Volume 16 • Issue 40 | March 5 - 11, 2004

Downtown couple revolutionizing children’s film

New York International Children’s Film Festival begins this weekend

By Danielle Stein

A scene from “Mutants,” a German feature about a young girl alienated by her soulless suburban surroundings.

It is rare today for a children’s movie to garner anywhere near the kind of praise afforded a “serious” film for adults. This year’s “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?
That’s 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. Disney’s canned happy endings and generic story lines just weren’t cutting it.

The result? The annual New York International Children’s Film Festival which gets underway this weekend at venues around the city. Downtown screenings begin next weekend at the Regal Union Square.

“There’s 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 he’s not revolutionizing children’s entertainment. “Sure, you can make a fabulous film for kids for $60 million, but there’s so much riding on the expensive ones that there’s 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 20’s. 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 festival’s 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 Away’s Hayao Miyazaki, whose ‘Porco Rosso’ kicks off the festival.

But it is the tone of the festival’s films that is most astonishing: children will not see the megaplex fluff to which they’re 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 children’s 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 year’s star-studded jury — it’s 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 year’s 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. They’re 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 Children’s Film Festival website, www.gkids.com or by calling 212-349-0330


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