Once, while standing ten toes deep in fine, pale sand, the late cinematic giant Agnès Varda mused, “If we opened people, we’d find landscapes.” Loosen the lid on the animated short film Solipsism just a bit, and the same effect begins to spill out in the form of its imaginative one-eyed protagonist.
Playing on the immemorial philosophical theory by the same name, this SXSW-selected short sees illustrator Tuna Bora and animator Jonathan Djob Nkondo join forces to tackle the conundrum of identity. By definition, solipsism seeks to justify the mind as the only true measure of existence from which all other beings come to exist. In other words, what happens when the Self becomes the source of the Other? With a clever tagline that evokes more than its fair share of irony since the festival’s cancellation – “If a girl crosses the border between her external and internal reality and no one is around to see it, does this animated short really exist?” – Solipsism swan-dives deep into what it truly means to be, and who gets to define it.
Of course, if “being” was water, it would be shark-infested and as vast and deep as oceans, which isn’t to say that it is inherently perilous but that uncertainty is a part of the game. No one has all the answers, and where else are sharks supposed to live anyway? With this in mind, Solipsism dares us to accept the unknowns while solving for variables, inciting a clash against our preconceptions in the hopes of eliciting a change in perspective – a notably difficult task with varying results. Throughout the short, the protagonist confronts issues surrounding her body image, at once altering her appearance in what becomes a sly exploration of body dysmorphic disorder. The imagery of her moulding her shadow into different forms doesn’t just connote the mutability of the mind. Further, it betrays the turbulent nature of the protagonist’s (and by extension, our) perception. In a matter of frames, the young girl’s control over her thoughts gives way, leading to a self-imposed cage (in the form of a mirror, no less).
Glass, in particular, plays a significant role in the film whereby its transparent or translucent, sturdy and sometimes reflective nature is emblematic of adhering to and manoeuvring social constructs of beauty. Even within her mind, the protagonist initially resides in a dome fashioned from that very substance, a clear indication to the viewer that despite her potential toward creating her idealistic form, she still operates by societal standards. Mirrors epitomize confinement, reflecting an image that subtly rejects the protagonist’s whimsy and individuality while offering a torturous path to freedom through compliance. Their emergence is brilliant and enticing, but nothing more than fool’s gold. Restricted by such margins, the protagonist’s potential becomes non-existent; it is only by rejecting these constructions completely that she truly begins to live, both by her beliefs and in the wider world as a whole.
And what does it mean to be in the world? How can we be in a world that constantly defines us via every conceivable mean, whether by nature, practice, word or action? In the film, the protagonist denounces her human body for that of a horse but, before settling on that equine physicality, sculps a little brown bird between her hands. Both animals, allusive to freedom – the bird native to earth and sky, the horse entirely earthbound. Perhaps my favourite part of Solipsism is the fertility of these bodily alternatives: that the desire to be illimitable is equally indisputable despite the dissimilarity in their make-up, that to be different does not entail disconnection but can foster the very connectivity that social constructs seek to withhold. The glass dome shatters, and the protagonist reenters the world in her preferred likeness. Everything is beautiful.
Solipsism speaks to our present not just on account of our desire to connect in quarantine but because it inadvertently holds a mirror up to the existentialism that has permeated our days ever since. For most, productivity is now measured in the completion of simple tasks, the emergence of new hobbies and continuance of old; anything to avoid getting tangled in the knots of one’s mind. We’re basically the subjects of a Suzanne Geary piece. This isn’t to say that recreational pursuits are inherently antithetical to introspection – such a statement is absurd and directly contradicts my own process as a creative, not to mention that the subject of productivity and rest is a bone that’s been thoroughly chewed on by many already – but that the never-ending pursuit of busyness detracts from understanding oneself. Solipsism encourages us to think fancifully and realistically about our place in the world and invites us to invent ourselves how best we see fit.
Naomi Alexander invites you on a worldly exploration through the lens of short films every month, weaving tapestries where life and art collide. Back on Twitter, though, she’s normal. Do not follow her @miyaisms for tweets about films.