24 Jun 2014

Loading Docs: Baba

9:11 am on 24 June 2014

When director Joel Kefali was growing up, his grandfather regaled him with larger-than-life tales about fleeing Turkish communists and coming to New Zealand in the 1950s.

“Every time you talk to him you get an interesting story,” Kefali says. “He’s always telling me how things used to be. He has this coloured view of the world, where Turkey is responsible for everything that’s good.”

Now, Kefali has turned these stories into Dans (Turkish for “dance”), a three-minute animated documentary, more about his grandfather's mindset and storytelling than about his grandfather himself.

“The animation is partly illustrating his stories and partly trying to capture the mindset of an aging man whose memory is starting to fade”, says Kefali. “Some of the stories are idiosyncratic. They jump from dramatic stuff, like capital punishment, to everyday stuff, like loving sausage rolls when he came to New Zealand.”

“I thought of the film as being this smaller story that told a larger one about coming to New Zealand as an outsider and the clash of cultures of being Middle Eastern and Muslim, coming to a country which at that stage had very little interaction with people from that part of the world and had very little interaction with Islam.”

Kefali was born and raised in Auckland and attended Unitec where he did a design degree, majoring in painting. “I just wanted to try as much stuff as I could. I made sculpture, made paintings, drawing, video stuff. But by the end of the year, the space I was interested in was between animation and painting.” For his final year project, Kefali made an animation and a music video, combining digital proficiency with a painterly approach.

This is the first thing I’ve done that isn’t for a brand that has a pre-existing audience or a company...'It’ll be interesting to see if anyone actually likes it or not. If anyone gives a shit.'

After Unitec, Kefali spent a year at a motion graphics company, making his own work after hours, before quitting to become a freelance music video director. He soon formed a creative studio named Special Problems with Campbell Hooper.

As Special Problems, Kefali and Hooper have made some of the most visually distinctive music videos to come out of New Zealand; they’re portfolio includes renowned local and international artists, including The Naked and Famous, Flying Lotus, The Mint Chicks and Tame Impala. Special Problems also made television, commercials and an award-winning short film Echoes, funded by Lexus and produced by the Weinstein Company.

Since dissolving Special Problems last year, Kefali has continued to make commercials and music videos, including the video for ‘Royals’ by Lorde, which has opened his work up to an audience of millions. “That number on YouTube doesn’t have any direct intersection with my life or the way I make stuff,” he says. “It just means I get more random people sending me an email going ‘I like your video’ or ‘I like your work’ or ‘Can you make us something for no money?’.”

Dans was made under the Loading Docs initiative, which funded ten short documentaries for online release. Despite his music video accolades, Kefali was excited about making something on his own, that wasn’t collaborative and wasn’t for a client. “This is the first thing I’ve done that isn’t for a brand that has a pre-existing audience or a company that that has some intention behind the thing they’re making,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to see if anyone actually likes it or not. If anyone gives a shit.”

With a background in motion graphics and post-production, Kefali is aware of the potential problems in having too many options in a digital environment. “When you’re sitting in front of a computer and you can do anything you have to give yourself limitations”. The limitations Kefali placed on himself include a limited palette, made up only of the colours used in the flags of the countries mentioned by his grandfather - Turkey, New Zealand, England and France. “So I didn't question colour every time I put something in the film because I knew it had to be one of those.”

Animation allowed Kefali to bring a playfulness and warmth to his grandfather’s stories while staying true to his distinct design aesthetic. “I don’t want the film to look digital,” says Kefali. “I want it to look more like paintings or pages of a book than say, Walt Disney or Looney Tunes animation.”

Full disoclousre: I am married to the producer of Dans and several other works mentioned in this article.

This content was brought to you with funding from New Zealand On Air.