Children - as Children or as Dramaturgical Tools?

in 28th Rabat International Author Film Festival

by Jan Storø

One thing I notice in modern cinema is that many more films than before tell stories about children or stories where children play a crucial part. Some of the films seek to tell stories from the children’s own perspective, others use children as a dramaturgical tool for how the story is told. Both can give us good films. We have seen movies at the Rabat festival on the lives of children and how children affect the lives of adults. In this article, I will briefly present them.

The coming-of-age theme in films can be told in many different ways. Sometimes it is the child’s vulnerability that is in the spotlight, at other times it is their living conditions. And sometimes it is the everyday life of a child. In films with older children and young people, the meeting between parental authority and teacher authority – sometimes with elements of violence – often is the central theme of the drama.

One of the great films that gives us a coming-of-age story is the French director Francois Truffaut’s 1959 debut film The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups). Here Truffaut told a story about a boy who was not loved by anyone, not even by his parents. The narrative is largely biographical. Truffaut’s film was perceived as radical in its time. He showed what children may experience as they enter an adult world that is not particularly child-friendly.

Truffaut released his debut film when he was 27 years old. The Belgian director Lukas Dhont was also 27 when he made his debut with a coming-of-age film, the critically acclaimed Girl (2018), which was about 15-year-old Lara (Victor Polster) who perceived herself as a girl born in a boy’s body. In his second film, Close (2022), Dhont tells of Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele). The boys are so close that they are almost inseparable. But entering adolescence they experience difficulties in their relationship.

What Truffaut did not do – and could not do based on the view of children at the time – was to let the child himself be the central actor in the narrative. The difference between The 400 Blows and Girl/Close is that Truffaut’s film primarily describes the conflict between the child and society, while Dhont’s two films tell the child’s own story.

Therefore, the latter two become coming-of-age films for our time. They explore, in a heartfelt and personal way, themes that both brutally and beautifully recognize children’s inner world and emotions, as well as the social world they live in.

In the 2023 edition of the Rabat International Author Film Festival, four films predominantly told stories about children or stories where children were given an important role as a dramaturgical tool.

The latter is clearest in Mother Valley (La nuit du verre d’eau), by Carlos Chahine, where we meet a young mother (Marilyne Naaman) who is drawn between demands from everyone around her and a life where she can live according to her own desires. She has a son, Charles (Antoine Merheb Tarb), who is six years old. He observes that something is happening in his mother’s life this summer and tries to stay as close to her as possible. This is not specifically a film about the life of the child, the main protagonist is the mother. I think it is fair to suggest that Chahine uses Charles as a dramaturgical tool to tell the story of the mother. But, in doing so, he also gives us a portrait of the son. The film demonstrates that even if the child is not placed in the very center of the story, the child may well be portrayed in a gripping way.

In Jacek Lusiński´s Backwards (Śubuk) a mother (Malgorzata Gorol) of a boy with autism is struggling for her son. He is denied the kind of education he needs. We follow her from before Śubuk was born till he is a young adult. In this film, the mother is the main protagonist. But the story is built around the son´s special situation. When the film was screened at the festival, Lusiński said that he made the film out of anger on behalf of the women who need to fight for the conditions of their children. The important role of the child in this film is to help us understand that there are children that need special care, and – more central in this specific film – that some parents experience tough conditions.

The Ordinary People by Kanika Verma tells the story of 17-year-old Munuren. She is a gifted hockey player. One day she is chosen to take part in a hockey camp in a nearby town. But the family can’t afford to buy her the hockey kit she needs. The film is about Munuren’s, her family`s and the village’s struggle to raise the money. Here, children and adults are working together, but the perspective is largely of the child.

In Rêger Azad’s Where the Seedlings Grow (Gava Sitil Mezin Dibin), the main protagonist (in my view) is Zelal (Sîba Mihemed Elî). She is the daughter of a yogurt vendor, and one day he takes her with him to the town Kobanê to sell yogurt. They pick up a boy who is lost, trying to help him find his way home. Together with Zelal and the boy, we are taken on a journey in the Syrian town. The film could almost be called a road movie in a society that is not known to many of us – at least those of us who have not visited this country. Azad’s decision to give the children such a central role makes it possible for him to focus on the everyday life of Syrians through what they observe together with us.

Something has happened along the way in the last few decades that has made children and the lives of children more interesting for filmmakers. But also, with a developing interest in everyday life. It probably has to do with an increasing number of female filmmakers and writers. Even so, male filmmakers are also taking an interest in telling stories about children in our time – three of the four filmmakers mentioned here are men.

This illustrates my main point; we are about to move from films showing “children in the world of adults, as the adults see them” to “childhood in their own right”. In this emerging tradition, we will see more films where the child is the main protagonist and where the director puts effort into seeking the perspective of children and the child’s own perspective. The latter is the most interesting development concerning children in films and films on children. But the role of a child as a dramaturgical tool to tell a story about adults, or about society, can also be interesting if it is well made.

Jan Storø
Edited by Amber Wilkinson