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Away (2019) [Fantasia 2019]

In Away - Latvian animator Gints Zilbalodis's debut feature- a young man crash lands on a strange island. Befriending a small bird, and soon finding a handily abandoned motorcycle, he tries to find his way home- all the while being stalked by a sinister dark figure. The film is an expanded version of the director's earlier short, Oasis.

Away has screened at a number of festivals around the world and was awarded the Contrechamp Award at this year's Annecy festival. It received its North American premiere as part of the Fantasia Festival in Montreal. 

The film is Zilbalodis's feature debut- but what makes it truly remarkable is that he made it single-handedly. He acted as director, writer, animator, producer, editor and composer. The film is dialogue-free, so there's not even voice actors involved. That's quite the feat.

Watching the film with this knowledge can't help but colour your opinion somewhat. In some ways, it makes it all the more impressive, but it also makes you inclined to be more forgiving of any flaws. But it's really only fair, when reviewing any film, to treat it as you would any other film.

Luckily, Away is more than capable of standing up on its own merits. Viewed without this knowledge, it's still a fantastic piece of work.

It opens with a figure hanging from a tree by a parachute. Who is he? How did he get there? The film wastes no time with back-story or explanations- none of it matters, that's not what the film's about. Neither is there ever any explanation of who or what the dark spectre pursuing him throughout the film is, or anything else about this strange island. The complete lack of any unnecessary exposition here really helps add to the surreal, dream-like feel of the film. There's a dream sequence later on that might give some more background but it doesn't really feel necessary.

The film is divided into chapters -which feels like an unnecessary device, but it's no big issue. Each chapter sees the young man enter another strange vista. There are some truly remarkable visuals here-  the dark figure towering over the landscape, lush green forests and frozen tundras. But the standout sequence has to be the journey across the 'mirror lake', where a sky full of birds is reflected on the lake's surface, as he travels across it.

The film's CG animation has a distinctive style, with the lack of distinct lines giving it a look that makes it different from other animated features. In fact, for visual comparisons, you'd have to look outside movies and into the world of video games. Away shares visual DNA with the art style of numerous games, most notably Nintendo's Zelda Breath Of The Wild.

Saying a film looks or feels "like a video game" is often used as a criticism by stuffy critics who look down on the medium. But believe me that when I say that this film reminded me of a particular type of modern artistic indie game, it's not at all intended as an insult. The use of the chapters only adds to them- with each new challenge feeling like a new level.

In terms of animated features, the most obvious point of comparison is Michael Dudok de Wit's masterpiece The Red Turtle, but in both mood and execution, Away is a very different film.

The character animation isn't exactly the smoothest in the world, but the film itself is engaging enough for it not to matter. The relatively modest running time is another plus, as it is never in danger of outstaying its welcome.

On its own merits, Away is a captivating experience with some unforgettable imagery. But as the work of just one filmmaker its a towering achievement- and one that will leave you eager to see what he does next.



IN A NUTSHELL: Gints Zilbadolis makes an incredible debut with stunning imagery and a unique dreamlike atmosphere.