Photo courtesy of Huza Ruzzak

I was lucky enough to enjoy a screening of the short film “The Ocean Duck,” directed by Huda Razzak (“Area 51”), which has qualified for consideration for the 95th Academy Awards. The short film was shown 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-April 6, where it won the Jury Award for Animated Short. 

These accolades are well-deserved. The short is a gorgeously animated and features an emotionally powerful mythic story, heavily drawn from Razzak’s childhood and Middle-Eastern background. She blends childhood experiences with a fable by revered Persian poet Jalal al-Din Rumi about a duck that has been raised away from its home in the ocean. She uses this metaphor to illustrate a powerful emotional connection between a grandmother and granddaughter. One of the measures of a good film is how much it moves me emotionally, and this brisk, seven-minute short affected me more than most two-hour features. The relationship between the two women was developed so powerfully that, in combination with the beautiful art style, it almost brought me to tears. I also loved the grand, sweeping orchestral score, which further enhanced 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 the director.

The Michigan Daily: I very much enjoyed the use of the contemporary narrative to tell and enhance the ancient fable. How has this fable been present in your life before making this movie, and what informed your decision to visualize the story using a more contemporary setting?

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

TMD: Speaking of the 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?

HR: Yes, we were very close. A big part of the short is based on fond memories I have of my grandmother, particularly the moment when the characters are baking a cake. When I was 16, I wanted to impress my grandmother by baking her a fancy sponge cake, but I misinterpreted the recipe and followed the directions literally, including the instruction to fold the flour into the batter. Well, you can guess what happened when we cut the cake — flour everywhere! But it gave both me and my grandmother the biggest laugh, and I always think back to that moment with her. 

TMD: How has your background in animation influenced your decision to tell this specific story? Did you feel like this story was one that had to be brought to life through animation?

HR: At the time of my grandmother’s passing, 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 the film, the animation program motivated me to deeply study Arab and Persian folklore and art to infuse into my thesis. Because of the fantastical themes and specific artistic aesthetic I discovered, I thought if I wanted to truly capture the cultural elements of the story in this film, I had to do so through animation.  

TMD: The animation in the short film is greatly influenced by Middle Eastern artwork and styles. How did your cultural background impact your voice in animation, both visually and narratively?

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

TMD: I found the music in the film gorgeous and epic in its scope. Did you have any big-picture ideas for the musical style and direction, or did you reserve all the music duties for composer Stephanie Hamelin Tomala?

HR: Before 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 overall direction. But Stephanie took that and created something much greater than I imagined and truly captured the spirit and feeling of the story.

TMD: I saw that the borders of many of the frames of the film were large and featured writing and symbols like a manuscript. What informed your decision to use this type of framing device, and how does it relate to the story’s content and/or cultural background?

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

TMD: How did you and co-director My Anh Ngo collaborate on this project as co-directors? How were directing duties delegated between the two of you, especially with both of you having an animation background?

HR: As the director of the film, my role is to maintain its overall creative vision, so I focused on working with leads and artists in every stage of production. I had asked My Anh Ngo at first to be an animation lead — her skills and talents in animation performance and acting were incredible — so we began working more closely and reviewing the film together in other aspects like rigging and character design. The title of co-director felt more reflective of how much she’s contributed to the film. 

TMD: I see that the short is having a successful festival run and has qualified for the 95th Academy Awards. Congratulations! What are your plans for the future, and what kind of stories do you want to tell? Are you interested in shorts? Features? Will you continue to draw from your Middle Eastern cultural background in your future work?

HR: Thank you so much! I would love to make more films, especially ones that draw from my culture. I recently started developing a new concept for a feature that is inspired by my mother’s refugee experience, a story that would build upon the themes, magical realism and style of animation of The Ocean Duck. Wish me luck!

Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at alvinsa@umich.edu.