As an animated character, Stick Girl is a curious creation. She’s deceptively simple — just a few lines and a pink triangle for a skirt, two pink scrunchies holding her pigtails atop her head.
Her eyes are rendered in two quick, slanted lines, and immediately upon seeing her, we know that Stick Girl is Asian, and that’s the point.
“You’ve seen Stick Girl, right?” asked actress Sandra Oh in a recent interview with The Washington Post. Oh is voicing a Stick Girl character in the upcoming movie “Window Horses.” “Stick Girl is a circle, and two little slanty eyes! The celebration of that image, for me, is very powerful. … I feel very aligned with Stick Girl as a character, not only in the way that she’s drawn, because I used to be a super-skinny girl, and my eyes are like that, but for what she represents.”
Stick Girl’s minimalist aesthetic belies a much more complex character. She’s imbued with vitality and exuberance by her creator, Canadian filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming. Stick Girl is an avatar Fleming created after being run over by two cars when she was an animation student in the 1980s. Fleming’s mobility was severely limited, and she was confined to a wheelchair, but she refused to drop out of school. So Stick Girl was born.
“All I could draw were these little gestures,” Fleming said. “I could just do the simplest thing and I could draw her. She comes out of a very difficult and very personal time for me. She’s a very personal gesture. And I think she is all about the gesture. The simpler the line, the more you see the hand of the artist.”
Soon, Stick Girl will be the star of her first animated feature film, “Window Horses,” where she’ll play Rosie Ming, a young, sheltered, mixed-race Canadian poet raised by overprotective Chinese grandparents. The film follows Rosie’s journey to Iran, where she’s been invited to perform in a poetry festival.
Rosie’s story is a coming-of-age tale. “She finds herself in the company of poets and Persians, all who tell her stories that force her to confront her past; the Iranian father she assumed abandoned her and the nature of Poetry itself,” Fleming wrote. “Rosie learns to find her own voice through listening to the voices of others. It’s about building bridges across generations and cultures through the magic of Poetry.”
Over the years, Fleming has completed a number of projects with Stick Girl, using her to narrate a documentary, “The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam,” about Fleming’s great-grandfather, a Chinese vaudevillian magician and acrobat named Long Tack Sam.
Fleming’s mother is from Hong Kong and her father is Australian. Her great-grandfather, Long, met her great-grandmother in small town in Austria in 1908. Fleming was born in Okinawa, Japan, and grew up largely in Canada.
“The mixed-race-iness thing has just been part of my family for generations,” Fleming said.
“Window Horses” is Oh’s first time producing a film, and it’s been a steep learning curve for the former “Grey’s Anatomy” actress who rose to prominence playing Dr. Cristina Yang on the hit ABC drama. After she left, she wanted to work with a character who was rich and affirming in the same way Cristina was.
“I am interested in the art form of animation and how it might touch girls,” Oh said. “Specifically with this story, because Rosie Ming, the main character, is specifically mixed-race and that’s super important to me.”
Oh has nieces who are mixed-race, and they are a big motivation for her involvement in “Window Horses.”
“I feel like it hasn’t changed enough for girls and it hasn’t changed enough for girls in my community and it’s really lonely-making, never seeing yourself represented,” Oh said. “I do feel a tremendous lack of representation in children’s entertainment, in children’s story-telling, in children’s media. More than anything, the same faces are represented over and over again. … I realize that I still don’t see myself, and those faces are not my niece’s faces. And I remember exactly what that feels like, and it fills me with the energy to change it. It’s been over 30 years since I was 10, and it’s still the same. It still hasn’t changed, and that’s just not acceptable anymore.”
So Fleming and Oh, longtime friends, set about the business of making “Window Horses” with an Indiegogo campaign which runs through Dec. 20. Thanks to a generous benefactor who agreed to match their Indiegogo fund, they only needed to raise $65,000 to meet their goal of $130,000. They’ve since surpassed that, and have raised more than $75,000 via Indiegogo for the film. Any additional money will be put toward animation costs.
Originally, Fleming envisioned “Window Horses” as a tale about the post-WWII German diaspora. Influenced by her time spent in an artist colony in Stuttgart, Germany, reading the poetry of Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet. Her time in Stuttgart sparked her interest in the stories of Germans who immigrated to North America after World War II, and the shabby treatment and discrimination they faced because of the war.
But after she left, Fleming became involved with the immigrant community in Vancouver, where she began to encounter stories of immigrants from Iran. “I’m part of the Asian migration,” she said. “And people came for a lot of different reasons over much time, very, very different people, but still discriminated against, right, and not understood? Their images are not shown. And it’s really such a powerful and deep culture that a lot of us don’t know about.”
In 2009, Canada cut off all diplomatic relations with Iran. The result was the subject and major themes of Fleming’s film — Iranian culture and poetry — became even more obscure.
“Nobody was interested in the story,” she said. “And then finally, because things have been getting so crazy now, around the world, and there’s so much fear, there’s no good images. There’s no well-rounded stories about cultures, about people. We’re just terrified of each other. I thought, ‘It’s just the worst time. It’s the perfect time to try bring this film out again.’ It really does just want to shed a little bit of light and love and understanding on different cultures.”
Fleming realized if she moved the story to Iran, it could become contemporary rather than historical:
“People are not defined by their wars. People are defined by their arts. That’s how we remember things.”
Recently, Iran has become something of a muse for North American filmmakers, as evidenced by “Argo” (which won the 2013 Best Picture Oscar) and the new Jon Stewart film, “Rosewater.” But they’re both male-driven, they’re built around true stories where political revolution is an ever-present backdrop.
“The war happened,” Fleming said. “That’s historical veracity. But people are always just trying to live their lives in the situations they find themselves in. People are not defined by their wars. People are defined by their arts. That’s how we remember things.”
“Window Horses” is a story about a girl finding her voice that happens to take place in Iran. With the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz informing the characters, it just made sense.
For Fleming, the ties between Germany, Iran, and poetry seemed almost serendipitous.
“I found a very big connection between Iranian and German societies through the poetry of [Rainer Maria] Rilke because when Rilke discovered Rumi, he started this conversation between East and West,” Fleming said. “So it seems like every decision I made in this story-telling process, I’m following a road that was traveled before by other artists and other poets. We’re following the same path and we don’t even know it.”
Perhaps “Window Horses,” with themes more esoteric than those usually found in pop culture, will inspire its audience to slow down, become a little more contemplative, and just breathe.
“So much of the forefront, the front burner, of how we access information or understand or access our entertainment is coming into a more digital realm,” Oh said. “The idea of poetry is more archaic, but it’s getting more and more necessary.”
Below, the concept trailer for “Window Horses”: