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Forever young: films about children

The inhibitions of adulthood mask creativity. No wonder grown-ups love movies about kids.

Pet project: David Bradley as Billy Casper in Ken Loach's Kes (1969). (Photo: Rex Features)

In wealthy countries, children are pampered prisoners. Their material needs are provided for, but they are told when to eat and sleep, what to do each day, where not to go. Portrayals of children in novels, cinema and paintings seldom acknowledge this imprisonment explicitly but it is the source of much of their potency and poetics. We often think that art about kids is second-rate because it is nostalgic or immature. In fact, the best of it is profoundly revealing.

I thought nothing of this when, as a boy, I was attracted to cinema like a tractor beam. In Belfast of the Seventies, where I saw my first pictures on the big screen, cinema was a stabiliser, like the little wheels we had on our bikes. I was nervy, but less so when the lights went down and the film started.

Like many people, I put cinema in my pocket and we got on with the business of growing up together. The first feature film I made as an adult, The First Movie, was about children in Kurdish Iraq seeing their first movie. For the experimental festivals I organised with Tilda Swinton (we pulled a mobile cinema from Kinlochleven, on the west coast of Scotland, to Nairn on the east, showing films in villages along the way) we stole ideas from fairy tales and santas’ grottos to try to make what we did enchanting.

Pablo Picasso said that all children are artists and that the inhibitions of adulthood mask such creativity. We should, he argued, unlearn some “grown-up” ideas: that to appear professional is always a good thing; that the amplitude of our emotions should be hidden; that life is a selling game. Picasso thought we should improvise life, ad-lib it, ride its waves like kids do. After my last project – The Story of Film: an Odyssey, a 15-hour movie history – my hunch was to do something more associative, less linear. What could be more associative and less linear than the behaviour of kids, their fleeting tantrums and triumphs?

The result, A Story of Children and Film, came about by accident. One morning after breakfast, I casually filmed, for 11 minutes, my niece and nephew playing in my flat. In that short time, they went from shy to showing off, grumpy to funny to violent. As I watched them, I realised how present-tense their lives were. They weren’t thinking of what we would do tomorrow, or did yesterday. They were letting rip, minute by minute, their emotions flowing.

The footage showed their fun, frolics and inventiveness. They were great at being in the moment – and cinema is the art of the present tense. I decided to make a film about their 11 minutes of play, building out into other movies in which children seem to revel in the present.

We edited in scenes from kids in China, Mexico, France, Denmark, Russia. Iran in the 1990s was a particularly rich hunting ground for children’s films, as were Czechoslovakia and Sweden of the 1960s and Japan of the 1930s. Iranian directors are so good at portraying children, in part because censorship limits how they can present adults. They are not allowed to show sex or much violence in their work. Instead, pictures such as Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon and Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? focus on children, their frustrations, curtailment, inventiveness and fortitude.

Often in American movies the child is heroic; in keeping with some of the central ideas in American culture, these young protagonists try to change the world. In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s character, Dorothy Gale, assembles a motley crew and becomes their leader, parent and visionary, facing down her adversary the Wicked Witch of the West, seeing through charlatans such as the eponymous wizard, and sagely showing comrades who think they are cowardly or unemotional that they are neither. In ET, Elliott has more emotional wisdom than the scientists, or his mother. He sees through the adults’ fear of the extraterrestrial, and their desire to exploit him, to the deeper truth that ET is a creature with feelings.

In Japan, again in response to cultural norms, children’s shyness is a key theme. And it’s no surprise that social class is an important issue in many of the great British portrayals of children on screen, such as Ken Loach’s Kes, David Lean’s Great Expectations or Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. Billy in Kes is overlooked in a combative world that values middle-class articulacy. Posh Estella’s disdain of Pip in Great Expectations makes him conscious, for the first time, of his clothes and accent, just as he falls for her. Love fuses with shame.

A Story of Children and Film is the first film to look at the cinema of childhood on a global scale. I have since curated Cinema of Childhood, a touring season of movies about children, funded by the BFI. The season doesn’t include blockbusters such as ET, art-house classics such as The Red Balloon and Cinema Paradiso, or animations such as Spirited Away. Instead, I have tried to look beyond, to films that are just as good – or better – but that come from parts of the spectrum that are much less familiar. We are showing the great 1930s Japanese film Children in the Wind, Djibril Mambéty Diop of Senegal’s spiky picture The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, and a Fifties American movie, Little Fugitive, which was so fresh and ahead of its time that it influenced François Truffaut’s 400 Blows, made six years later.

Many children’s films are essays in detachment, stories of bonds loosening, of slipping the tether. Palle Alone in the World, a Danish short made in 1949, is a manifesto for this kind of detachment. A little boy wakes up to find that all the adults in the world are gone; so are all the rules and all the barriers to running amok. He steals a fire engine and drives it fast, then pilots a plane – to the moon, of course.

 

Blithe spirits: Kjell Grede's Hugo and Josephine

Hugo and Josephine, a classic in Sweden but not well known elsewhere, is about the kind of expansion you feel on a hot summery day, when the fields and sky seem to open out like a flower. It’s as though the title characters have been on a small stage, but then the walls and the flats fall away to reveal broad vistas, horizons of friendship and travel.

One of the world’s finest film-makers, Mohammad-Ali Talebi, who will travel to the UK from Iran to talk about his work in the Cinema of Childhood season, seems acutely aware that films about children are really films about freedom. In one of his best, Willow and Wind (1999), a boy who has broken a window in school goes on an edgy adventure to find a replacement pane, which he then carries back to the school. As we watch him struggle with the glass across fields and rivers, it starts to look as if what he is carrying is the film’s metaphor: a frame, that invisible rectangle within which a child must – according to the rules of teachers and parents – live. The pane is a chain, the thing that imprisons the boy.

It’s not surprising that films about kids are exciting to adults. We feel better for having explored them. We carry them in our pockets, now, too. 

“A Story of Children and Film” is released on 4 April. The Cinema of Childhood season opens on 11 April at BFI Southbank, London SE1, and will tour the UK for a year

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This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge