Insights Into Childhood

Report on the Zlín Film Festival 2016. By Astrid Skov-Jakobsen

The Zlín film festival has since 1961 been showcasing cinematic portrayals of the joys and tribulations of childhood and youth. The relatively small city of Zlín, located in the southern part of the Czech Republic, truly comes alive during this festival. Besides the deliciously broad film programme it was quite an experience to see the public spaces of the city overtaken by music and theatre performances, making the Zlín Film festival an even broader celebration of art made for children and young people.

It is easy to be optimistic about the future of cinema when looking at this year’s selection of films in the main competitions for children’s and youth film. Besides celebrating the new, the festival also offered a retrospective on the old cinema masters of the Czech Republic. This year marked the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the Zlín film studios, where for instance the boundless imagination and innovating talents of director and animator Karel Zeman (1910-1989) came to fruition.

It was therefore quite fitting that it was the fabulous Baron Munchausen that opened the festival by flying in on a cannonball, setting off a week of film celebration for adventurous filmmakers- and viewers of the present day. The Baron being a much-loved character magically brought to life on screen in Zeman’s film Baron Prášil (1961) (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). So it was that the past and present were united at this year’s Zlín Film festival and its enthused celebration of the child as a film viewer.

High quality, strong subject matters and a broader perspective on the world

As member of the ecumenical jury I had the pleasure of viewing sixteen films, eight from the main competition in children’s films and eight from the main competition for youth films, followed by the difficult task of declaring one winner amongst the many good candidates. As one jury member remarked during our final discussions: if only we were able to give seven commendations besides the main prize, but alas we were only permitted one.

The selected films came from all around of the world, treating strong subjects of a wide variety such as child poverty, grief, death, bullying, prejudice and teen pregnancy. These subjects were dealt with sensitivity and with a moving degree of raw honesty. The international perspective provided by a worldwide film selection from countries as varied as South Korea, Ethiopia, Sweden, Iran, and Israel to mention but a few, gave the young Czech audiences and the international guests insights into childhood, as it is perceived in different cultures, but also left a poignant impression of childhood as a universal human experience.

Common for all films in the selection was a great respect for the importance of childhood. The world of the child was never made to appear trivial, instead legitimizing the feelings of the child and their distinct experiences of the world surrounding them. The absence of parents, sibling bonds and the dreams of friendship were recurring themes in this year’s programme especially amongst the children films’ selection. The child’s need for care, both to receive and give, lead to films dealing with heavy subject matters in a refined manner. Amongst the youth film selection it was in particular the dream of ‘making it’ that dominated. The films circled around the difficulties of finding your way through life, realizing your talents, and breaking through the walls that society may have built around you without your consent. Classic youth film themes, dealt with in often-original ways.

And the winners are…

Together with Delphine François from France and jury-president Vít Poláček from the Czech Republic, I was tasked with the responsibility of awarding this year’s ecumenical Prize to one film from either the main competition of children’s films or youth films. We chose with great consensus to award the Israeli children’s film Abulele directed by Jonathan Geva. The film centres on the young Adam, who has tragically lost his older brother a year prior to the story’s beginning. While battling with strong emotions of grief and guilt, he stumbles across the mythical creature Abulele – a big dark being with expressive and kind eyes, which appears before children in dire need of a friend. The threatening size of the creature has however made it a target of an elite military unit, hunting the Abulele as if it were a monster. Adam must protect and save his new friend from the narrow-minded and dangerous adults, whose fear of an unexplainable being have made them blind to the caring nature of the Abulele.

Abulele treats heavy subject matters in a Spielberg inspired fashion arising associations to E.T.’s ( Steven Spielberg, 1982) magical portrait of the openhearted nature of children. At the Zlín Film Festival’s closing awards ceremony it was happily revealed to us in the ecumenical jury, that our presumption that Abulele was a film with an inspiring message that also had great appeal to young audiences was confirmed to be correct. Abulele was awarded the prize from the children’s jury as well as the audience award in addition to the ecumenical prize. Abulele had clearly snuck its way into many hearts during the festival with its nuanced character portraits and an entertaining and well-structured plot. The film invites the viewer to reflect on important subjects such as grief and prejudice, while still being an entertaining and exciting watch, preserving a strong accessibility to a young audience.

After much deliberation we also chose to give a Commendation to the French youth film La vie en grand (Learn By Heart) directed by Mathieu Vadepied. Adama grows up in a tough environment marked by gang violence and illegal drug trades. With the resources he finds at his disposal, Adama does his best to help his siblings and himself to a brighter tomorrow. The film creates an uplifting portrayal of a young boy simply trying to do some good and take care of those he loves despite troubling circumstances.

Among the many interesting films from the festival it is worth mentioning the Russian film Korobka (The Pitch) featuring the directorial debut of Eduard Bordukov, which was awarded the youth jury’s prize. The drama centres on the local asphalt football pitch, where ethnic discrimination and intolerance is rampant creating disruptive tensions in the residential area between the local Russian boys and the boys with ethnic roots in the Caucasus. Korobka is a moving, extremely relevant and well-acted film with great youth appeal.

The expert juries gave their prizes respectively to the children’s film U-ri-deul (The World Of Us) from South Korea directed by Ga-eun Yoon and the Belgian youth film Keeper directed by Guillaume Senez. The World of Us offers a moving and incredibly honest portrayal of bullying amongst 10 year old girls, depicting how lonely childhood can be and how cruel children can be towards each other. Keeper is a strong and well-acted film dealing with the subject of teenage pregnancy, never turning away from the difficulty of the situation that these two young people have found themselves in.

All in all the overall conclusion from this years film festival in Zlín must be a recognition of the many interesting, moving and original films presented in the main competitions’ selections. Zlín is home to a film festival where the child’s ability to understand and delight in films with high artistic value and heart in the treatment of difficult subject matters, is respected and celebrated in a great way.