'25 April': Annecy Review

Courtesy of Annecy Film Festival
An evocative depiction of war as hell.

The battle of Gallipoli is recreated in Leanne Pooley’s animated wartime documentary.

Known as Anzac Day in New Zealand and Australia, April 25th is their equivalent of Memorial Day, honoring soldiers who have died in combat. But few people outside those countries know that the date in question was also the start of the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey – one of the most grueling battles of the First World War, and one that saw a total of 500,000 casualties among Allied and Central Power forces, with British-led troops retreating after eight months of fighting, disease and death.

The harrowing story of Gallipoli was already captured by Peter Weir, in a 1981 movie starring a young Mel Gibson fresh off the success of the first Mad Max. Now it’s being told in an entirely different fashion with Leanne Pooley’s animated documentary 25 April, which uses real testimonies from soldiers to recreate the horrors and travails of an episode that handed the Allies one of their worst defeats, though it remains a major victory and source of pride for the Turkish. Premiering in competition in Annecy, this evocatively made feature recalls Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, though it’s less emotionally gripping and more of a valuable historical document that should continue to play fests and scattered art-houses before moving to the small screen.

Pooley (Beyond the Edge) combined her skills as a documentarian with fellow Kiwis Flux Animation Studios to create a film that focuses on some of the surprising and disturbing details of the Gallipoli campaign, which saw thousands of ANZAC soldiers (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) pinned for months to a rock bordering the Dardanelles strait, whose capture would allow them to take Constantinople and unite with the Russian Empire. Yet the Allies failed to foresee the resilience of the German-supported Ottoman troops, who both outnumbered them and were prepared to sit things out, in a battle that waged on in the hills and trenches until the British decided to evacuate.

Shifting between multiple points of view, including those of several foot soldiers, a corporal and a nurse, the script (by Pooley and editor Tim Woodhouse) offers up various first-hand accounts of life on the ground in the dusty, unbearably hot and bug-infested terrain, where brief and deadly skirmishes were interlaced with long periods of waiting and despair. “It’s funny how careless you become,” comments one fighter, revealing how he and the other men would sometimes go skinny dipping in broad daylight, even if it risked being shot or blown up by an enemy mortar.

While the storming of Gallipoli, with the Allies down below and the Turks perched high up in the hills, offered a bloodbath similar to that of D-Day (although one that ultimately ended in defeat), once both armies were dug in, the trench warfare that ensued became a painfully long war of attrition where neither side had the upper hand at first. In one memorable episode, a soldier relates how the opposing forces agreed to a temporary truce so they could bury hundreds of bodies scattered about the no man’s land, and then were back shooting at each other a few days later.

Such anecdotes are what make 25 April more memorable than your average History Channel feature, and the research conducted by Pooley and her team pays off in, even if the network narrative makes it harder to get engrossed in any single story. On the animation side, Flux creates a world that’s both realistic and highly stylized (though slightly stiff in terms of movement), especially during combat sequences that use bold flashes of red and orange to illustrate soldiers entering into a fiery hell. The score by David Long can be a bit bombastic, accompanying the young men as they risk their lives, and sanity, in a battle that seemed doomed from the start and only got worse.

Production company: General Film Corporation
Director: Leanne Pooley
Screenwriters: Leanne Pooley, Tim Woodhouse, based on an original idea by Matthew Metcalfe
Producer: Matthew Metcalfe
Editor: Tim Woodhouse
Composer: David Long
Animation directors: Raymond McGrath, Bas Barriball
Compositing: Shannon Fahey
Venue: Annecy International Animation Festival
Sales: K5 International

85 minutes