A scene from Mutants, a German feature about a young girl alienated by her soulless suburban surroundings.
It is rare today for a childrens movie to garner anywhere near the kind of praise afforded a serious film for adults. This years Finding Nemo was an exception, but it, too, received a degree of patronizing attention: it was impressive because it surpassed the traditional expectations of a kids movie. Which begs the question, why are our expectations for kids movies so low?
Thats just the question that a downtown couple, Eric Beckman and Emily Shapiro, asked themselves. They were tired of taking their children to movies that were high on budget and low on substance. They were also weary of sitting through them themselves. Disneys canned happy endings and generic story lines just werent cutting it.
The result? The annual New York International Childrens Film Festival which gets underway this weekend at venues around the city. Downtown screenings begin next weekend at the Regal Union Square.
Theres a vital independent film movement for adults out there, but nothing even remotely resembling that for young people, says Beckman, who works at a technology company when hes not revolutionizing childrens entertainment. Sure, you can make a fabulous film for kids for $60 million, but theres so much riding on the expensive ones that theres very little risk involved.
In 1997 the couple organized a showcase of 12 short, independent films. The theater attracted so many people 600 that a fire marshal had to intervene. Attendance over the years has increased; this year, organizers expect more than 18,000 people over the course of the festival, which runs March 5-27.
Beckman grew up on the lower East side, attending school at PS 63 and then PS 41 in the West Village. After high school he moved away, but returned in his late 20s. The reason: a rent stabilized apartment. His aunt who lived in a two-bedroom with balcony on Bleecker and Mercer, was moving to Great Neck and offered it to him.
A scene from Lune, a French short film that explores the painful trials of a foster child.
He was living in San Francisco at the time and had just met Shapiro who was finishing her last year of school. But the lure of a rent-stabilized apartment was impossible to ignore and he grabbed it. He soon found a job and Shapiro joined him a year later. Today the couple have three children, Willa, 10, Milo, 8 and Romy 14 months. The older kids attend PS 234 in Tribeca, Willa in 5th grade and Miles in 3rd.
They moved to the Solaire Building in Battery Park City this past October because they liked being near the water. The family, who used to live on Broadway and Maiden Lane, was over there all the time anyway playing at Rockefeller Park and at the Penny Park at the north end near Warren St. In fact, the Penny Park sculptures along with the dodo at Rockefeller Park were created by sculptor Tom Otterness, the sculptor of the film festivals award statuette.
As for the films, viewers are in for an experience that rivals Cannes and Sundance in diversity of topic, form, genre, and national origin. There are films from Latvia, Denmark, Israel, and Australia; they use animation, live action, clay animation, and puppets; they range from two minutes to feature length; they are made by novice filmmakers and veterans like Spirited Aways Hayao Miyazaki, whose Porco Rosso kicks off the festival.
But it is the tone of the festivals films that is most astonishing: children will not see the megaplex fluff to which theyre accustomed. Beckman and Shapiro choose movies with passion and purpose, movies that will expose children to different cultures and lifestyles, often at the expense of an uplifting conclusion.
This year, attendees can look forward to movies like Mutants, a German feature about a young girl alienated by her soulless suburban surroundings and Lune, a French short film that explores the painful trials of a foster child. Screening sessions are divided by target age group and afterward the filmmakers conduct question and answer sessions with audience members.
Shapiro asserts that children are surprisingly drawn to such weighty portrayals.
They are relieved to see something different, not formulaic, she said. These films are so much truer to the feelings that kids have, unlike mainstream movies that try to make light of everything. Kids have real emotions, including sadness, and it helps them process those feelings to see them portrayed in a realistic way.
The festival has become proof that children understand and appreciate heavier films. According to Beckman, every year the childrens choice award the top prize in the festival, decided by votes from those under 18 goes to a more daring film than the parents choice.
The first year, the children selected a very sad documentary about a child goddess in Nepal who is a captive of her fairy tale-like existence, he said. I remember a four-year-old writing on his ballot, I liked it because it was sad, and that really resonated with me. he said.
This novel approach to film for children has attracted the attention of media and industry insiders alike; this years star-studded jury its the first time the festival has formed a jury includes Susan Sarandon, film director Gus Van Sant, and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.
It has also attracted the attention of studio honchos. Included in the over 1,000 films submitted by filmmakers for this years festival were some by Disney (including Porco Rosso), the company that makes much of the lighter fare that prompted Beckman and Shapiro to form the festival in the first place.
The Disney films we show here are not typical Disney, Beckman said. The movies we show here redefine film for kids. Theyre not about teddy bears or lollipops or picnics.
Launching an independent film scene is no easy task. When her husband suggested it on a whim, Shapiro told him he was out of his mind. But six years and countless posters, postcards, and screenings later, both recognize that they have tapped into a true phenomenon.
The response is so overwhelming. Beckman said, It confirms for us that we are on the right track.
Tickets and schedules are available on the New York International Childrens Film Festival website, www.gkids.com or by calling 212-349-0330