Child's Play

An Ecumenical Juror Reflects on the 2015 Zlin Film Festival. By Douglas P. Fahleson
Zlin is a small city of less than 80,000 people located in the southeast part of the Czech Republic.  Famous as the headquarters for the Tomáš Baťa shoe empire, it has grown into what is today a modern and urban reflection of the Czech Republic.  And for one week each year it literally doubles in population as it plays host to the International Film Festival for Children and Youth.
More than 120,000 people attended this year’s 55th edition (May 29th to June 4th), which is considered the oldest and largest children’s and youth film festival in the world.  Its goal is the “presentation of contemporary world film for children and youth in the Czech Republic” and offers films for all age groups.
Coinciding with the national celebration of Children’s Day on June 1st, the festival is a natural progression of what was once known as the Film Harvest, a celebration of Czech and Slovak films that began in the 1930’s.  Zlin is also home to one of the Czech Republic’s prominent film studios as well as the Grand Cinema, one of Central Europe’s largest cinemas.
This year I was fortunate to be part of a three person Ecumenical jury (hailing from Ireland, Germany, and Czech Republic) consisting of two members from SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication) and one from INTERFILM (International Interchurch Film Organization).  Over a five-day period we watched and evaluated a total of 18 films that comprised the Official Competition films for Youth and the Official Competition films for Children.
Our jury’s task was to choose the film that best represented our special ecumenical criteria, which covered a wide range of aspects including artistic quality, exhibition of Christian responsibility, conveyance of the message of the Gospel, inventive expression, and universal impact.
This 2015 version of the festival showcased 363 films from more than 50 countries and included 175 film premieres.  There was a true festival atmosphere in all of Zlin with countless activities occurring everywhere for children of all ages including stage plays, concerts, arts and crafts, and numerous other playful activities.  
The whole country supports this festival as evidenced by the attendance of various Czech government officials including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Culture, and various other Commissioners, Ambassadors and Governors.
This is a true international film festival with this year’s Official Competition films originating from 15 countries.  The overall theme apparent from this year’s competitive slate of films seemed to be that of a young protagonist from a broken home that is forced into adulthood a bit too quickly, leaving innocence and childhood behind, in order to care for or teach an adult an important life lesson.  Parents were often depicted as they often are in real life – either divorced and at odds with each other, as single parent households, or as parents that are disengaged and generally uninvolved in their children’s lives.  
We began the week with several hero journey films such as The Seven Ravens (Alice Nellis, Czech Republic/Slovakia, 2015), which brought to life a Czech fairy tale in which an accidental spell turns seven brothers into ravens, Birds of Passage (Oliver Ringer, Belgium, 2015), where a disabled child has to secretly care for a duckling that has come into and out of her care, Celestial Camel (Jury Feting, Russia, 2015), in which a young boy’s love, passion, and effort help to reunite a family, Boychoir (Francois Girard, USA, 2014), a suddenly motherless boy with a gift for singing rises through the ranks of a competitive boarding school, and we finished with The Road Within (Gren Wells, USA, 2015), a comical look at psychological disorders as three patients escape from a treatment center for a magical road trip towards healing.  
Along the way we also experienced films of pain – such as One Night in Oslo (Eric Svensson, Norway, 2014), a hedonistic look at a group of racially diverse teenagers on Norway’s Constitution Day and My Skinny Sister (Lenken Sanna, Sweden/Germany, 2015), highlighting a family as it deals with the pain of a daughter’s fight with anorexia -- as well as films of healing – for example, Paper Planes (Robert Connolly, Australia 2014), in which a young boy finds solace in his flight competition to bring redemption to his family, The Beat Beneath My Feet (John Willimas, UK, 2014), a tale of a young man who finds an unnatural mentor to further his interest in music, Painkillers (Tessa Schram, Netherlands, 2014), a young man’s journey of atonement as he balances music, a love interest, and his mother’s illness, and The Singing Pond (Indika Ferdinando, Sri Lanka, 2014), where a community working together achieves more than the sum of their individual contributions.
Our jury met on several occasions to discuss the merits of each of the eighteen films.  After long deliberation on the final day our jury chose to award the Prize for the Ecumenical Jury to the film Behaviour (Cuba, 2014), directed by Ernesto Daranas.  This film is an honest look at the bitter reality of growing up in contemporary Havana. It is a well-constructed, multi-layered film that shows how one person's conviction, strength, and love are able to conquer the brutal reality of an uncaring system determined to tear an 11-year old boy from the only way of life that he knows.  It’s a generous story of the human spirit and projects our ability to maintain hope and dignity while transcending the forceful truths of a modern society in flux.
The Jury also elected to give a Commendation to Mina Walking (Afghanistan/Canada, 2015), directed by Yosef Baraki.  Set amidst the chaos of modern Kabul, this documentary-style tale highlights in dramatic fashion the incredible strength and resilience of one young girl as she resolves to care for her father and grandfather at the expense of her own education, innocence, and youth.  Her desperate journey ends in sadness as she chooses to become one of society's faceless.
The highlight and culmination of this festival, for me, was the opportunity to view films in Zlin’s Grand Cinema in concert with nearly a thousand children as fellow audience members.  Their collective energy added significantly to this moviegoer’s experience.  They yelled, screamed and laughed at all the right places and strongly reminded me of why films are best watched in a theater.
We humans all have something in common – each one of us was a child at one time.  These films refreshingly remind us of our individual and our collective journeys in life.