There’s a specific moment in Away that made me weep, and I can’t quite explain why. A young boy finds a kindle of kittens amassed around a cave of water with mystical qualities, each of them staring into it with utter wonderment. In a single file, they lower down its circular path, approaching the pool. They take a few sips — one by one — and exit in an orderly fashion. Perhaps there’s something about seeing a large group together like this that I found strangely emotional; a sense of tranquility that arises from living with care and mutual respect from those around you. Or, unlike the boy that sleeps among them like a fish out of water, they’ve found their pack, and he’s just waiting to find his too.
Isolation is deeply embedded into every aspect of animation fantasy, Away. Spanning countless landscapes and an abundance of wildlife, only one person walks the island. We first see the young boy attached to his parachute, dangling from a leafless tree. His surroundings are barren, and the details are hard to distinguish. As the camera draws nearer with his hair windblown, he opens his wide eyes and the emptiness of the situation that has befallen him cannot be denied. Whatever the young boy is about to face, he is to face it alone.
While the details of this boy’s trek awaits us, the filmmaking journey of writer-director Gints Zilbalodis is distinctly built into his work. Spanning three and a half years of continuous work, the 25-year old Latvian filmmaker completed this project alone. He structured, directed, animated and composed this 75-minute dreampiece with a premise as timeless as stories themselves: man escapes the darkness. Only in this case, the “darkness” is a very tangible and very real giant, whose colossal stature and bright gleaming eyes tower over the young boy at every step. Away never comes off as a high-stakes thriller, for even in moments of pure adrenaline (which many setpieces utilise to great effect), there is still a meditative quality in the air; almost as if the beast that follows the boy — however physical in presence — is as metaphorical as the countless iterations we’ve seen before. Only now, the protagonist’s extreme fears have brought this darkness to life.
Naturally, when you’re soloing a film with whatever programs you have at your disposal, you won’t be churning out the most dazzlingly crafted work to date. This is only 50% correct in the case of Away. While the quality of animation itself is passable — where basic movements retain an uncanny valley-esque appearance — it’s what Zilbalodis achieves with the form that truly matters. Though it took time to adjust to this style of animation, the imagery is still divine, capturing a swirling simultaneity between the mundane and the make-believe that adds a tremendous amount of spiritual weight to a seemingly ordinary story. Events are often framed like objectives in a video-game, where zooms signify on important details and the protagonist’s internal goals are clear through the swift pan of a camera. However, that isn’t something which necessarily detracts from the impact of the film; especially if such an approach aptly suits a minimalistic work with no dialogue and a calming nature to the world on-screen. Because, above all, Away is a parable; a moral tale which chooses to absorb us within its simplicity for the sake of deeper emotional retrospection.
Yet I couldn’t help but wonder: why this? Why the story of a boy navigating the great unknown on his own? On first impression, the concept of putting something like this together without any form of collaboration was unbelievable; for me, personally, the thrill of making a film — or engaging in any artistic endeavor for that matter — is the people that join you on that epic voyage, accompanying you (for better or worse) with that same doe-eyed ambitious lust. It makes the daunting and infinitely stressful seem less pertinent when you’re sharing the load with somebody else. Not to discourage the solitary however — since there’s a key and greatly misunderstood difference between being alone and feeling lonely — but Away sinks deeply into the latter; like the remnants of a lost soul escaping through an adventure of irrevocable determination, which rewards those who put every ounce of their heart and spirit into making it through this long and dastardly haul.
Away will be playing on 23 February at the Ritz Cinema and 1 March at Lido Hawthorn as part of Fantastic Film Festival Australia.
George Kapaklis is a Melbourne-based film student and writer who attempts to imbue his obsessive love of musicals and ABBA into everything he does. He’s rather fond of movies of all kinds and writes about them far too often on Letterboxd. You can find him on Twitter at @geekap42.