Fascinated by Faith:  In conversation with animators Andreas Hykade and Jean-François Lévesque

Fascinated by Faith: In conversation with animators Andreas Hykade and Jean-François Lévesque

Fascinated by Faith: In conversation with animators Andreas Hykade and Jean-François Lévesque

When confronted by a crisis of faith, people react in many different ways. Two filmmakers from different generations recently completed animated shorts that grapple with this topic. Internationally renowned German filmmaker Andreas Hykade, director of Altötting—which examines the stages of religious experience and personal growth of a man who fell in love with the Virgin Mary when he was a boy—and award-winning Quebec filmmaker Jean-François Levesque, director of I, Barnabé—a luminous look at a desperate priest’s existential crisis when he is forced to reconsider his life after receiving a visit from a mysterious bird—sat down to discuss their experiences, their creative processes and how faith has shaped them.

Andreas Hykade’s Altötting and Jean-François Levesque’s I, Barnabé are both official selections in the short-film competition at the 2020 Annecy International Animation Film Festival, taking place online from June 15 to 30.

A musical journey that began in church extends to animation

Andreas Hykade:

Were you involved in the church? Were you a choir boy?

Jean-François Levesque:

I’m from a small village near Rimouski, Quebec, where the nuns were very important. My parents were very into helping the church. Sometimes, I feel that what I experienced is what my parents experienced, because when I talk to people who are from a city, it was way different. But I’m from a small village, where it’s almost like it was in the past.

I learned music and how to play the piano from a nun, which didn’t work for me, because she wanted us to strictly follow the score, and I wanted to play jazz and improvise. I would pretend I was reading the sheet music just so she would be happy, but I would learn the piece by heart and then not even look.

Watch I, Barnabé trailer:

I, Barnabé, Jean-François Lévesque, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Andreas Hykade:

Does your musical ability help you to do your animation?

Jean-François Levesque:

Yes; I have a good sense of rhythm, so that’s probably the link with animation.

Andreas Hykade:

When you do the animation, how do you decide how long an image will appear?

Jean-François Levesque:

It’s just a feeling. You probably work on a specific beat.

Andreas Hykade:

Yes. There’s a disadvantage and an advantage to it. My natural timing is very bad, so I need something to hold on to. I take care that the beat is already in the animatic; everything is done based on a beat. For example, we based the Ave Maria part of Altötting on the rhythm.

Watch Altötting trailer:

Altötting, Andreas Hykade, Andreas Hykade & Regina Pessoa, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Shades of faith

Jean-François Levesque:

I did some research because I was very touched by your film—the Ave Maria brings tears to my eyes as soon as I hear the first two notes—and I was stunned to discover that the Madonna from Altötting is a Black Madonna. So when you see a Black Madonna in hermetism or in alchemy it means something.

Andreas Hykade:

Definitely.

Jean-François Levesque:

You’ve portrayed your Virgin Mary with the colour yellow, which you’ve used very often in your other films. But in this film, she’s more golden yellowish. So I definitely saw a link to alchemy there.

Andreas Hykade:

This was not the reason I did it, but, yes, when you see the golden light shining, there is a connection. Alchemy is turning metal into gold, isn’t it? I think in a way this is what’s happening through religion.

I read this line by Kurt Vonnegut from the book Cat’s Cradle, where he describes some fascist religions; “The Books of Bokonon,” which are written in little calypsos, are about the religious founder who talks about the beginning of religion. He says, ‘I wanted the whole world to make some sense, so people could be happy, yes, instead of tense. And I made up lies, so they all fit nice, and I turned this sad place into paradise.’ Which in a way describes the process of alchemy. You turn dry land into a shining land just by putting together the right information, even if you have to make it up.

I was brought up religious, and I still remember the security, the beauty, the coziness and the warmth of that belief. But the price was logic, and sanity. So it is certainly a conscious use of the colour yellow.

Creativity helps during difficult times

Jean-François Levesque:

I remember watching your film Nuggets, and I really loved it.

Andreas Hykade:

I did it while I was in the hospital. I had about 12 little stories with these birds, and I thought I’d do a thing like in James Joyce’s book The Dubliners, where each story swaps to a different character that’s a bit older than the one before. The last story is called “The Dead.”

I had an operation. I waited 10 days to find out if I would live or die. They brought me into a lightbox and I just did one chapter, with the Nuggets. I had that in my head, and for those 10 days in the hospital, I basically did all the animation. I enjoyed it a lot. I was not thinking about death; just sitting there and drawing until I got tired. It helped me, this film.

A world beyond conscious thought

Andreas Hykade:

When Barnabé discovers what I’ll call the alternative world, the rooster loses his last feather; he takes the feather and puts it into his right pocket. And when he comes back to the real world, he takes it out of his left pocket. Why do you imagine the alternative world mirrored?

Jean-François Levesque:

I think the mirroring was a subconscious thing; it just happened when I drew it. But now that you’re pointing it out, I see that it’s a big statement.

I had become totally disconnected from religious matters and the spiritual aspects of life. Finding my way back into spirituality came from studying, listening and connecting to the stories of people who have had near-death experiences. It was the first move towards something that I’m still in today. It’s been one discovery after another. My vision of life has expanded and it keeps expanding.

So with Barnabé, I’ve tried to depict a near-death experience, but not in the traditional way. I tried to stay vague but also make it very clear that what he’s experiencing is probably an ethereal world or some sort of non-physical reality that’s closed off from our physical reality. Then, he goes into an even deeper state of consciousness where he’s having this cosmic consciousness experience.

A moment between life and death

Andreas Hykade:

There’s a moment when Barnabé, who is the rooster, is killing the rooster with an axe. That resonates for me with the Old Testament—Abraham leading Isaac up the hill, where he has to kill him. Are you consciously working with these Old Testament references in your film?

Jean-François Levesque:

It’s more the idea of what is bad and what is good? He’s symbolically trying to kill himself, but who is he trying to kill? Is he only himself or is he something else? It’s all of these questions. He’s trying to kill his own self, which he cannot stand anymore.

Andreas Hykade:

The one that’s connected to the church?

Jean-François Levesque:

No; I would say it’s his inside beast.

Andreas Hykade:

So it must be connected to the rooster on top of the church somehow.

Jean-François Levesque:

Yes; he’s trying to kill his identity. In life, we conceive our sense of identities based on mostly what we’re doing.

Andreas Hykade:

So he basically tries to kill the priest in himself?

Jean-François Levesque:

The priest, his beliefs, everything that he is not. Because we are not our work, we are not our grief. It’s this whole idea of who am I? Am I a sum of experiences or more than that? This is what people ask when they start to meditate. That’s why I rebelled against the Catholic religion, because they never explained anything.

Andreas Hykade:

It will all fall apart if they start explaining, so they’d better not do that.

Jean-François Levesque:

It’s like this because it’s like this. At the end, the priest takes off his collar, leaving his religious persona behind. It’s like Hindu philosophy: they see life as if we’re all in this great play wearing masks. But take off this mask and I can see who you are. You’re not this mask.

Finding your spirituality in spite of your religious background

Jean-François Levesque:

Is your film an autobiography?

Andreas Hykade:

One level of it is, yes. I wasn’t raised in a very Catholic family. My mother was Catholic, but she comes from Yugoslavia. She wanted to assimilate to this German society, and I think that’s the reason why she went to church. But my father had nothing to do with the church, ever. He went to the pub, not to church. But I loved the church; it was where the action was, so I connected with that.

Where I grew up, it wasn’t the white-bearded old man, but a beautiful chick that you’d worship. So the imagination would go in different ways. I would think differently about a beautiful goddess than I’d think about an old man with a stick in his hand. That’s in the film. It was a deeply chauvinistic area, and it still is. Their way of glorifying the female sex is part of a strategy of keeping women down in the real world. So that’s part of the film.

Jean-François Levesque:

Did you really have a racoon tail on your bicycle, like the boy in the film?

Andreas Hykade:

Yes, but it’s not a racoon; it’s a fox. These bicycles were called Bonanzarad. It means Bonanza bike. Bonanza because of the western TV series Bonanza. They were in fashion probably two or three years in the mid-70s. That was it. They were only authentic if you had a little fox tail.

Jean-François Levesque:

What I found interesting while watching your character is that he goes to church by himself. He’s not indoctrinated by a family into a certain belief. In my case, it was the opposite. I was almost indoctrinated. We kind of came to the same conclusion in terms of wanting to know more about this religion.

Andreas Hykade:

I think we came to the same conclusion when it comes to the church, but we came to opposite conclusions in our films about faith: you’ve done a film about somebody gaining faith and I’ve done a film about somebody losing faith.

Barnabé reminds me of this Bob Dylan song, “Every Grain of Sand.” He sees this drop of water and he sees God in this drop. He’s overwhelmed, and he’s got the confidence that he could not find in the little church. It’s been given to him now as he’s watching the beauty of the universe and finding the universe in one drop.

Jean-François Levesque:

Yes, you’re exactly right. It’s based on what I went through: I realized that spirituality did not belong to religion. In Quebec, we have this recent history of flushing religion away. It’s like we got rid of the baby with the water. I got rid of the baby, but the baby is not God. What I found was more a sense of the divine than God.

Andreas Hykade:

But after Barnabé experienced this drop of water, whether we call it God or whatever, do you think he’ll still be an alcoholic?

Jean-François Levesque:

The alcohol was like a weapon that he uses to silence his internal dialogue, his doubts, his ego.

At least now he gets to choose. He’s not a slave anymore to his own self. I don’t think I wanted my film to be so much about alcoholism, but it turned out to be.

Andreas Hykade:

It’s about many things. It’s got the windows with Maria and Joseph. You have the rooster in different incarnations. There’s the metal weather vane, then you have him as the real rooster. Then as the rooster turning into the man. Then you have him as this alternative, almost like the Holy Ghost when he flies away and the only thing left is his feather. Where is the rooster flying to?

Jean-François Levesque:

I think he moves between dimensions.

Andreas Hykade:

That’s why he can be a piece of metal. His spirit can manifest in different worlds differently.

Jean-François Levesque:

We saw him in the material world and when he’s golden, it’s this ethereal world, not the physical reality. So he’s here and there at the same time.

Andreas Hykade:

Our two films might head in different directions in terms of faith, but with the end credits, we both chose the same artistic decisions. It’s a black-ground that’s centered—that’s a reference to the Catholic Church. It’s all in the middle, like Jesus. And it’s white and yellow for the job descriptions and white for the people, and I did the same thing. So our concept of the credits is the same. Why did you do it like that?

Jean-François Levesque:

When you’ve been brainwashed, you cannot get rid of some things. It’s probably something from religion.

Andreas Hykade:

You’re haunted by the memory of the beauty. Very nice.


Watch I, Barnabé making-of:

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