It is cold here in Montreal. We had the first snow of the season on Monday the same day that I saw Ann Marie Fleming’s animated film, Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming. It was like the proverbial breath of fresh air – warm, welcoming, colourful, joyful, musical, magical, mesmerising and marvelous! It’s about the love of family, love for words and music and other good things. It’s also about more complicated stuff like history, dissent, exile, reconciliation and finding your own voice. So many elements, but they all work together well, as in a symphony, or (corny reference, sorry) a beautiful carpet. Window Horses is a treat for the eyes and ears that will touch your heart. (Not exaggerating!)
The film’s French title is La vie en Rosie : L’épopée persane de Rosie Ming – a different cultural reference, while the alliteration remains.
Rosie Ming is a young Vancouver woman of Chinese and Iranian parentage. She was raised by her loving Chinese grandparents and still lives with them. (Rosie has the voice of actress Sandra Oh and a stick-figure body. That body is the alter ego of director Ann Marie Fleming. The other characters look like more conventional human beings.)
Rosie loves Paris even though she has never been there. After self publishing a slender book of her poems (My Eye Full, Poems by a Person Who Has Never Been to France) Rosie is surprised to receive an invitation to a poetry festival in Iran.
Her best friend Kelly (voice of Ellen Page) tells Rosie that she MUST make the trip. (Kelly did not even know that Rosie wrote poetry, so she’s a bit hurt that Rosie kept that info to herself.)
Rosie’s grandparents are happy that their little girl has been honoured; they are less enthusiastic when they learn that the event is in Iran. But once Rosie has decided to go, they can’t dissuade her. (Grandpa Stephen is played by Eddy Ko, Grandma Gloria is played by Nancy Kwan. THE Nancy Kwan, of The World of Susie Wong, Flower Drum Song, etc.)
As the airplane starts its descent to the airport, all the women cover their hair with scarves. Rosie outdoes them, going full chador. (Throughout her visit, she is told: “You don’t have to do that, you know.”)
When Rosie tells the customs officer that she is attending a poetry festival in Shiraz, he says that he is a poet, too. Everyone in Iran is a poet!
Even though she is quite young and has only written one book, Rosie is treated with warmth and respect by everyone at the festival, apart from snarky German guest Dietmar, who usually has his nose buried in his phone.
(Canadian actor and director Don McKellar provides the voice of Dietmar. “I have angst. I’m doomed,” he says.) Other guests include Chinese exile Di Di and U.S. poet Taylor Mali. (Mali is a real-life person.)
Rosie knows about Rimbaud, Baudelaire and other French poets; in Shiraz her hosts introduce her to the verses of Iranian poets Rumi, Hafiz (also spelled Hafez) and Saadi. The last two were both sons of Shiraz.
Window Horses is full of beautiful sequences; here are two. We hear the call to prayer coming from a minaret. The sounds are represented by colourful ribbons that fly through the air. Soon an enraptured Rosie is floating with them. (This sequence was made Kevin Langdale, who is the lead animator and designer of the entire film.) A sequence describing the life of Hafiz is exceptional, with complicated paper cut-outs, whirling calligraphy, etc. Bahram Javaheri, a Vancouver-based Iranian filmmaker, made the cutouts and Michael Mann assembled and animated them using Adobe’s After Effects software.
(People come from all over Iran to visit the tomb of Hafiz; Rosie visits it, too. We learn that Iranians consult books of his poetry to answer questions about their lives – open any page, and his ancient words will have meaning in the present-day situation. This made me think of people consulting the I-Ching back in the 1960s.)
Rosie does not know much Mandarin beyond “ni hao,” yet she is moved to tears by Di Di’s untranslated poem. Even though she does not know the words, she feels their meaning and the emotions behind them. In a flashback scene, Rosie’s parents meet and bond immediately over their shared love for Rumi. When Rosie’s father recites a Rumi poem in Farsi, Rosie’s mother cries crystal tears.
Despite much warmth and happiness in Rosie’s life, and in her visit to Shiraz, there is an undercurrent of melancholy, with gusts to bitterness. Her mother is dead, and her father abandoned her when she was 7 years old. How could he do that? Many people in Shiraz knew her father, and they tell her he was a very good man. At first, Rosie does not want to hear anything about him, but then she, and we, make some surprising discoveries about him. To reveal more would be to spoil things.
Window Horses is among the two opening films of Les Sommets du cinéma d’animation, 15th edition, at the Cinémathèque Québécoise. It will be shown Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. at 7 p.m. (Oooops, the screening is now sold out.) Window Horses will get a general release in Canada in 2017.
Read more about Window Horses on the Cinémathèque’s web site.