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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

Photo: Warner Bros
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Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.