“Which ones were the animals? You have to wonder.”
Aurélien Froment’s French-Spanish-Belgian animated drama Josep (2020) recounts a dying gendarme’s (French for ‘police officer’) friendship with Josep Bartolí, a Republican refugee and artist held in a French concentration camp after the Spanish Civil War.
Josep presents a world of relatively simple animation, while still managing to inspire complex emotions. The furthest-reaching memories, those that follow the trek of the weakened Republicans to the perceived safety of France, are made up of transitions slow enough to appear as immobile illustrations.
Into these, eerie background noise is injected, relating some of the hardship experienced by the Spanish people, from sickness to debilitating hunger. This not only presents a rather foreboding element, but alludes to the aesthetics of a historical exhibit one would find in a museum, where voice-overs are layered over preserved photographs.
Similarly, when the anguish of the refugees in the concetration camp reaches fatal levels, the pictures slow and blur, dipping into the relative safety of Josep’s black and white sketches. These serve as a defence mechanism against the horrors he has to both witness, and endure. As Spanish Civil War historian David Wingeate Pike commented,
The Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which was a military revolt against the Republican government in Spain, led by Franco and supported by nationalists, is discussed in unobtrusive terms. The dialogue supplies elements of the historical background, but never turns the viewer’s attention from the inhumane treatment of the people at the forefront of the story. The two components are woven together with care, tracing the course of a tenacious friendship, while snuffing out many others.
However, the film doesn’t shy away from bleak reality, as it draws on the fact that nearly 200,000 refugees returned to Spain after Franco deceived them into thinking they would be well-received. Those who stayed in Spain were made to suffer between different camps and used as forced labor.
But rather than choose to abhor the maddening past, Josep‘s conversations always return to the human experience, enveloping fleeting thoughts in a membrane of poetic introspection. This maintains a fragility that counterbalances the brutality found beyond the untouchable domain of words. An example would be the following snippet of Josep’s monologue,
It speaks volumes that traumatic experiences are often presented in the form of shock-alleviating animation, as evidenced by Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), or Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner (2017). It seems to be the most malleable medium for conveying the dark underbelly of human nature, hard to grasp rationally and impossible to justify emotionally.
Josep succeeds in hovering somewhere between dejection and the promise of renewed hope, wrapping every struggle in the words: “Like everything else, if it doesn’t kill you, you get used to it”.
Josep’s art also plays a key role in the story, illustrating with bleeding pencil strokes what color would only deform. This escape into the world of black and white production is seen as an antidote for the nerve-racking symptoms of trauma. We could go so far as to say that there’s a clear discord between emotion, which drains Josep’s work of color, and feelings, which grapple with the saturation of the world around him.
Interestingly, clinical psychologist Nico Frijda was the first to note the distinction between the two. Emotions are beyond our control and alert us to their presence by physical sensations, while feelings are merely our interpretations of whatever emotion we are experiencing. Most importantly, it’s up to us whether we act in a way that hides our feelings.
In conclusion, Josep provides a glimpse into a part of history that seems largely overlooked, but continues to grip the collective memory of those, whose families were affected. Through poignant reflections and soft visuals, the film never loses control of its pacing, carrying us breathlessly from the first scene to the very last.