LIFF 2010: DRAW YOURSELF (DESSINE-TOI) review

If you want to watch Gilles Porte's excellent Draw Yourself merely to see kids being gosh-darned cute, that's fine; there's plenty of that in there. But there's also more than enough depth to elevate it from charming artistic experience to a wonderfully thought-provoking piece of social commentary, if you want that as well.


It's not perfect; some scrappy editing, particularly in the introduction, and some questionable aesthetic choices do spoil the overall impression a little, but otherwise this is a fantastically polished production, witty and heart-warming.


The crew ran the same experiment numerous times across the world; they'd get somewhere to film, set up a large transparent surface, assemble a group of children - generally fairly young, many not yet able to read or write - and hand them dry markers with which to... well, you get the idea.


Draw Yourself is pieced together from this footage, with various establishing sequences as the filmmakers travel the globe. Given they're animators by trade, they also take several of the children's drawings and turn them into brief snippets of CG, essentially with their simple sketches coming to life.


On paper, that's pretty much it. There's no narration, and none of the kids are subtitled, which initially provokes a feeling of disorientation. Draw Yourself definitely takes a little while to find its feet: the opening is far too reliant on still frames and scene-setting which feels more like an excuse to get as many of the children on camera as possible (several from the trailer do not appear to make the final cut, for example).


But once it's settled down into a more recognisable structural progression things rapidly improve. Most of the running time is skipping from location to location, but there's an extended sequence showing many of the kids as they psyche themselves up which proves an excellent way of leading the audience into the main body of the film. There's no ending as such, just a point at which Porte seems to decide he's had enough and rolls the credits (a lengthy sequence explaining where all the children featured came from), but at less than eighty minutes it doesn't even begin to grate.


So, gosh-darned cute, then? The director and his crew are obviously fully aware many people will simply be watching to see kids doing amusing things, and they largely do a marvellous job of providing just that. Their young subjects are handled, on the whole, with tact, sensitivity and mostly very gentle humour. There's a definite sense the filmmakers were laughing, but never that they were looking to patronise or mock the children and their efforts.


A couple of moments are played for more obvious emotional effect, such as the boy who bursts into frustrated tears because he can't get his drawing quite the way he wants - but generally the comedy is far more playful, even elegant. The musicians improvise to the mumbling of one little girl lost in thought, smoothing back an errant lock of hair as she tries to decide what to do (the fluid, jazzy soundtrack is exceptional stuff). Some of the best comic moments come about perfectly naturally when the filmmakers pair some of the children up: two boys draw, but one of them ends up doing all the work, the other looking on with a deadly serious expression, offering commentary every so often.


But Draw Yourself definitely reaches much deeper than this. Anyone who's ever created anything will recognise something of themselves; excitement, frustration, even flat-out panic at the possibilities in a blank page. Seeing the kids help each other out is genuinely uplifting, and anyone who's ever had anything to do with actually teaching children to draw or evaluating their work will find the breakdown of who drew what provides ample food for thought. Again, given there's no narration Draw Yourself doesn't pose any overt questions, but the filmmakers' all-inclusive approach seems designed to raise them for anyone who wants to ask.


Despite the structural problems it is also a gorgeous piece of cinema, displaying a keen eye for the different places the crew visit. On the one hand the filmmakers created a few animated sequences themselves, all of which seem like another noticeable misstep. Without the unifying theme of the children's artwork they don't have half the power. On the other, every now and then the children's drawings are used to introduce the next stop along the way, and one or two of these transitions are jaw-droppingly inventive, the kind of visual trickery that begs to be rewound and studied at length.


Ultimately, Draw Yourself is far more than the entertaining diversion it first appears. Anyone who wants to ooh and aah can simply appreciate the sight of kids having fun, but beyond the fantastic production values there's more than enough room to mull over its deeper implications - without ever spoiling the general buoyant air of celebrating the creative process. One of the highlights of the year, Gilles Porte's terrific little documentary comes hugely recommended.


(Draw Yourself was screened as part of the 24th Leeds International Film Festival.)

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