The World of Unhappy Children

in 18th Bratislava International Film Festival

by Andrzej Fogler

The most sensible way to talk about banal things is to show them in an unusual way. Here we have a French-Swiss picture My Life as Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette) made by a Swiss director, Claude Barras. What is so unusual in this banal story about an abandoned child? First of all, the film is in animation. One could say we have had lots of well-made animated films and that it is rather easy to create strong visuals in the age of omnipresent computer graphics. However, Barras was talented enough to use the perfect vision to construct his story the way that made the whole thing very attractive, but poetic and heart-warming, as well.

It is an emotional tale about maltreated, unhappy children. The so called Courgette is a boy badly treated by his non-stop drinking and smoking irresponsible mother. His aunt is even worse. When his mother dies the aunt suddenly pretends to love her nephew, only because she can get some money for taking care of the orphan. The clever and fragile boy doesn’t want such a home. Probably the most touching is the scene when a group of kids from the orphanage watches how good and loving a mother can be, not their mother.

Next to Barras, out of the long list of talented people who worked on this film at least one must be mentioned. Céline Sciamma, who two years ago made the well-known film Girlhood (La bande de filles) which was also about an unhappy childhood, is credited as the writer of the very good script based on a book by Gilles Paris.

Picture My Life as Zucchini would be extremely depressing if not for a few humorous moments and a sort of a bright message emerging from the dark. Paris, Sciamma and Barras (in order of appearance) offer a remedy. What might make many abandoned children’s lives better is a real friendship among kids, meeting nice, good, honest adults and love – how banal!

Making people laugh and cry is probably the best way to achieve a success. No wonder My Life as a Courgette got a bunch of Audience Awards (Cannes, San Sebastian, London, Warsaw) in a very short time. What’s more, the film received the award for the best feature in Annecy a few months ago. Here, in Bratislava, our FIPRESCI jury decided to award it, too.

Other films in the festival were about a bit older people, but still very young. In the Latvian film Mellow Mud (Esesmuseit) a teenage girl and her younger brother are badly treated by their grandmother. Renaris Vimba, a young director and screenwriter shows how that girl tries to find her mother who emigrated to England looking for better life. The girl travels to London and finds out that in her mother’s new life there is no place for her or her little brother.

In the Swiss film The Swallow (Die Schwalbe) writer-director Mano Khail tells the story of a 27-year- old daughter looking for the father she never met. She leaves Switzerland for Iraqi Kurdistan, travels hundreds of miles and finally realizes that her father is just a stranger. Such disillusionment with a bad parent is much less painful to a young adult than to the sensitive teenager from the Latvian film. The important thing in Khail’s filmis a political background, life full of violence and dramatic choices.

The story of a Kurd-Swiss girl is a typical road-movie. Another story that might be defined as such comes from Lebanon. Tramontane is a Lebanese-French coproduction with the participation of Quatar and United Arab Emirates. It was written and directed by Vatche Boulghourjian, a Lebanese filmmake. This time we have a young blind man who travels across Lebanon searching for his birth certificate and, in fact, looking for his self-identity. The consequences of a tragic childhood come to light when he finds out that the people who were supposed to be his parents are not his family. The political and cultural background is also important in this story. Tramontane received the main award for the best film.

The complicated relations between parents and their children are shown in at least two more pictures: the Italian-French film Worldly Girl (La Ragazza del Mondo) by Marco Danieli and the Croatian-Danish production Quit Staring atMy Plate (Ne gledaj mi u plijat) by Hana Jusic. In both movies the main characters are very young women, who grew up quickly, but still seem to be stuck in their childhood.

The above mentioned worldly girl is a very young woman torn between a group of religious fanatics and a group of small criminals. Her parents are devoted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses community and use a sort of emotional blackmail when trying to keep their two daughters very close to the rules of their group. But the older daughter falls in love with a boy involved in the world of drug dealers. In this very well told story that might recall Romeo and Juliette, the old tragedy seems to end in the same dramatic way again. Happily the girl makes the only sensible decision choosing life without religious fanatics or criminals. Danieli got the prize for the best director and his actor, Michele Riondino was recognized as the best actor.

The story of the Croatian girl is just another case of an adult child strongly dependent on parents. This girl is hopelessly dominated by her aggressive father. When the family dictator has a stroke and is completely bedridden, the girl tries to be as free as possible and suddenly finds out that too much freedom is not much better than no freedom. She’s just a 24-year- old victim of a childhood spent without friendly parents, an adult child who doesn’t know what to do with herself. Mia Petricevic was awarded the best actress award for this role.

We had here a few stories about people whose childhood was not happy. How many more stories will be told about bad, irresponsible parents? Will they change anything? Let’s hope for the best and make films!

Edited by Yael Shuv