Lost Childhood

in 20th International Film Festival for Children and Young Audience, Chemnitz

by Bettina Hirsch

Schlingel, the biggest and most important international film festival for children and young audiences in Germany, has recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. At this year’s edition, a record number of 156 films from 46 countries were shown, with 29 entries running in the Feature Film Competition.

After one week of watching three to five children’s and youth films a day, I couldn’t help but notice that in many of the stories girls seem to have less opportunities than their male counterparts of the same age. They find themselves in far more restricted conditions and situations, and thus have to be particularly creative or ingenious develop – something which, after 100 years, or four to five generations of female emancipation, is hard to believe.

The liberation from old-fashioned beliefs and expectations of parents, the school system or peers was a recurring topic, with issues raised that provided both entertainment value and food for thought for adult spectators. Often, beauty was a central concern for the films’ protagonists. Their ability to achieve a perceived beauty ideal and their level of self-confidence decide over whether they get excluded, picked on or even taken advantage of.

One film covering this subject is Lindsay MacKay’s Surfacing (Wet Bum). The 14-year-old pale and skinny Sam is so shy that she keeps her wet bathing suit on under her clothes rather than undress in front of the other girls in the changing room after their swimming lessons. Her female class mates are physically far more mature and they don’t miss an opportunity to mock Sam. They have great bodies, go to parties, and are only interested in their looks in order to impress the boys. When Sam falls in love with the swimming coach, this suddenly changes her perception and experience, and eventually she learns a lot about coming of age. Sam begins to comprehend that there’s more to life than a perfect body and superficial flirts. Surfacing, MacKay’s feature film debut, hits the nail on the head with this girl-specific issue.

Considering the central issues depicted in these films for and about children and youngsters, it is rather astonishing that out of 29 feature films which entered the Feature Film competition, only five were by female directors. One would think that any discussion of children’s and family issues – more often than not experienced by women at first hand – and particularly of female topics in a societal context should involve more women directors.

For me as a critic, this raises some questions about the poor representation of female filmmakers: Do women just not care that much about children’s films? Are films by female directors in this genre simply not as good as the ones of their male counterparts? Were there just not that many female directors submitting their films? If so, why? Is it more difficult for them to find a producer for their films?

In contrast to other main characters resisting their societal role, the film Ulises and the 10,000 Mustaches (Por mis bigotes) by Manuel Camares proves how big a difference a moustache can make in getting respect. Having forever remained ‘invisible’ to those around him, nine-year-old Ulises grows a moustache overnight and suddenly receives all the attributes of masculinity, respect from his teachers and admiration from male and female classmates. The film is not set in the times of aristocracy, but in modern-day Mexico City. Again, societal gender roles and their associated attributes and expectations influence the line of action that the protagonists undergo.

The winner of the FIPRESCI Prize, Enclave (Enklava) by Goran Radovanovic, shows young boys in their struggle to follow the blood feuds of their parents, while the girls get lured into forced marriages or have to escape to the bigger cities to get a minimum of freedom. With silent tenacious courage, 10-year-old Nenad copes with the exhausting life in an enclave inhabited by Orthodox Serbs in the middle of the Albanian part of Kosovo. The parents lived through ethnic and religious conflicts in a bloody war, which generated hatred and thirst for revenge on both sides. The children, especially the sons, are raised by the adults to continue with the suffering of the war, with no place for innocent playing or friendship between children of hostile groups. When Nenad’s female teacher flees to the city, the town’s school shuts down, since Nenad and the teacher were the only people left there anyway. Left behind in a men’s world traumatised by armed conflicts, the boys start to play war. With a gun causing injury more by accident and a church bell falling onto the 10-year-old protagonist, the true drama of the film gets under way.

Murder still seems to be a taboo topic in children’s films, which often tend to mitigate the tearful tragedies of their stories, leaving viewers with a certain sense of hope. At the same time, festival films like Enclave benefit from their subtle and intelligent scripts. Despite their young heroes, the pictures touch upon problems which not only young audiences but also adults can relate to.

Edited by Birgit Beumers