Tomi Ungerer - Far Out Isn't Far Out Enough

tomi ungerer far out isn't far enough
I go to TIFF each year and see as many movies as I can squeeze into my schedule, especially now that I no longer live in Toronto. I go to TIFF each year to be inspired - I KNOW that's a cliche. But it's true. I get inspired. 
   
But every once in a while there's a film that I KNOW that I will continue to think about for months later. A film that changes how I think and how I live. 
   
This year it was the documentary Far Out Isn't Far Enough about Tomi Ungerer, one of the best-selling, award-winning childrens' book authors in the 1950's and 1960's.
   
Ever heard of him? I hadn't. And that is the magic that is TIFF. I not only get to see a documentary about someone that I knew nothing about, once I DO learn of him, it's a personal game changer.
   
In one of his last interviews, Maurice Sendak noted that he never would have written Where the Wild Things Are without Tomi's inspiration. "I'm a self-taught raving maniac but not as crazy as Tomi. Or as great as Tomi".
   
It was Tomi who convinced Shel Silverstein to write children's books and introduced him to Ursula Nordstrom, publisher and editor of juvenile books at Harper & Row from 1940-1973.
   
But by the early 1970's you couldn't find ANY of his books in any bookstore or library. They were discarded and banned and Tomi was ostracized by the industry. It would be over 30 years until his books were back in print.

So what happened?
   
Tomi identifies himself as a "natural provocateur". He comes by it honestly having grown up in the Alsace region between France & Germany before and during WWII. "I was French at home, Alsatian in the street and German at school". When the Germans invaded he was forbidden to speak French and had a few months to learn German. "You don't need Berlitz - a knife at your throat is enough".
   
That experience made him a complusive truth teller, spending his whole life showing the devil in himself and in all of us. But this need to point out that the emperor has no clothes is what eventually ended his career in the US. "I cannot live without my barricades. I have to be out there fighting something".
   
Tomi moved to NYC in 1956 with $60 in his pocket and immediately found success as an illustrator. It was the golden age of illustration. He drew the first poster for the movie Dr. Strangelove.
     
   
And he wrote dozens of childrens' books that were published in over thirty languages and won many awards. The stories are delightful and subversive and yes, a bit dark. Tomi has always felt that adults shouldn't talk down to children, shouldn't humour them with simplistic, white-washed stories.
   tomi ungerer crichter the three robbers
   
tomi ungerer
In the 1960's Tomi also created some of the most provocative anti-Vietman War posters.
   
And because it was the 1960's, he easily could have these parallel careers. Add in his erotic illustrations for Playboy (where he met Shel Silverstein) and his erotic art books, and you have three very distinct streams of work.
   
Award-winning childrens' book author, Vietnam War protestor, and erotic artist. Without the internet, there was little chance that anyone would connect the dots - each was its own distinct world.
   
But someone did. Connect the dots, that is.
   
And that was the end. His childrens' books were removed from libraries and he was ostracized from the industry. He moved first to Nova Scotia where he and his wife farmed pigs for a few years and then on to Ireland where he still lives today. 
   
It's only recently that his childrens' books are back in print.
   
The documentary is one of the best that I have seen in a long time and I do love my docs. Part of it is the subject matter - I was scribbling all sorts of Tomi quotes in my journal in the dark. And part of it is the structure used to tell Tomi's life story with the backdrop of parallel history.
   
Here's a taste of the documentary. Note the perfectly executed animation of his line drawings - something that so EASILY could have been overdone but isn't. So it's not only the subject matter that makes this documentary worth seeing, it's the quality of the filmmaking itself. Be warned that it DOES include some of his explicit images. 
   
   
   
He's a provocative man bursting with creative energy. One of the things that I adore about TIFF is that you not only get to see the films, you get to meet the filmmakers after the screening in a Q&A. Tomi was as charming in person as he is in the documentary. 
   
"In my life I would rather take corners than curves and keep them very sharp". I tend to be more of a curve-taker but have had my corner moments. Live long enough and we all do I suppose.
    
I do admire his passion and drive. And his childrens' books are a delight - even all these decades later.
   
So I will be thinking of Tomi in the months to come - his creative energy, even at 80. His explosion of ideas. His commitment to making his own subversive path. His delight in making art. And I will be thinking too of the clever storytelling used by the documentary - the animation of hundreds of Tomi's illustrations, the soundtrack, the perfect balance of interviews and exposition.
    
And THAT is why I go to TIFF.