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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

dogwoof.com/childrenandfilm

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

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times