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Beyond the Golden Elephant

The recently concluded International Children's Film Festival in Hyderabad brought into sharp focus several questions regarding this genre of film-making. K. HARIHARAN writes on the event and the future of children's films.

"Saroja", a story of two friends from rival camps, was one of the entrants.

THE curtains came down on the 12th International Children's film festival and several uneasy questions remained unanswered. Should films made for children be judged by adults? Should children not be involved in the actual making of those films? Why are mainstream film producers all over the world so reluctant to make Children's films? Why are film exhibitors unwilling to give their theatres for the screening of such films? These questions and many more were thrown at film-makers and the organisers by children at the open forums and press meets set up at the main screening complex.

There was Ms. Ingeborg Torerson from the Norwegian Film Institute who said that that she has been making programmes for children for the past 30 years and every new project was a special challenge. A child got up and asked whether there was any way to get rid of the irritating English subtitles and make it easier for them to understand the films. The adults were certainly caught on the wrong foot and tried to explain that cinema had a universal language, which could overcome language barriers. But that was not going to wish away the irritation of reading and watching the films at the same time. Was dubbing or para-dubbing going to be a solution?

Ms. Sauvo Tini Aila, a film-maker from Finland felt that her animation films woven around animals and traditional tales could be a part of the solution. But would it not narrow the options for a more dynamic Children's cinema? Would it not end up trivialising and over-simplifying human issues that the narrative was presuming to metaphor? And yet while watching "Kurikou and the Sorceress," a 48-minute animation film that I consider the best film in this festival, I saw how one could tell a very complex story in the most engrossing manner. Rooted in the brilliant painting tradition of Henri Rousseau and his Noble Savage, the film explores the story of a tiny black boy trying to come to grips with what makes someone evil and more still, what makes the others believe that it is evil in the first place. This French film by Michel Ocelot won the hearts of every child in the theatre and the sub-titles simply disappeared!

Quite in the same vein was Garin Nugroho, a film-maker and member of the jury from Indonesia who told me how the epic of the Ramayana cut through all religious barriers in his country and evolved subtle variations as it moved from one island to another. Strangely, few films in the festival dealt with mythology or even fairy tales. And the most refreshing and innovative was "Ra-Tim-Bum Castle," the big-budget Brazilian film, which could teach Disney studios a few lessons in creative cinematography and some wonderful special effects. Despite the awful projection quality at the main screening venue, this film kept the viewers spellbound.

One nation that had the biggest contingent of films at the festival was Iran. With around a dozen films, both shorts and features, they made a formidable presence. Their ascent on the international screen, which began in the early 1990s with Abbas Kirostami and his delectable handling of sensitive human issues, has unfortunately now become monotonously unbearable. Although many film buffs would feel scandalised, I maintain that stylistically every Iranian film looks so similar in terms of lensing, lighting, the static telephoto frames and the arid horizontal undulating landscapes, that one has to virtually wrack one's brain to recall one story from another. Is this a case of a community running out of ideas or does one see the cold hand of the State-controlled apparatus finding the perfect formula for garnering awards at European festivals? Although their films are touted as anti-establishment works, watching films like "The Boy and The Soldier" or "Willow and Wind," one gets the awful feeling that a Big Brother is watching over the film aesthetic and seeing to it that it does not ask too many embarrassing questions.

The best part of the Golden Elephant International Children's film festival was to come into contact with hundreds of children who crunched their way through hundreds of films over the six days spread over a dozen theatres all over Hyderabad. They sat through Danish and Greek features, French and Russian animations, sci-fi thrillers and even serious tragedies. The biggest eye-opener for me was to realise that these children were the most generous when it came to appreciating the films and it took a lot of arty boredom to really get them to boo and hoot a film. And when they booed the ceiling would almost come off! And when it came to questioning us film-makers they were equally forthright!

There was one young girl who stood up boldly and asked "Why do you people want to make Children's films when you know that there are so many obstacles in the screening of such films? Is it not a waste of time? Do you film-makers really make any money? Or are you all in it just for the sake of getting some acclaim and fame? If you call the commercial cinema money-minded for not making enough Children's films, why don't you accuse the government too for not making any effort to propagate Children's cinema?" And mind you, this barrage of questions came in the same order and if I had not requested her to pause with folded hands she would have continued. All I could say was that it was indeed unfortunate that the mainstream cinema did not see the commercial logic in the inclusion of more child characters in their films and the government's interest in creating any sort of infrastructure for any kind of alternative cinema was far from satisfactory. Strangely, there was the complete absence of any kind of corporate sponsorship. One would expect chocolate and toy companies to utilise such an event for their promotional activities. Is there any ban on their participation? Officials on the other hand were totally tight-lipped on the relationship between the Children's Film Society who are the organisers of the festival and the government of Andhra Pradesh who are the main sponsors. When our answers could not satisfy the children I had to admit that maybe the world was waiting for the younger generation to take over the reins and produce films for themselves. And what with digital video technology becoming so user friendly such a possibility does not in any case, seem to be too far away.

In this connection, talking to Dr. Vahid Vahed, the director of CINEWEST multimedia from Australia, was illuminating. He runs a centre Down Under for disadvantaged children to make video programmes and record their feelings about their parents and society at large. Set up in 1998, they have by now produced around 600 films with youngsters ranging from age group four to 22 and which last from 30 seconds to 90 minutes. A small festival that he organises there has a jury consisting only of children!

All said and done, there was a crying need for more public and corporate involvement in such festivals. It was very obvious that depending on the government to provide solutions for such an important area as making films for and about children was going to be an exercise in futility. On the other hand the existing television networks were conspicuous by their absence. Come to think of it, not a single television channel exists in the country specialising in such programmes barring the recently launched Chennai-based English channel called Splash. Considering the national response to this need, one is indeed prompted to ask whether children should be addressed as a separate segment at all.

So far I had held the view that the real meaning of Children's cinema meant involving children from the age group of four to 14 as the main protagonists in the narrative. After sitting though six days of films made for children at the recently concluded Hyderabad film festival, I would like to add one more clause, namely, that they should also be written well with a concern to engage the viewers in a dynamic manner. Several films were structured on typical insipid narrative styles, which spelt the doom for all those so-called art films, which crowded film festivals in the 1950s and 1960s. This is certainly a call for good writers to come forth and write imaginative scripts for such films. After all it is only good story-telling that keeps any film alive!

Postscript: The awards for the 12th Golden Elephant Festival were announced and the questions that were raised at the beginning of the festival continued to haunt the Lalit Kala Thoranam, which was packed with hundreds of children. Should adults judge films made for children? It was amazing that the awards given by the jury consisting of children were in sharp contrast to the ones by the adults. "Thomas The Falconer", an enjoyable entertaining film from Hungary was the children's favourite while "Children of Petroleum", a depressing film about the struggles of Iranian children won the adult's award. That Iranian film could have won an award at any of the serious arty festivals in Europe. Should a children's film award have any constructive guidelines? Should it not be necessary for an adult jury to view a "children's" film from a child's point of view? Considering today's global scenario, should not positive and hopeful films get pre-eminence over those that are more serious and morose?

The writer is an alumni of FTII, Pune and has made "Thangaraj Enge," the first children's film in Tamil. He has also set up the first and only Indian film studies department abroad, at the University of Pennsylvania.

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