The struggles of European teen song contestants strike a chord in 'Sounds Like Teen Spirit.'

A Children's Film Festival Finds Inspiration for All Ages

Gianmaria Franchini September 24, 2010

Children navigate life lessons with grace and determination that belie their age in a film called Sounds Like Teen Spirit. British filmmaker Jamie Johnson’s documentary about the Junior Eurovision Song Contest is part of the carefully curated NY/SF International Children's Film Festival program, and the film makes a subtle point about childhood that's evident in the festival as a whole: It's not always easy to tell where childhood ends and adulthood begins.

The Children’s Festival, a result of the first bi-coastal collaboration between the San Francisco Film Society and the New York International Children's Film Festival, opens Friday with a ‘Party Mix’ of shorts and Johnson’s film at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema. Films appealing to youth because of their fantasy or pure-entertainment quotients are part of the mix, but the festival is about films that are made well, and that is an ageless standard. 

“We are presenting young audiences the same range of diversity, beauty, humor and passion that you can find in films for adults,” Eric Beckman, President of New York International Children's Film Festival, said. “Filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki, Michel Ocelot, Nina Paley, and Tomm Moore are not making ‘children's movies,’–they are creating wonderful, richly nuanced cinematic works that can be experienced by a wide range of audiences. These are brilliant films, period.”

Moore’s Academy Award–nominated film The Secret of Kells, screening Sunday along with an interactive presentation and a Q&A session with the filmmaker himself, is a case in point for the festival organizers. At the center of the story there is a child, and despite some darker themes drawn in part from Celtic mythology, the tone is kept magically upbeat. The animation, with swaths of sweeping color and exquisite details, is absorbing.

The festival organizers have not forgotten about the child audience itself, the way children like to be simply amused or the value that exposure to films with positive messages can have for them. The festival’s opening night ‘Party Mix’ offers a collection of Academy Award–nominated shorts, including a new Wallace and Gromit murder mystery cooked up in a bread bakery, A Matter of Loaf and Death. An education and school outreach program includes a discussion about girls in the media by the Head of the Hamlin School and a presentation by a marine biologist for the Sea Turtle Restoration program after a screening of Turtle: The Incredible Journey.

“We are not necessarily looking for educational value, but there definitely is an element of awareness—cultural or otherwise—that develops from watching the films,” said Joanne Parsont, Director of Education at the San Francisco Film Society.

“We want the audience to get something positive out of the viewing experience rather than be blandly entertained with derivative narratives, or even excessive violence or pervasive scatological humor. Parents are appreciative that they can have something to talk to their children about," said Parsont. "The beauty of it is having a diversity of subjects and stories and original and inventive films that young audiences would not normally get a chance to see in the theaters.”

The notion of imparting a message with value does emerge from the program. “This is not Social Studies class. These are enormously entertaining, award-winning films. But that is not to say that audiences won’t learn anything!” Beckman said. “Summer Wars and Mia & the Migoo are each so visually unique from mainstream animated movies that they open your mind to new graphic possibilities of cinema. Sit through one of our short film programs and you see wildly different films from different countries. The sum total is an entertaining and enriching experience.”

Mia & the Migoo and Nick Stringer’s documentary Turtle: The Incredible Journey are concerned with the importance of environmental stewardship. The animated short Aston’s Stones portrays a loyal dog who has the utmost compassion for even a family of "orphaned" rocks, and Marcus Rosenmüller’s Little White Lies exposes the big consequences small lies can have.

Indian director and cinematographer Santosh Sivan’s Tahaan will strike a resonant chord with its cinematography and tender, subtle treatment of some heavy themes. The film feels like an earth-toned fairytale. Set in a conflict-ravaged but still beautiful Kashmir with remote mountain lakes, Sufi singers and faceless but ubiquitous soldiers, the film follows its eponymous protagonist—a headstrong, charismatic boy with unyielding affection for his pet donkey—through war, capturing moments of innocence and revealing moral ambiguity. Sivan, who has garnered some major accolades (particularly for 1996’s Halo 1999's The Terrorist), utilizes an adventurous pace. The film is as much an homage to childhood as a look beyond it, which fits well in a children's festival that means to engage all ages.