Native American teenagers confront an oil pipeline project in this Annecy Jury Award-winning animation from Hungary

Four Souls Of Coyote

Source: Annecy Film Festival

‘Four Souls Of Coyote’

Dir: Áron Gauder. Hungary. 2023. 104mins

Former Annecy Cristal prize-winner Áron Gauder (he took the top award in 2005 with The District) now wins the festival’s Jury Award with this handsome environmental parable that weaves together a contemporary story of an oil pipeline protest in the midwest of America with a Native American creation myth. Using a striking blend of 2D and 3D animation and a strong graphic style pleasingly reminiscent of the work of mid-century artist Charlie Harper, the film is a timely reminder of the importance of living harmoniously with the natural world.

Harnesses the beauty of nature in every frame

Environmental messages are hardly unusual in feature animation. Still, Four Souls Of Coyote’s approach is distinctive in its application of indigenous folklore and wisdom to the world we currently inhabit and abuse. And while questions of cultural appropriation may be raised about a Hungarian filmmaker’s decision to tell Native American stories, this is a respectful work – Gauder collaborated with several Native American advisors during the filmmaking process. It’s a film with potentially broad appeal, although the red-in-tooth-and-claw depictions of the natural world and human violence might be a little intense for younger audiences. With its emphasis on mythic storytelling and its elegant, stylised graphic approach, the film could connect with a similar audience to that of Cartoon Saloon’s forays into Irish folkloric fantasy: The Song Of The Sea, The Secret Of Kells and WolfWalkers.

Coyote provides a stark contrast with The District (Gauder’s only other feature-length project as a director) in terms of both animation style and tone. Coyote harnesses the beauty of nature in every frame whereas Gauder’s previous film was punky, rebellious and unapologetically crude in its visual approach and robustly un-PC storytelling. And oil is central to both stories. In The District, the protagonist travels back in time to slaughter prehistoric mammoths in order to profit when they turn into oil in the present day. In Coyote, oil company executives are the cruel, slavering face of rapacious consumerism and environmental negligence. They are seen in modern-day sections that bookend the main body of the film; the creation story, as recounted to a group of oil pipeline protesters by a Native American elder.

It’s a myth that differs from the Judeo-Christian story, in that it doesn’t place humans at the top of a hierarchy. Here, humankind is simply one of the creatures of the earth, with no greater rights than any other beast or bird. And while most of the creatures are created by the Old Man (Lorne Cardinal voices both the old man and the narrator), from clay scraped from the bottom of the ocean, humans are created by a cunning coyote (Diontae Black).

Coyote had hoped to use the infant children as his own personal snack buffet, but fortunately the Old Man intervenes. It is the coyote who invents killing but the Old Man, in his fury, who releases the destructive force of lightning. And the coyote, banished from the Old Man’s world for his persistent trickery and mischief, not to mention his murderous tendencies, is responsible for summoning human greed and violence – in the form of invading European colonists.

The message, ultimately, is a powerful one: the film makes a case for dialogue, for listening to and learning from the generations that inhabited our world before us. And when faced with a sacred ancestral mountain steeped in cultural significance and myths, maybe don’t try to drive a bulldozer through it.

Production company: Cinemon Entertainment

International sales: Goodfellas

Producer: Réka Temple

Screenplay: Áron Gauder, Géza Bereményi

Artistic direction: Áron Gauder

Music: Ulali, The Sessions Voices, Joanne Shenandoah, Mariee Siou, Northern Cree

Main voice cast: Lorne Cardinal, Diontae Black, Danny Kramer, Stephanie Novak, Priscilla Landham, David Mattle, Lily Rose Silver, Bill Farmer, Cle Bennett, Bob Klein, John Bentley, Fred Tatasciore, Karin Anglin