“The Breadwinner” isn’t the only female-driven animated feature directed by a woman inspired by peace and inclusion. In “Window Horses,” the darkest of dark horses in the Oscar race, Asian-Canadian director Ann Marie Fleming propels her Stick Girl avatar into the culturally rich world of Iran via a poetry festival. The fish-out-of-water novice not only attains more wisdom, but also reconnects with her Persian heritage. It’s a curious blend of hand-drawn styles that achieves a striking multi-cultural bridge to imagination and empathy.
“A lot of my life experiences are in there except for the obvious bare bones of the family’s story, which is a compilation of a lot of people,” said Fleming (“The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam”), who financed through Indiegogo and co-produced with the National Film Board of Canada. Actress Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy”) not only voiced protagonist Rosie Ming, but also executive produced.
Like the director, Rosie is also of mixed descent (Chinese/Iranian). She travels abroad for the first time and encounters a diverse group of poets in Shiraz. They stimulate her imagination and open up her world view. At the same time, Rosie uncovers the truth about the Iranian father who abandoned her.
“It’s just interesting to have these cultural overlaps,” added Fleming, who drew from a relationship with an Iranian boyfriend in Canada and the cultural community that she embraced. With “Window Horses” (a symbol of Rosie’s childhood), she strove to counter xenophobia and an Iranian diaspora that buried its past.
“I really wanted to do something that was positive about Iran as this amazing culture,” Fleming said. “I’m part Chinese and I was studying Chinese poetry and Persian poetry, and I was seeing how these poets from 1,000 years ago had so many similarities even though they looked so different on the outside. These things just built and suddenly became part of this world [I created].”
How Oh Became Stick Girl
For the design of her protagonist, Fleming fell back on her old muse and avatar, Stick Girl, which she drew in art school while recuperating from a car accident. For Rosie, she added a pink triangle for a skirt and then gave her a traditional chador during her trip to Shiraz. It was a comfortable fit that also revealed her physical and emotional limitations.
“The reason she’s in the story and still a stick while everyone is fully drawn,” Fleming said, “is that when I decided to use a culture that I was not part of, I felt I had to implicate and embed myself in the story. She really is me and I really take that journey with her.”
Oh, who was a friend for many years and an admirer of Stick Girl, instantly responded to the character and message. “She spent weeks preparing for this role and you [get] that from her performance,” said Fleming. “She just wanted to do something for her nieces to show different ways of being and different types of family. And somewhere in there, this idea of abandonment and longing appealed to her, too.”
Cross-Cultural Animation Styles
The cross-cultural ethos also found its way into the animation. Fleming primarily worked with her friend, Kevin Langdale, a Canadian illustrator and animator with a penchant for simple and continuous line drawing. But an eye-opening exhibition at LACMA, which revealed fascinating artistic connections between China, Japan, and Persia, proved to be instrumental.
“There was this collection of Edo prints from Japan that were [stylistically] borrowed from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, and so were the Persian calligraphy and miniatures,” Fleming said. “Even though it’s Kevin’s stylized version of that, it comes from these references and the cross-cultural blending of styles. This is a point of view film, and it was always going to be about the imagination and the way we can make the world from our imagination and creativity.”
To that end, Fleming invited a host of guest animators from Canada (including several Iranians) to contribute different styles for the poetry segments: Janet Perlman, Sadaf Amini, Bahram Javaheri, Dominique Doktor, Shira Avni, Elissa Chee, Michael Mann, Jody Kramer, Kunal Sen, Louise Johnson, and Lillian Chan.
For the history of Iran, Amini started it off with her beautiful watercolor technique, and for the history of mystical poet Hafiz, Javaheri teamed up with Mann for a mixed-media explosion pulled together with After Effects software.
“I wanted to get a lot of different [styles] out there and to show how Rosie’s world was able to change and flow with the new information she was getting and from all the people she was meeting,” Fleming said.