Interview with the director of “The Ocean Duck”, Huda Ruzzak

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I had the chance to attend a screening of the short film “The Ocean Duck”, directed by Huda Razzak (“Area 51”), which qualified for the 95th Academy Awards. The short film screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival on October 10, 2022 and at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which ran from March 4 to April 6, where it won the Jury Prize for animated short film.

These accolades are well deserved. The short is beautifully animated and features an emotionally powerful mythic story, drawn heavily from Razzak’s childhood and Middle Eastern origins. She mixes childhood experiences with a fable by revered Persian poet Jalal al-Din Rumi about a duck that was raised far from its home in the ocean. She uses this metaphor to illustrate a powerful emotional bond between a grandmother and her granddaughter. One of the measures of a good movie is how emotionally it moves me, and this quick seven-minute short affected me more than most two-hour feature films. The relationship between the two women developed so powerfully that, in combination with the beautiful art style, it almost brought me to tears. I also adored the large orchestral score, which further heightened the emotional strength with its raw beauty.

In an email interview with The Michigan Daily, Razzak discussed her personal connections to the film, the inspirations behind the animation, and her stylistic decisions as a director.

The Michigan Daily: I really appreciated the use of contemporary narrative to tell and enrich the ancient fable. How was this fable present in your life before making this film, and what motivated your decision to visualize the story in a more contemporary setting?

Huda Razzak: After the death of my grandmother a few years ago, I wanted to reconnect with the mixed Arab and Persian culture that we shared. Once I was browsing through our family library of poetry and art, and came across a poem by Rumi about a duck that lived among the chickens because it had forgotten that its true home was the ocean, a symbol of life. ‘eternal. The metaphor really resonated with me and became the basis of the short film. I felt its message was timeless and wanted to explore how to tell the fable through a personal story of me and my grandmother.

DMT: Speaking of contemporary narrative, how much of the story is autobiographical? Do you have a strong relationship with your grandmother, just like the woman in the story?

HOUR: Yes, we were very close. Much of the short film is based on fond memories I have of my grandmother, especially the moment when the characters are baking a cake. When I was 16, I wanted to impress my grandmother by making her a fancy sponge cake, but I misinterpreted the recipe and followed the instructions to the letter, including the instruction to stir in the flour in the dough. Well, you can guess what happened when we cut the cake – flour everywhere! But it made me and my grandmother laugh a lot, and I always think back to that moment with her.

DMT: How did your background in animation influence your decision to tell this specific story? Did you feel like this story needed to be animated by animation?

HOUR: At the time of my grandmother’s death, I was beginning my thesis studies in my MFA animation program at SCAD, so in addition to dedicating my work to her memory and reconnecting with my cultural roots through film, animation program motivated me to study in depth Arabic and Persian Folklore and Art to infuse into my thesis. Because of the fantastical themes and specific artistic aesthetics I discovered, I figured if I really wanted to capture the cultural elements of the story in this film, I had to do it through animation.

DMT: The animation of the short is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern artwork and styles. How has your cultural background influenced your voice in animation, both visually and narratively?

HOUR: I wanted the film to closely reflect the mixed Arab and Persian culture that I shared with my grandmother, even visually. So I studied the illuminated manuscripts that depicted Rumi’s life and poetry and found the visual inspiration for the film. The art in these manuscripts all shared certain traits – a flat two-dimensional perspective with a decorative border through which the elements passed – traits that also became a vehicle for the narrative in the film.

DMT: I found the film’s music beautiful and epic in its scope. Did you have general ideas for the musical style and the direction, or did you leave all the musical tasks to the composer Stéphanie Hamelin Tomala?

HOUR: Prior to working with Stephanie, I compiled a scratch score for the film by finding and editing existing music that expressed what I had in mind for the general direction. But Stephanie took that and created something way bigger than I imagined and really captured the spirit and the feeling of the story.

DMT: I saw that the borders of many frames in the film were wide and had writing and symbols like a manuscript. What motivated your decision to use this type of framing device and how does it relate to the content and/or cultural context of the story?

HOUR: In studying the use of decorative borders in Middle Eastern manuscripts, I found interpretations that the border represented the ethereal world and that the intersecting elements in it from the main art represented the idea of spiritual transcendence. I thought it was beautiful and was inspired to recreate that idea through the film’s framing devices.

DMT: How did you and co-director My Anh Ngo collaborate on this project as co-directors? How were leadership tasks delegated between the two of you, especially with both of you having a background in facilitation?

HOUR: As the film’s director, my role is to maintain its overall creative vision, so I focused on working with the protagonists and artists at every stage of production. I had first asked My Anh Ngo to be in charge of animation – his skills and talents in animation and acting were amazing – so we started to work more closely and review the film together under other aspects like rigging and character design. The title of co-director was more reflective of his contribution to the film.

DMT: I see the short is doing well at festivals and qualified for the 95th Academy Awards. Congratulations! What are your plans for the future and what kind of stories do you want to tell? Interested in shorts? Features? Will you continue to draw inspiration from your Middle Eastern culture in your future work?

HOUR: Thanks a lot! I would like to make more films, especially those inspired by my culture. I recently began developing a new concept for a feature film inspired by my mother’s refugee experience, a story that would draw on the themes, magical realism and animation style of The Ocean Duck. Wish me good luck!

Daily art writer Alvin Anand can be reached at [email protected]

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