Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness. It often involves exposure to trauma from single events that involve death or the threat of death or serious injury. (…)

Thus begins the lengthy definition of this widespread disorder, and the list of those affected and the many causes keeps growing. Whether it’s child soldiers in Africa, or troops returning from deployment abroad, or a survivor of a plane crash, the debilitating and long lasting symptoms are only now being recognized and treated. PTSD has also become the topic of an animated film by Oscar-winning Canadian filmmaker Co Hoedeman.

This is the third in his trilogy of short animated films focused on the suffering of children brought about by war. The first film, 55 Socks, a Canada- Netherlands production, had as its subject the devastating famine in Holland during WWII seen through the eyes of a child. Blue Marble released in 2015 dealt with an even more tragic theme – that of child soldiers in Africa and delivered quite a visceral punch despite its innocent guise.

Hoedeman’s latest production titled The Cardinal, takes on the troubling topic of PTSD with the creator’s hallmark reserve and poignancy. Conceived by Hoedeman and written by his partner, artist Joyce Ryckman, it tells the story of a father and daughter united in their love of nature and birds in particular. From an idyll the childhood soon turns into drama, as the father is deployed abroad, and returns a different man. A highly discussed topic these days, the debilitating symptoms of a post-traumatic disorder draw into their vortex entire families, often with devastating results and the film illustrates this tragedy with respect and compassion.

Hoedeman’s films, albeit dedicated to children, speak to all, and The Cardinal is no different. In all of his production, children are “witnesses” to the horrors perpetrated by adults, and here too, war insinuates itself into an otherwise happy life.

As with the previous films in this trilogy, Hoedeman uses a labour-intensive stop motion technique of paper cut-out silhouettes, shot against an illuminated background, thus creating delicate yet distinct characters and scenery. His palette is limited to black and grey, with just a touch of pale green and the vibrant, brilliant red of the cardinal as its focal, symbolic, point.

In these days of digital animation, Hoedeman’s approach is at once archaic and innovative. Used by such great animators as the NFB’s Norman McLaren, it now seems beautifully elegant, and yes, avant-garde. Despite the great economy of expression, in Hoedeman’s hands the cut-out silhouettes are as alive as if they were drawn in detail, yet what is not there is detail is replaced by inescapable emotional component.

Hoedeman’s mastery of the medium takes it to another level, in scenes where the bird flaps behind a lace curtain, or is caught in flight against a shadow of an airplane, as reality slowly segues from peace to trauma. The gestures of the characters, aided by the sparse but poignant narration by Jessica Blair as the daughter, tell a story of suffering as only art can, in this case in words and images.

There is wonderful ambient sound in The Cardinal – its nuanced design the work of Misaki Hasuo – with the bird’s distinct call opening the film. The murmur of trees in the woods, the sound of rain on windowpanes, are accompanied by beautiful, original music composed by Chikara Uemizutaru. While working on the film, Hoedeman visited Japan where he showed the unfinished version to Koji Yamamura, an animator/producer and teacher at the Tokyo University for the Arts. By then the filmmaker had run out of money to complete the film, and Yamamura suggested the University take care of the soundtrack. The combination of Hoedeman’s visual aesthetic with the Eastern sensibility of the music turned out to be truly inspirational, and fortuitous, making this film a sensuous pleasure on many levels, despite the difficult subject matter.

Back in Montreal, the filmmaker continued the postproduction work under the NFB’s ACIC programme (Independent Filmmaker Assistance Program), in collaboration with Musivision Films, an artist driven, full service film and music company, which also worked with other known animators like Ryan Larkin, and was with Hoedeman from the film’s inception. Laurie Gordon, the company’s president and director of the Montreal Animation Film Festival calls The Cardinal « a visual masterpiece. » Instantly captivating, this animation gem could, and should, be used as a tool in fighting PTSD, as there has never been a better example of art in the service of humanity. With an astounding economy of means, Co Hoedeman has captured the essence of the disorder and the insidious, heart-breaking way it affects human lives, as men continue to wage wars…

The Cardinal / Le Cardinal A film by Co Hoedeman NFB, 7 min (2016)
Original French text by Christian Roy, narrated by Katia Lévesque
Japanese translation by Ilan Nguyên, narrated by Miyuki Okamura
Distributed by Vidéographe