A pilot crash-lands into his home. His face has been replaced by a turbine and he’s fallen in love with a ceiling fan. To save their marriage, his wife must take drastic action.
A war pilot crash-lands through his apartment window. When his wife returns from work, she discovers that her husband’s face has been replaced by an airplane turbine. He’s also fallen in love with their kitchen ceiling fan. To save their faltering marriage, his wife decides she will no longer let her humanity get in the way of love.
A shell-shocked war pilot crash-lands through his apartment window. When his wife returns from work at a bomb factory, she discovers that her husband’s face has been replaced by an airplane turbine. To make matters worse, he’s fallen in love with their kitchen ceiling fan. To save their faltering marriage, his wife decides she will no longer let her humanity get in the way of love.
Intricately conceived and impeccably designed, Alex Boya’s hand-drawn tragicomic techno soap opera uses a domestic postwar setting to explore the complex and often unseen effects of war. Loosely set in the 1940s, when technology was beginning to enter the domestic space in the form of household appliances, the film employs the turbine as a modernist icon of technological worship that reshapes societies—including our own, where we are now losing face to smartphones, watches, and assorted gadgets of convenience that we’ve freely invited into our daily lives.
Directed by Alex Boya (whose debut film, Focus, was made as part of the National Film Board of Canada’s acclaimed Hothouse program) and produced by Jelena Popović (Hedgehog’s Home, Manivald), Turbine is a bold, multi-layered, and crucial examination of the maze we find ourselves wandering through as we succumb to the allure and promise of technology.
Alex Boya is a man of two worlds. Although he was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, on the heels of the collapse of the ruling Communist Party, he has lived in Montreal since his family immigrated when he was two years old. So, on the one hand he carries what he calls “dispersed letters, objects and old photos of a time just before my birth,” yet he’s also a typical North American child whose closest experience of conflict was playing with Star Wars toys.
These two disparate worlds meet in Boya’s latest short film, Turbine (2018), a comic techno soap opera about the effects of war and technology on a married couple, produced by Jelena Popović at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).
“It’s weird,” says Boya, “in that sense because Turbine clearly shows Eastern Europe, but then you have a Western nuclear family unit and some of the American dream in the appliances our protagonist so tenderly loves. I guess I’m from both worlds.”
Both of Boya’s parents are artists, so it’s not a big stretch to understand how he developed an interest in art. “Like many kids,” says Boya, “I discovered Crayola in kindergarten and haven’t stopped drawing since.”
After studying illustration and design at Montreal’s Dawson College, he was briefly enrolled in the acclaimed animation program at Concordia University, where he made the short film Rites of Passage (2012).
“Where I really got influenced,” adds Boya, “was when I was hired by McGill University to produce medical illustrations (and other instructional media) for several internal communication departments. Doing those kinds of drawings has always been my thing since I was a teenager.”
Boya’s first contact with the NFB came in 2015 through the studio’s acclaimed apprenticeship program, Hothouse. Under the tutelage of Oscar-winning animator Chris Landreth (Ryan, Subconscious Password), Boya was part of a group of eight directors who were challenged with producing a one-minute film in three months. Boya’s contribution was Focus, a stunning and imaginative attempt to visualize attention deficit disorder that earned him an Honorable Mention for Best Canadian Animation at the 2015 Ottawa International Animation Festival.
Fittingly, given the fusion of an almost taciturn, medical precision with vivid, manic drawings in Focus and later, in Turbine, Boya has defined himself as a medical expressionist. “It is a conceptual approach that seeks to define intangible states of the soul using the clinical definition of physical representation of medical visualization, in the tradition of renaissance drafts of the inner body. In addition, it plays with the instructional undertones of images to animate anticipation of meaning and inner conflicts within the mind’s eye, as more freely demonstrated in Focus.”
That same year, Boya approached NFB producer Jelena Popović with an idea for a film that explored post-traumatic stress disorder and the rise of technological dominance through the story of a married couple. Production started a year later.
The roots of Turbine, oddly enough, don’t come from experience, but from a dream. “I dreamed of a wide field and a man’s back,” says Boya. “Moving close enough to see his face in profile, I noticed it was flat. When I faced him, there was a turbine in the hollow face. It drooled saliva/engine oil; he told me to get closer to whisper in my ear. Everything in his mechanical, rhythmic voice was deeply understood. Awake, however, I realized it was just the bedroom air conditioner.”
Though the time period is not defined, Turbine is clearly set during the aftermath of a major war. Yet Boya’s concern is less with war on a battlefield than with the subtler conflict that unfolds in domestic spaces. “The battlefront is the initial recalcitrance,” says Boya, “but its products seep into the household in subliminal technocratic dominion, in the form of mundane appliances and eventually as appendages of the body.”
While it might be more obvious to focus on something contemporary like smartphones and the Internet, Boya wanted to go back further into the past to examine how war birthed these technologies. “The smartphone is too implicit because it’s a slick, impenetrable capsule containing ‘magic.’ Go back a few cycles, though, and the layout of the home computer is more clear and open, with a keyboard, a screen, an energy source, etc. Go back a few loops even further and you can find a plane, a turbine and also the war that kick-started these technologies.”
While technology is central to the film, Turbine also touches upon the impact of war on individuals. “Our pilot’s emotional luggage is essential to the plot. It is a romantic tragicomedy about a husband whose body merged with his warplane. Due to having an airplane turbine instead of a face, he can no longer communicate with his wife. She attempts to gather the fragments of their life, and that’s where the theme of PTSD comes in.”
The resulting film is a rich and multi-layered work that leaves us to consider many issues, predominantly, our overreliance on technology, outmoded gender roles and, naturally, the often-unseen horrors of war.
Oh… and don’t fear these complex and scary themes too much, because Turbine is also… well… it’s a very funny and surreal soap opera about a messed-up guy who falls in love with a ceiling fan, and the absurd lengths his wife will go to to preserve their marriage.
Sometimes, all we can do is laugh when chaos engulfs us.
written and directed by
design & animation
story editing consultant
Melanie Bergeron (accordion/accordéon)
Amanda Keesmaat (cello/violoncelle)
Chantal Bergeron (violinist/violoniste)
foley and music recording
titles and credits
Rosalina Di Sario
the National Film Board of Canada