The Winners at Schlingel
by Holger Twele
At the 28th International Film Festival for Children and Young Audiences Schlingel in Chemnitz 2023, 16 juries selected their favorites from the 171 films in the overall program and awarded a total of well over 20 prizes including several honorable mentions. Since the majority of the juries had to judge a different program from only one or from several sections, direct comparisons with the award decisions of other juries are only possible to a very limited extent. An essential part of the program are the three competitions for children’s film (up to 10 years), junior film (up to 14 years) and youth film (from 15 years). At least the Junior Jury gave a Special Mention to the Canadian film Echo to Delta, which received the International Critics’ Prize and deals with the loss of a loved one from a child’s perspective and also in an appealing cinematic way.
This speaks to the fact that while young people often see a film differently than an older professional audience, they can certainly come to a similar conclusion. And it is at least as interesting that two sports films with a classic dramaturgy, which were enthusiastically received in the school events in the mornings, in which a young soccer team and an ice hockey team, respectively, transform themselves from crass underdogs into sworn favorites in the competitions and the best team, were not awarded any prizes by any of the jurors. So audience-pleasing does not mean award-worthy by a long shot. But then, to which films of the festival did the main prizes go?
The European Children’s Film Award
The festival is particularly proud of the European Children’s Jury, which consisted of children from seven different nations in 2023 and is seen as a practical example of Europe growing together. This jury awarded the most important prize of the festival. It went to Totem by Sander Burger, a co-production between the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. (Note: Not to be confused with the Mexican film of almost the same name, Tótem, which screened in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival this year!) The girl Ama has lived with her younger brother and parents, who fled Senegal, in an apartment building in Rotterdam for almost 11 years. She is fully integrated and does well in school, has a reliable friend in the Dutch boy Thijs, and feels not even African, but clearly Dutch.
Due to water damage in the house, the police become aware of the illegal immigrants, who are then immediately to be deported to Senegal. Independently of each other, however, Ama and her father managed to escape. All alone on her own and desperately searching for her father, Ama wanders through the city, discovering something of her own roots through an encounter with a griot, a traditional African poet and storyteller. Earlier, she meets her totem animal, a giant porcupine that shows her the way and protects her. It accompanies her every step of the way, but only she can see it, knowing that it is not real. As generally recommended for a good children’s film, there is a happy ending, which unfortunately often has not the slightest thing to do with reality. Nevertheless, the film succeeds in sensitizing the viewer to the fate of illegal immigrants in an exciting and entertaining way, without black-and-white painting in the portrayal of the immigration authorities, and at least to some extent even conveys something about African culture. It is especially remarkable that the jury children favored this film and not others that were more pleasing and light-hearted or more in line with their own (European) living environment.
The cinematic encounter with other cultures
It has always been an important concern of children’s film festivals to teach young audiences about other ways of life and cultures – and the particularly nice thing about this is that children are genuinely interested and curious about them. Two of the films that won prizes at the Schlingel should be highlighted, especially since both are about the relationship between humans and animals, about the direct involvement of nature and especially about nomadic life on different continents. Both stories are also told in fascinating images of the Kazakh steppe landscape and the desert in Morocco, which alone makes the films worth seeing. The Little Horsewhip by Xinwen Dong and Shapkat Murat received the prize of the CIFEJ jury consisting of adults, the French adventure film Princes of the Desert by Eric Barbier both the prize of the (national) children’s jury and a Special Mention of the European Children’s Jury.
The Chinese film centers around seven-year-old Ansgar, who is infatuated with horses and finally wants a horse of his own so that he can emerge victorious in the races that are very popular in his home country. By chance, the family actually gets a horse as a gift, but Ansgar has to share it with his older brother. He, however, does not think about it and plays on his superiority. So Ansgar simply steals the horse, which breaks a leg during his stormy ride and, according to the adults, should actually be processed into sausage. It is only through this shock that the boy learns to take responsibility. He nurses the animal back to health with the help of a wise old man. The old man’s granddaughter Meili suffers greatly from the fact that her beloved father left her two years ago. And suddenly there is a more important goal for Ansgar than just winning horse races. Incidentally, the loss of a father or the search for him runs like a thread through many other films in the festival program. Much like Ansgar’s father turns out to be one of the most endearing father figures I’ve ever seen in a children’s film about nomadic life, positive father figures seem to be taking root elsewhere in the world and in children’s films. This is really new and was just the opposite until a few years ago! The only criticism of this film is that it seems overly glossed over. At least against the background of other films I know, in which the nomads are threatened by gigantic environmental destruction and the annihilation of their culture, it is difficult to judge whether the positively drawn images can stand up to reality.
This danger does not even arise in the French film, because the story set in Morocco and Abu Dhabi can only work like this in a feature film. Zodi, a nomadic boy growing up alone with his mother, discovers an orphaned dromedary foal in the desert. He names it Tehu and raises it away from the nomadic tribe’s herd of dromedaries, the nomads’ livelihood. When all the animals except Tehu have to be killed because of a life-threatening disease for humans and animals, the young animal is sold to a poacher who wants to make big money with the dromedary. Because Tehu can run as fast as hardly any other dromedary. Zodi flees with his beloved animal and sets off with him on the long journey to Abu Dhabi, where the largest dromedary race in the world is taking place. Only with a victory there he believes to be able to protect Tehu in the long run and to help his tribe at the same time. A truly “crazy” story full of suspense, as the children’s jury judged, and never told like this before. The film appeals to young and old alike – a typical French film that could also have commercial success in cinemas.
Media use and media education
While Ansgar apparently remains isolated from the rest of the world in the Kazakh steppe, Zodi in Morocco makes contact with the outside world via the new computer at school and the Internet, and later also communicates with his mother and the tribal leader via it. The extent to which the lives of young people have changed as a result of these new forms of communication and social media does not need to be described in detail here. But a film that also warns of the dangers of this media use deserves special attention. After all, the so-called digital natives are far more familiar with these technologies than the older generations, which, conversely, does not mean that they are always fully aware of the possible consequences of their actions. This is the subject of the French film Juniors by Hugo P. Thomas, which is the big winner of the festival with no less than three main prizes (International Feature Film Jury, Ecumenical Jury, ECFA Jury). With their PlayStation 4, 14-year-old friends Jordan and Patrick fight their boredom in the province of Southern France. When the console gives up the ghost and there is no money for a replacement, the two boys come up with the idea that Jordan should shave his head bald and pretend he has cancer. The online appeal for donations receives an overwhelming response and the two friends quickly become the most popular students at their school. When the affair is discovered, it has tragic consequences for both of them.
A well-acted, briskly staged, well-crafted film, which, however, was not awarded by the young generation, but exclusively by more or less concerned adults, who perceived it as a media educational example without pointing fingers, although the successful entertainment value counts just as much, of course. It would not be fair to either the juries or the film to speak of an overvaluation based on media education considerations. It definitely deserves at least one main prize! It is a pity, however, and this does not only apply to this film, that in the overall very multi-layered and well-selected program, some films fell under the table that would also have been worth a prize. Just one example is mentioned here, which, like most of the films mentioned above, was not in the selection for the International Critics’ Prize: Nicole von Kilsdonk’s road movie Okthanksbye tells the story of 13-year-old Jamie, who lives in a Dutch boarding school for the deaf. When her grandmother falls seriously ill in Paris, she spontaneously decides to visit her there and finds an important ally in her black friend Imane. On their adventurous journey without money and without being able to express themselves linguistically to others, the two meet many interesting people and literally outgrow themselves. And on the acoustic level, the film approaches the perception of the two girls, which leads to surprises and many new insights, not only at a punk concert.
One last remark about the school screenings of the festival: For probably different reasons, there was a lot of unrest among the students at many of the films. Almost without a break, some left the cinema at short notice. One teacher openly complained that her students were hardly able to pay attention to a film for 90 minutes nowadays. Film festivals like the Schlingel are therefore an important building block in securing the future of cinema. At least this year’s jury decisions by the younger generation make us confident that this will succeed.
Edited by Savina Petkova
© FIPRESCI 2023