Children have long been seen as a lucrative market for movie makers but Philippa Hawker finds that they are good at making their own material as well. A festival in Melbourne next week looks at movies that are about kids, by kids and for kids.
Nits. Life after death. The difference between cats and dogs. How to take out a glass eye. A film festival of movies that tackle the big issues and some of the smaller ones, Little Big Shots, makes its debut in Melbourne next week. Its target audience is precise - kids between the ages of seven and 15. It is an event that is intended to focus not only on films about and for children but on movies they have made themselves.
This festival, organised by production company Media Giants, is starting out modestly but has plans to grow. This year's event consists of 21 films, two features and 19 shorts - eight of which are made by kids - as well as several participatory sessions and activities. The program includes fiction, animation and documentary, and is drawn from around the world - including England, Armenia, the US, Curacao, Bangladesh, the Netherlands and Sweden.
One of the festival directors, Nick Place, had the idea for the festival as he watched M. Night Shyamalan's thriller The Village on DVD. It wasn't the feature that inspired him, however, it was the extras. The DVD included a sample of movies Shyamalan made when he was young and this started Place thinking about filmmaking opportunities that are available to children.
And, while the mainstream film industry has a keen enough sense of children as consumers, most of its product is in Hollywood blockbuster form. It's not easy for kids to see movies from other places. As Place points out, film festivals can be a wonderful source of inspiration for the general filmgoer but they're generally off-limits for children. Accredited festivals don't have to go through the expense associated with the classification process: they are given an exemption, and simply required to make their films unavailable to anyone under 18.
So children's festivals have grown up around the world. Some are stand-alone, some take place under the aegis of larger international festivals. Chicago has had a children's event for more than 20 years and screens more than 200 films. Italy's Giffoni also draws big crowds and has generated a couple of spin-offs in other cities: this year's Adelaide Film Festival screened a selection of Giffoni films and has plans for an expanded program.
Marcella Bidinost, the Little Big Shots co-director, made the selection, travelling to several of these festivals. Her brief was to find films "by, for and about kids" but it was also important, says Bidinost, that the films she chose would inspire audience members, that they would "give them a door into another world, to the way other kids live". She looked for "uplifting" films - saying that this doesn't have to mean that they were overwhelmingly positive. But they could be a mixture of light and shade, with more of the former. Otherwise, she says, she set herself a simple enough rule: pick the best.
One of the things that struck her was how attentive and responsive young audience members were. It's an observation borne out by a recent preview screening of several Little Big Shots films. The young audience were quiet and focused during Nits, Harry Wootlif's short about a little English boy who couldn't understand why his mother had not brought home from hospital the baby sister he was expecting, and why she seemed so distant and sad: the audience was alert to the poignancy of the film but also quick to respond to its comic moments.
Some of the films at the festival, clockwise from above: Our Story is a Mexican production; Binta And The Great Idea is a Senegalese film from a Spanish director; Creature Comforts: Cats and Dogs tackles old debate; Blue Dog Blues; Passing Hearts, from Sweden; and The Orphan Boy is an Australian contribution.
And they seemed rapt by Binta and the Great Idea, made in Senegal by Spanish director Xavier Fesser, and appeared to have no difficulties following its playful interwoven narrative about a young girl who is trying to persuade her relatives to let her older cousin start school, as well as helping circulate her father's idea for solving the world's problems - a great notion withheld from the audience until the very last.
Children's lives are at the centre of many of the movies. The two features, Zulaika: Coming of Age in Curacao, presents moments of crisis and exhilaration for Zulaika, a resourceful 12-year-old who finds her ingenuity increasingly stretched as she looks for ways to find money to pay a school levy, while Polleke focuses on an 11-year-old Dutch girl with an erratic mother, a troubled father and an unexpected crush.
Several of the movies made by kids reflect on their own experiences, or those of children close to them. One of the more disarming examples is A Tween's Life, produced by three Chicago 11-year-olds, Tim Jurik, Trace Gaynor and Steven Sotor. They interview, briefly, a collection of children who fall into the category: their subjects include an ambitious young ice-skater with her sights set on the 2010 Winter Olympics; a girl with a glass eye who tells the story of what happened when her dog ate it (she's patting the culprit as she relates the story); an Irish dancing fan; a kid who's crazy about helicopters; a home-schooled girl who doesn't watch TV; and a boy with a rare genetic disease.
In 9 X 8, eight-year-old Canadian Joseph Procopio combines fact and fiction, reflecting on the constraints that his age imposes, and the infuriating associations that the number has for him. He imagines what would happen if he could multiply his age by three, or perhaps nine - and, after following through with his fantasies, decides that eight is not such a bad age after all.
Animation can provide insights: in Stormy Night, directed by Michele Lemieux, deep, perplexing, unsettling questions stimulate a child's mind at bedtime. In some of the child-produced films made in association with adult filmmakers, animation is a way of allowing children to reflect on their sense of the present and their dreams for the future. In Our Story, a group of indigenous Mexican children made striking, lyrical claymation images of themselves, showing their hopes and aspirations, and the often harsh reality of their lives. At the end of the movie, we see 16mm footage of the children, working exuberantly with their material. Orphan Boy, an Australian short made by a group of indigenous children, also uses claymation.
Several documentaries look at individual subjects. Nando, directed by Claudia Tellegen, is the account of a 12-year-old Dutch boy who has been sent to a school that specialises in children with behavioural problems. The school puts the onus on kids to solve disputes, giving them, for example, the responsibility for yard duty. Nando acquits himself capably when he has to handle a spat between two boys but he doesn't have the same confidence when it comes to adjudicating between warring girls - they have him utterly perplexed.
Arif Hossein, a Danish documentary about a young boy from Bangladesh, shows a child from a poor family who is given the chance to reflect on his life and the lives of others: Arif, a quietly confident boy, balances school and work but he's also learning to handle the media as a TV reporter for a children's program.
A couple of animations by seasoned filmmakers look at the vicissitudes of non-human behaviour. Creature Comforts: The Difference Between Cats and Dogs comes from the celebrated Aardman stable, home of Wallace and Gromit. It's a claymation short with dialogue from interviews the filmmakers conducted with members of the public, which are then put into the mouths of animals.
A German animation, Snout, directed by Tilmann Vogt, shows what happens when a pig wakes up to find his nose is missing: his suspicion falls on his room-mate, a rat - but there's more to this mystery of a lost snout than meets the eye (or the ear, as it turns out).
And a young filmmaker, 14-year-old Jake Pankratz Saner takes a polished and painstaking approach, in his stop-motion animation, Monkey Shines - two months in the making, 60 seconds on the screen - which shows how a tin-toy monkey finally satisfies his vaulting ambition.
During its four days of screenings, Little Big Shots has a schools program, post-session discussions, a reviewing competition and a couple of workshops. One gives young participants the chance to try claymation, and another is a Q & A session with young actor Hunter Page-Lochard, who stars in a short called The Djarn Djarns, a funny, moving short about a young boy whose grief at the loss of his father is tempered by the support of his mates in an Aboriginal dance troupe. It was voted best film by a committee of children at this year's Berlin International Children's Film Festival.
Little Big Shots is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Federation Square www.littlebigshots.com.au
The Age Little Big Shots Film Review competition offers children under 14 a chance to become published film critics. www.education.theage.com.au
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