Programming for Children with an International View:
The Berlin Kinderfilmfest


Just hours before the International Jury of the Berlin Film Festival presented its Berlin Golden Bear Award to Patrice Chereau's INTIMACY, young cinema fans and adults packed the 900-seat Zoo Palast Theater to await the announcement and screening of the winners of another section of the Berlinale, the Kinderfilmfest. In one corner of the foyer, seven and eight year olds chanted the title of their favorite film. In another, a group of girls mimicked the hairstyles of the character in their favorite and the adults in the shoulder to shoulder crowd appeared as thrilled as the kids. This was the fourth time I had been part of such an enthusiastic audience at the closing night of the Kinderfilmfest. This year was especially rewarding because they came to hear the results of two juries' labors, on one of which I had the honor to serve.

Like its parent festival, The Kinderfilmfest is one of the world's leading critical forums. For 24 years the Berlinale's Kinderfilmfest has been developing discerning viewers of international film programmable for children. Two juries judge the films: an eleven member Kinder Jury of children aged 11 to 14, which awards the Crystal Bear Award and the International Jury which awards a 15,000DM prize. The Kinder Jury is selected primarily through audience questionnaires from past festivals, and similarly, the International Jury is selected from participants-programmers, writers, filmmakers and producers-of past festivals. Contrary to what might be expected, the juries watch the films during the regular festival screening times along with the audiences. The festival's director of 18 years, Renate Zylla, has maintained a model that has influenced festivals worldwide including America's most established children's film festival, The Chicago International Children's Film Festival and The Children's Filmfest at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

The language barriers are managed with ease through another innovation of the Kinderfilmfest. Films are screened in their original language with subtitles and simultaneous translation, a technique that preserves the integrity of the film and offers the audience exposure to multiple languages. This year, the audiences heard 17 languages from 23 countries. In another remarkable endeavor, the audience included blind children when the German production, "The Nuisance" provided a visual description of scenes coordinated in the dialogue and transmitted over headsets.

Over the week, I came to recognize faces of the many families and school groups in the audience. One in particular, 11 year-old Felix, a German boy also fluent in English and Spanish, became my "informant" from the under side of twenty and his father, mother, sister and friends became a sort of "Nielson" family for me.

The Kinder Jury awarded its Crystal Bear to director John Hay's THERE'S ONLY ONE JIMMY GRIMBLE which tells the story of a boy from a working-class, single-parent home who, with a little magic, learns to believe in himself, on and off the soccer field. Not just a boy's film at all, Jimmy's mom and a young female "pugilist" are also complex, original characters. With performances from notable actors, Robert Carlyle, Ray Winston, Gina McKee and Lady Jane Lapotaire, the film easily entertained everyone around me, especially Felix.

The International Jury awarded its first prize to NAGISA, directed by Masura Konuma. The film is a portrait of a girl in the early 1960's and her apprehensive examination and exploration of adulthood through the events of her twelfth summer in a Japanese seaside town. Each scene is constructed and photographed economically and recognizes the beauty in the everyday—what some might describe as quintessentially Japanese styling—the film tries to be nothing else. It was purely the adept and sensitive vision of an artist. The film's rhythm required the viewer to adjust to the subtle pace of Nagisa's life, leaving me with a sense of preteen impatience at times. The story is by no means pedagogical, a frequent fault of films made for young audiences. We learn from Nagisa as we watch her carefully tabulate her earnings from her aunt's cafe for a record player when we see her summon responsibility for the frail boy who becomes her swimming student. Equal care is taken by the director who, in effect, nestles the young actress in scenes which allows her to respond uncontrivedly, giving a true, yet sometimes unexpressive performance—but that's a conceivable twelve year old. It is not a film that is apologetic for the difficulties of childhood or that tries to solve grand problems. It is a pure examination of a time in a girl's life that by nature is full of events, quandaries, and new hairstyles. Above all, NAGISA is a film made with meticulous craftsmanship and sensitivity, without an excessive budget. If we're looking for a pedagogical note, that's one.

The American/Welsh co-production, THE TESTIMONY OF TALIESIN JONES, won a Special Mention from the Kinder Jury, who stated, "We found the film's moving and profound exploration of belief particularly convincing." During the delicate days immediately following the break-up of his parents, 12 year-old Taliesin Jones witnesses a successful healing session performed by a trusted friend. He is moved to practice it himself on his schoolmates and struggles with his zeal at home and at school. His principal, though, sees the intelligence in his quest and offers some structure to the boy's fervor. Without much background, though, the film asks us to bring to it our understanding of the greater commonplace of mysticism in Welsh life. Ultimately, most of the adult jury could not support this film despite fine performances from veteran U.K. actors Jonathan Pryce, Geraldine James and young John Paul McLeod. On the contrary, I found the story was unique and a respectable exploration of a likely response to such controversial information, the occurrence of which in an adolescent's life is very likely. The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Rhidian Brook.

The International Jury awarded Special Mention to the Italian film, IL CIELO CADE, (The Sky is Falling) by twin brothers Andrea and Antonio Frazzi. The true story of author Lorenza Mazzetti was adapted for screen by veteran screenwriter Suso Cecci D'Amico who with the masterful direction of the Frazzi brothers and performances Isabella Rosellini and Jeroen Krabbe`, recreates life in rural Tuscany as a partly-Jewish family faces the mounting threat of the war. The points of view are evenly shared between two adopted sisters and other family members as they watch their daily events and curiosities gradually become overtaken by the presence of the German army in their house; but ultimately, it is through the girls' eyes that we witness a harsh but non-graphic scene. My "informant" Felix felt the scene just referred to was too harsh for kids. His mother told me that Germany's WWII history had yet to be discussed in school at seventh grade. "We will have a discussion now," Felix's mother told me.

Both the adult and kinder juries agreed that the claymation film by Richard Goleszowsky's HOOVES OF FIRE was the hands-down winner of the short film competition. Once again, like the other BBC productions, "Creature Comforts" and "Wallace and Gromit", the English wit and parody of human behavior animated in, this time, Santa's reindeer during preseason training or "The Reindeer Games." The characters are full of insightful subtleties and hilarious detail. This one should get to the U.S..

The Kinder Jury found the story of a blind boy imagining colors and ascribing them to the days of the week in O BRANCO from Brazil worthy of Special Mention. The grown-up jury felt that one fell short in it's craft but also found the storyline refreshingly original. Instead, we felt a six-minute film from Cuba, LA NOTAFINAL, by Maite Rivera Carbonell was a gem—a single idea elegantly crafted. The filmmaker showed us a brilliantly photographed slice of Havana through a search of the perfect bottle to complete a boy's bottle flute which he plays into wonderful closing music. This was the first film that said to me without reservation, "This is beauty and economy, art on a screen or in a museum. This is for children and everyone."

By design, the two juries never communicate about the films before the awards ceremony, making the opposing outcome very exciting. In this refreshing array of stories offered us in the program—magic, poetry, skillfully insightful visions of childhood questions, dreams—I see that the two juries were most often divided by knowledge of the filmmaking craft. This is also by design. It is my hope that awareness of this critical forum offered by the Kinderfilmfest will encourage more American competitors. Ultimately, by this increase in original work for the children's market, we might see a broadening in programming both in the cinema and on television. Perhaps even the bigger studios might consider subtitling children's films like European distributors pay for American subtitling.

For a kids' eye view of the festival written by former kinderjury members, log onto kinderfilmfest.net@kindercampus.de