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Depth of Field: Big Girls and Little Heroes

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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007

Little Big Shots: Melbourne’s International Film Festival for Kids
June 6-11 2007
ACMI Cinemas, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia



It was the first day of the festival, first morning, first film, and Marcella Bidinost was standing in a spotlight asking if anyone here understood Hebrew. Yes! shouted part of her audience. Woo! Yeah! We do! The boys who were shouting looked about fourteen years old. Some of them—the ones whose hair I could see in the light from the screen—were wearing teased mullets. You knew they were from well-off families, middle class at least, because no one, no matter how hard they banter and snicker, can look seriously tough in a teased mullet.


What had their teachers brought them to see, these students from Bialik College in Melbourne’s east? They were here to watch a movie called Little Heroes. “One of Israel’s first feature films for kids,” explained the programme. Little Heroes is the story of a telepathic migrant girl, a half-orphan boy, a genially retarded teenager, and a squinting kibbutz kid who looks like Rick Moranis at the age of six. The children are independent and strong, fine-feeling without being saintly (although the girl comes close—many shots of her staring into the distance, eyes pale with contemplation), and they neither reject the adults nor lean on them excessively. There is comedy and danger. There are ostriches and a car crash. This is an adventure film with a good sense of balance. It didn’t make a bad start to a festival.

Little Big Shots runs annually for six days, three for schools, three for the wider public. It’s the largest international film festival for kids in Australia. Melbourne has had a film festival for adults since 1951, but prior to 2005 there had never really been one dedicated to those among us whose parents don’t want them watching nudity, gore, and Lars von Trier comedies. Brief seasons of independent family films were sometimes screened during the holidays (I remember a friend’s father taking us all to see one of them on a summer’s day in a cellar-like cinema, somewhere at the bottom of a government building where there was a lot of concrete slab) but nothing as organised, official and regular as this. Nothing with a programme quite as glossy, or sponsors quite so joyfully prominent or cinemas quite so large and undungeonlike, as this.


Almost half of the films are Australian premiers, two have been nominated for Oscars, and 25 of them are made by children themselves. This is important. One of the festival’s aims—stated in the publicity, and again when you talk to the people who are running it—is to show children that they can make movies themselves, that they can do more than gawk tamely at the screen, that they can be the grown-up filmmakers of the future. Being Australian they’ll make one film here and then hive off to Hollywood and direct Legally Blonde but we don’t tell them that yet. For now, they are our filmmakers. 


The festival travels. This year it’s going around Australia and then to Singapore. Marcella will go with it. Little Big Shots is partly her brain-child. She stands at the front of each session, she welcomes everyone. She is the festival’s face.


She also chooses the films. Her favourite this year is Renuka Jeyapalan’s Big Girl, a deft Canadian short about a girl who challenges her mother’s new boyfriend. “Bartender,” she grumbles at him crankily. “Loser.” There is a twist at the end. It’s a perfectly shaped short story, and one of several films here that would fit equally well into a festival aimed at adults. In 2005 the Toronto Film Festival judged it their Best Canadian Short Film; in 2006 the Children’s Jury at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival put it in second place behind Nils Mooij’s Fried Rice. Fried Rice screened here at the end of a session that included Small Ant Syndrome (Australian, funny) and Drive (live action from a North American teenager named Joseph Procopio who, going by his festival appearances, seems to be one of the world’s most prolific quality filmmakers under the age of 15).

It’s a festival free of breathless interviews and high-profile names, unless you count Disney, whose Little Match Girl left people sniffling as the lead perished in the deathly blue Russian snow, or Nickelodeon, a primary sponsor. The filmmakers who turned up for question time were all Australian. No one, it transpires, is going to fly umpteen thousand miles around the earth to discuss Het Monsterlijk Toilet, or The Monsterous Toilet, a handsome fourteen-minute Dutch short in which a girl eats a table-load of cakes and chocolates and then has to confront a cistern that growls at her.


These local filmmakers were shy, some seemed nonplussed—they had little instinct for self-promotion. The animator of Big Cat Zoo came down the front with his two co-creators, his children, both of whom were under the age of ten. Was it difficult to make the film? the audience asked.


Nah, not really, he said diffidently. The kids did most of the work. He put one hand lightly on his son’s head.


Marisa Lai was more forthcoming. She was 14, with two films in the festival. One of Marisa’s films was titled Talk to the Toys; the other was Military Sandwich. In Military Sandwich there is a funny moment with the lettuce, which I’ll leave you to discover if you ever get a chance to see it.


Why did she decide to animate talking toys? the audience asked.


Marisa said that she liked Creature Comforts and wanted to do a similar thing, but with toys. The decision made sense—animals were already taken. She grinned and brushed her hair off her cheek. The spotlight was on her and she handled it well.


Five of Little Big Shots’ child-made films came from Croatia’s Škola Animiranog Filma, an animation workshop run specifically for children. Wonderful things are done there. Their films were part-surreal without being incoherent. One of them, Rose, was entirely the work of a 13-year-old boy named Toni Zadravec, whose Water appeared in the festival last year. “He draws above his age group,” Marcella said before the screening, and it’s true, he does.


Storytelling and jokes are not the preserve of adults. Nor are they the preserve of countries with an excess of money. The film that got the biggest laugh was a computer animation from Zimbabwe, Moondance, while the United States’ Camp Lazlo: Treehugger was received with plain stares. Lazlo was flip, smart, noisy, and graphically stylised, with a pedigree that stretched backwards through Ren and Stimpy to Roger Ramjet and the UPA. Moondance was a series of simple visual jokes built around a giraffe. After sitting in on Little Big Shots, I wonder if marketers who say that kids won’t watch anything unless it’s edgy and hip aren’t thinking more wishfully than realistically. Funny animals tripping over themselves seem to do the job just as well.


Sad films work too. People were attentive during The Little Match Girl and quiet for Big Girl‘s poignant finale. Come to think of it, girls turned up a lot in these films. Girls brandished plungers at toilets, girls poked dangerous suitcases (Miriam Plays Hide and Seek), girls befriended girls who were different (Sirah), girls conducted interviews with other girls (Children of Nomads), girls survived natural disasters (Ayla the Tsunami Girl), girls built aeroplanes (Lolly’s Box), and, in Marta and her Flying Grandfather, a girl stubbornly tried to cure her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s. (Lovely Marta manages to make the grandfather likeable even after we’ve seen him throw a senile fit, very frightening and inexplicable to his granddaughter, with whom we are asked to identify. At the end of the film all of the bad adults turn over a new leaf and become good. I saw a wonderful Tempest once; it ended like that too).



There were plenty of boys (Wander, The Big Race, Frankie’s Story, Drive, Dobli, etc) but the resilience of the girls was more noticeable, perhaps because it doesn’t always carry through to adult productions. If you’re sick of watching films in which every female character is scripted and cast with the male audience in mind then you should try a children’s movie. It might cheer you up. Try The Time-Out Chair, possibly the neatest little fuck-you to authority ever filmed. The lead character is a silent girl with long brown hair.  Nobody gets hurt; nobody needs to, and the ending is funny.


The other thing I’ve realised, after listening to audiences of adults and children, is just how much rubbish the grown-ups talk. “This film comes from Zimbabwe,” a mother told her daughter next to me, but the film came from Madagascar. A father, trying to figure out the nationality of Marta and her Flying Grandfather, saw a .de at the end of a web address in the credits and said that it must be Danish. Oh kids, kids. Don’t be fooled by our size, our bossiness, the mysterious languages we confidently pretend to recognise. If only you knew how little we know, you’d never trust us again.

Talk to the Toys, by Marisa Lai (Australia, 2006)


Wander, by Joshua Clark (USA 2006)


Small Ant Syndrome, by Anne-Marie Denham (Australia, 2004)


The Lollipop Tree Wish, by Olivia Allen-Wickler (USA, 2006)
Lollipop Tree Wish



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