Of all the things I’ve missed in the first year of parenthood (sleep, the way my stomach looked in 2014, sleep), the thing I’ve perhaps missed the most is going to the movies.
My favorite genre is, surprise, foreign films. I love movies that transport me to new places, give me insight into different lives and offer this former international journalist the opportunity to travel again — without having to maneuver a stroller through passport control.
So I’ve been counting the days until my son is old enough to enjoy some dim-lit cinematic travel with his mom, crossing my fingers that there may be more to look forward to than the latest Disney or Pixar joint (though we’ll see those too, of course).
“Children are humans, and so they understand the world through story just like we do,” says Elizabeth Shepherd, director of the Children’s Film Festival Seattle, which starts Jan. 26. “It’s an incredibly magical experience for children to go to the cinema and sit in the community and feel the lights go down and see the screen go up.”
Even more important is what plays once that screen illuminates, and at the Children’s Film Festival it’s often an international story with a politically relevant theme.
“We have many films in our festival about migration,” says Shepherd, describing this year’s program, which includes 194 films from over 50 countries. “It’s a way for our audience to understand geopolitical issues but, beyond that, also shared humanity.”
Among the short films is “Displacement,” which interviews Yemeni children who have become refugees of war in Malaysia. There’s also “A Year Without My Parents,” about a Syrian boy living in Holland, and an abstract French short dedicated “to all those who left for a better life elsewhere. At whatever the cost.”
“It’s a serious program, but there’s a lot of joy, too,”
The feature-length program provides a range of international films, including “Mussa,” about an Ethiopian boy living in Tel Aviv. The movie opens on a rough conversation in Mussa’s elementary-school classroom, where he sits in silence as Israeli children discuss whether migrants should be deported.
There are also stories of Polynesian football players in Utah, a Yup’ik teen who travels across hundreds of miles of Alaskan tundra to compete in a basketball tournament and a teenage girl boxer in Afghanistan.
And if that all sounds a bit heavy for kids aged pre-K through middle school (the target demographic for the festival), Shepherd is quick to point out that organizers have a little something for everyone.
“It’s a serious program, but there’s a lot of joy, too,” she says, recommending an Argentinean film, “My Parrot Mom,” and “Mr. Frog” from The Netherlands. There also are filmmaking classes, an opening-night, kid-friendly dance party and a film festival jury made up entirely of kids.
But the festival, now in its 12th year, doesn’t shy from tough topics or big ideas. And many of the short-film programs are hopeful, with titles such as “Dreaming of a Better World,” “Indigenous Showcase,” “Save the Earth” and “Longing and Belonging.”
“This is a world that kids are going to have to learn to navigate on their own eventually, so it’s important to give them a good start,” says Shepherd, who believes cinema has the power to transform people and the world. “It’s about becoming global citizens.”
My son still has a few years before he’ll understand the responsibility of global citizenship, or be able to sit still in a theater for more than 30 seconds.
But come Children’s Film Festival Seattle 2020, we’ll be in the front row when the lights go down.