(United Kingdom 2018; Dir: Astrid Goldsmith)


I hear dancing in the cage

review by Līga Požarska


length: 13

year of production: 2018

country of production: United Kingdom

director: Astrid Goldsmith

production: Jo Nolan

director of photography: Astrid Goldsmith

editing: Anna Dick

music: Craig Gell

festivals: Atlanta Film Festival 2019, Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019

© images: Quarantine (Astrid Goldsmith)

‘Clarity, simplicity and passion’ is an identity motto for the Dailes Theatre in Riga, Latvia. Astrid Goldsmith’s stop-motion animation film ‘Quarantine’ reflects the same qualities. Clarity is found in the dense storyline and the direct message: both environments reveal plenty about the characters and subtopics, whilst never weighting the film down with complexity and clutter.

‘Quarantine’ explores the notion of “we and they”. “We” are the ones living in nicer homes, having a stronger community and cherishing older traditions while “they” are isolated, ignored and alone. Displaced. ‘We” are the Morris-dancing badgers, “they” are various animals inhabiting the cages above “our” cosy burrow. A young badger will eventually break the border, risking an exile from his kind.

Why is the film marked as “a post-Brexit pagan dance fantasy”? Because of more barriers? The immigration policy between the UK and the EU? Is quarantine the aftermath of this division? Goldsmith’s short asks crucial questions but, instead of giving answers, offers a hopeful solution – an equality that excludes the notions of “we” and “they”.

Taking place on the south coast of England, ‘Quarantine’ sheds light on the immigration policy of these shores and the nearby Calais. UK’s immigration detention centres are notoriously known by their trademark racism, abuse and inhuman treatment of the detainees — places like Harmondsworth or Yarl's Wood. In the latter one, an employee was caught on tape saying, “They are all animals. Caged animals”. These facilities are a painful blister of the altogether sensitive migrant crises.

Uncomfortable clarity goes hand in hand with the simplicity encoded in a visually consistent aesthetic style. Goldsmith has placed her life-like puppets in minimalistic sets with clear lines, colours and purpose. The director and her colleagues from Mock Duck Studios (founded by Astrid herself) have created wonderfully odd creatures: delightful handcrafted puppets that feel touchable. Imagine a lavender-scented fluffy blanket or a childhood’s plush toy — these puppets awaken the same nostalgic sensations. Thanks to the clearly visible fibre and seam line, as well as the apparent softness of the fabric, these animated heroes embrace realness and tactility that computer-generated animation is less capable of conveying.

Goldsmith is a real Geppetto: the puppets move with such plastic capacity as if gravity rules apply to them. The elastic staples have magically developed into flexible muscles. A great deal of precision and accuracy have been invested into making the tiny accordion, the burrow’s mud and the authentic Morris dance clothing.

Tradition is also brought to life. Badgers perform an English folk dance – the Morris dance. The local (insider) tradition that is particularly “theirs” makes the gap between the badgers and imprisoned animals even wider, leaving them on the outside – in an isolated area, fenced with barbed wires and marked by a red Quarantine-sign, warning about the threatening danger of their presence. Are they contagious or dirty? The sign speaks for itself, placing a judgement without knowing.

The young badger doesn’t view them as marginal and unwanted. Sure, he is cautious at first. But after a beaver teaches him the joys of the accordion, an unlikely bond is established. Furthermore, this beaver has a backstory. His idyllic life was disrupted by humans captivating him. In the back of a lorry he drove through an underwater channel, making the allegory of the migrant transportation between mainland Europe and Great Brittan even more clear-cut.

Later that evening badgers dress up in robes that resemble something between Ku Klux Klan clothing and ancient ritual cloak, serving as a symbol of hatred for the unwanted ones. However, the cloaks come off once the junior badger shows that the quarantined mates are harmless.

‘Quarantine’ is also about passion, a cinephile one for that matter. Let’s go off the path for a brief moment. The April issue of Cahiers du Cinema is a love declaration to film criticism and cinema. In a voluminous article (24 pages) “What is criticism?” the editorial team writes that the critic has a point of view and likes that the filmmaker also has one. They strongly feel that filmmakers claiming lack of position are simply lying or hiding it. They also quote Rivette’s statement about risk being the highest quality of a film. Films lacking a point of view are discarded from the magazine’s horizon. (April 2020, p9)

Why this remark? Because the author's heart pours out from every detail of ‘Quarantine’ and Cahiers would be lucky to review it. Rather than claiming a neutral observer’s position, Goldsmith genuinely cares. She routes for equality and takes a clear position against the inhuman treatment of the imprisoned ones. May they be humans or animals.

The risk? Well, creating a stop-motion dialogue-free puppet theatre with the delicately embedded problematic of Brexit and UK’s immigration policy. Goldsmith has taken full authorship of the project carrying the roles of a director, screenwriter, animator and the director of photography all at once. Talk about passion and risk taking.

“They” end up being part of “us”, and vice-versa.

'Quarantine' was elected the Audience Favourite during the seventh week of My Darling Quarantine Short Film Festival.