a society of two groups of people: bare-headed giants, and smaller hat-wearing folks who are abused by their larger cousins. Welcome to the world of animator Sarina Nihei. Nihei's seven-minute film is filled with such mystery and intrigue that I'm loath to try to describe it, lest I explain it all away. The short manages to be nearly unclassifiable while simultaneously extremely topical. Whether it's class, corporal punishment, or our own culture's numbness to violence, Nihei examines it with an incredibly left-of-center sensibility that awes and fascinates you.
The film is one of the most delightfully absurd animations of the year, right up there with Don Hertzfeldt's modern masterpiece World of Tomorrow. Even though it is hand-drawn in ink and painted in acrylics, Nihei employs many of the surreal, satiric, and sound-effect qualities found in legendary Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer's work. Like Švankmajer, Nihei crafts her distinctive style through sound, repetition, and visual non sequiturs to briskly move through story and situations. It's a technique where style enhances substance since what you're seeing feels so alien and strangely exciting.
Along with her absolutely lovely, unsmiling characters, sound is a star of the short. Using a mix of classical instruments, drones, and an array of hand-recorded effects, the film is transformed into something original and elusive. Nihei's inventive sound work was enough to catch the ears of the jury at the prestigious Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF), where the film won the award for best sound and, most impressively, the grand prize for best independent short animation. It marks the first time in the fest's 39-year history that the prize was awarded to a student film.
Check out the some small, androgynous people wearing hats below, and catch the interview I did with director Sarina Nihei beneath them.
VICE: I have so many questions. So, so, so many questions. I'll start with the most obvious. Why do the small people wear hats?
Sarina Nihei: Because they love hats. You can't judge people's personalities by their hats.
Too true. Now, the short is rife with metaphors, commenting on everything from marginalized people to the out-of-touch ruling class. Was there anything specific you were trying to say?
Yes and no—you can feel whatever you like. The story is based on ideas of despair and absurdity in a society. People are killed for irrational reasons, which always makes me feel despair. But when it comes to filmmaking, I make much of it entertaining and don't want to make it too serious. That's how the story ended up.
What do the numbers mean?
They are their code.
There are many mysteries hidden within your film. Is it possible to unpack everything by re-watching, or did you intend to keep some things ambiguous or unsolvable?
It's OK for me if there are people hate my film or love my film. So I won't give you the answer.
OK, that's fair. So how did you develop this story?
This is a long story. I tried to make it funny and entertaining, but the story is based on absurdity and the despair of society, so I developed the story by those principles.
Your first-year film Trifling Habits seems to take place in the same world, at least aesthetically, as Small People With Hats. What does this world mean to you? Is it a place you'll revisit in future films?
I always enjoy drawing rather than sitting in front of the computer all day. And the texture of acrylic color can never be imitated by a digital technique. So I'll keep on doing my hand-drawn style. In terms of the character design, I try not to make them look happy. I just don't like happy-looking characters for some reason.
How long did it take you to create this animation? Did you draw and paint it all by hand? How many drawings is the film in total?
Actual production was about eight months including animating, painting, editing, and sound. I didn't count the frames I drew, but I left them in a friend's house because I couldn't get them back to Japan because they were too heavy.
What are you working on next?
I've just started making the next film now. Looking for a producer.
Check out more of Sarina's work at her website.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival. Follow him on Twitter.