Traditional documentaries make a claim to capturing the real world, to finding the true story around certain people or events. Never mind the fact that documentaries have been guilty of embellishing or outright staging events since the very earliest examples of the form; there’s at least a perception that documentaries are films about reality. In most of those films, animation is used to fill in gaps, to portray events where no camera was present, or to give a bit of zippy energy to stretches of exposition.

For animated documentaries, though, the possibilities extend so far beyond these interstitial uses of the medium. Animation isn’t limited by the physical, and it makes no bones about objectivity. In fact, what animation is best at may just be portraying the subjective world. Its ability to embrace distortion, exaggeration and stylization in its design and movement means an animated documentary can forget about capturing the external reality of a topic, and focus instead on translating its emotional content or its specific feeling.

The Woman Who Turned Into a Castle is a story from noted neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, whose work often focused on describing unusual mental states in order to illuminate the workings of the brain. His writing aimed for a balance between a scientific curiousity and a philosophical or poetic imagination; his books make you think about how the brain works, but it also makes you question just how radically different perceptions of reality can actually be.

In adapting Sacks’ story, Kathrin Steinbacher plays up the feelings of disorientation of the Woman in the title. Historical moments from the past and present crash into one another, as the world blurs and morphs into sinister shapes. Major moments like the moon landing are rendered as hazy and indistinct, their reality unclear. The goal seems to be less about portraying the world as it was than helping the viewer understand what this person was going through, and why they would ultimately make a decision to undo their treatment.

This portrayal of subjectivity doesn’t make animated documentary any less real than traditional docs, any more than using film and photographs makes a documentary objective. It’s more of a complement to traditional documentary, a way of accessing worlds that are off limits to the talking-head format. It captures a different truth, but one that’s every bit as worthy of documentation.


The Woman Who Turned Into A Castle

dir. Kathrin Steinbacher

syn. An animated documentary about a woman who turns into a castle based on Oliver Sacks Case study.

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