Eye On Film 2016: International Film Festival for Children and Youth

We all too often forget what an important educational role films can have, how much we can learn from them, how they can shape our opinions and how they can sometimes even shatter the existing social, national and religious barriers, giving us a better and more emphatic understanding of the world outside of the cultural bubble we were born into. Of course films can also do the opposite: reinforce the Eurocentric world-views, stereotypes about marginalized groups, problematic ideologies and socially constructed gender roles. It is  precisely because of that that it is so wrong to view films as a simple form of entertainment; something that helps us to shut down our brain while watching meaningless action-infused CGI. Films always, even when we do not necessarily realize it, carry important social, cultural and/or political subtexts that often have an influence on our perception of the world. This why it is crucial to expose children and teenagers to good, informative, thought-provoking, although maybe not always easy to process cinematic experiences. And not only that: to also teach them of how to watch films, how to read cinematic codes, how to interpret the story and how to reflectively and critically discuss about the film medium. There is undoubtedly still a long and challenging journey ahead of us before we will succeed at making film studies a respected part of a school curriculum, but Eye On Film is indeed one of the first and very much important steps into the right direction.

This year’s, although even second edition of the festival has screened an impressive number of 43 films from 28 different countries; 15 feature length, 4 medium length and 24 short films, most of which also made their way to elementary and high school screenings, accompanied by short and educational film lectures.

The opening night began on a quite lighter note than the rest of the festival’s programme, with a somewhat romanticized portrayal of the Jasmine revolution and French immigrant youth in Ma révolution. More light-hearted coming-of-age films followed, such as the portrayal of difficult and emotionally charged high school years in contemporary Russia in 14+, a charming Norwegian documentary about three boys overcoming social stigma by relentlessly following their dreams in Ballet Boys and Venezuelan absurdist dark comedy 3 Beauties that in a funny and effective way addressed and criticized country’s obsession with beauty pageants, their constant objectification of women and ever-present patriarchal culture in which men shamelessly dictate how women should look and where women are only worth something as long as they are considered beautiful. But the film digs even deeper as it also shows a devastating effect that such a deep-rooted patriarchy has on women who, instead of joining powers in an attempt to overturn the system, ruthlessly compete among each other. It also quite playfully approaches the binary oppositions in which women are typically portrayed in literature and films, where they are seen as either innocent virgins or sinister whores; righteous, quiet and uptight or selfish, shameless and easy. The film is far from being perfect, but it is admiringly daring and not at all afraid of going to the most bizarre extremes, which ultimately makes up for all the film’s shortcomings.

Whereas every minute spent at this year’s festival was thoroughly enjoyable, I did have some reservations about 14+, a film that quite realistically captures the life of male teenagers in post-communist Russia, but fails to produce a good or at least somewhat interesting  female character. Most of the film is indeed filmed from a boy’s perspective and there are some elements of the girl’s mostly non-speaking role that could potentially work, as it is quite clear from the film’s narrative that Russia is, to this day, a very traditional and patriarchal country. Her non-speaking could therefore easily be interpreted as her not having a voice to express anything, for it is the men in her life (either her patriarch of a father or thugs from the neighbourhood, relentlessly harassing and terrorizing her), but that still cannot serve as an excuse for the voyeuristic way in which the camera moves around her throughout the film. The voyeuristic way in which she and her girlfriends are filmed and the fact that they barely pass as having speaking parts make it quite clear that they were never intended to be much more than objects to look at, for there is absolutely no subversive meaning in their passive and quiet presence. Ultimately this film fails at offering any critique of the patriarchal and misogynistic Russian society where a woman is constantly and mercilessly objectified and prayed upon – but even though these films fell somewhat short at times, they provided a much welcomed balance to the darker and heavier half of the festival’s programme that dealt with some of the most important social issues currently taking place around the world.

A more in-depth review of the second half of the festival, covering Latvian Mellow Mud, Canadian-Afghan Walking Mina and Kurdish documentary Life on the Border, is coming soon. Stay tuned.

Ma révolution (2016): growing pains of revolutionary Tunisian youngster

Marwann is a carefree teenager on the verge of turning 15 who spends his evenings running around the streets of Paris and unsuccessfully crashing parties of their fellow high-school students to which he never gets invited with his best and equally unpopular friend Felix. Not that they particularly care about being a part of their high-school elite; Marwann’s reason is quite more naive and innocent, for he is simply trying to catch the attention of his attractive classmate Sygrid, a somewhat distant and disinterested Parisian that runs with the “cool crowd” and seems to be completely out of his reach. But this all drastically changes when the Jasmine Revolution breaks out in Tunisia, opening Marwann a whole new world of possibilities for finally breaking out of the shadow by becoming an impressive young revolutionary, fighting for the cause of his homeland.

The film is set in late 2010 when Tunisian president of 23 years was ousted after numerous street demonstrations and other forms of civil resistance that eventually led to democratization of the country and inspired similar protests and attempts of revolution throughout the Arab countries. Marwann, who represents a second generation of Tunisian immigrants, initially does not seem to care much about his cultural roots, nor does he really know anything about Tunisia, its politics or the meaning of the revolt that took over the country. But then he almost by chance finds himself celebrating Tunisia’s uprising that takes place in his neighbourhood, although it is more than clear by that point that his participation is far from politically motivated. As a 15 year old boy, having a good time is mainly all that is on his mind and if this ended up being at the celebration of a Tunisian Revolution, so be it. But when a reporter catches him in a revolutionary pose that ends up being on a cover of a local newspaper, he almost overnight becomes the face of the revolution. And from all his previously failed attempts, it ends up being this event that secures him a spot among the “cool kids”, for he finally becomes a part of their weed-smoking after-school hangouts. But what is even more important; he also starts receiving an increasing amount of attention from Sygrid who seems to be intrigued by the cause and interested in participating in solidarity protests that seem to be taking over the streets of Paris. It is only natural then that he embraces his revolutionary persona, begins to learn about the cause of this political unrest and, for better effect, starts greatly exaggerating his involvement with Tunisian resistance.

While the revolution and Marwann’s gradual reconnection with his Tunisian roots are important parts of this delightful coming-of-age story, they never end up taking over the story completely, for this is first and foremost a story about first love and the revolutionary fight that every teenager eventually partakes in while trying to form their own identity. The revolution thus ends up being both a beautiful metaphor for the turbulent life stage called adolescence that Marwann needs to overcome, as well as an inspiring side-story that gives us some insight into how the idea of homeland changes from one generation of immigrants to another. Marwann, as most youngsters his age, is getting increasingly torn apart between trying to become someone his family expects him to be, while still fitting in with his Parisian peers – and the Jasmine Revolution ends up being just the right event that helps him at successfully navigating both sides of his adolescent life. Him starting to learn about Tunisian history and about the meaning and possible outcomes of protests currently taking place is making his parents immensely happy for they believe he is finally becoming genuinely interested in a country they consider their home, while his newly-obtained and greatly exaggerated involvement in the cause also seems to have a great impact on Sygrid who as a result starts to become ever more affectionate.

While he is mostly all talk and no actions, his parents seem to possess a more genuine revolutionary spirit and it is not long before the two decide to temporarily move back to Tunisia to support the revolution and participate at the increasingly intense civil resistance. Although Marwann initially fights against it, them moving seems to mark his journey towards manhood; him finally being away from the world previously known to him, living under a watchful eye and careful guidance of his uncle and starting to appreciate the country from which his mischievous grandfather once immigrated in search of a better life and future for his family, can be understood as an initiation ritual of sorts, marking his transition from an egoistical child who hardly ever worries about things that do not directly concern him, into a fully grown man who is starting to understand the complexity of the world.

His uncle Lotfi, although in a minor role, therefore ends up being a significant mediator between Marwann’s two lives – between his old life of a Parisian high-school student and his new life of discovering and gradually reconnecting with his Tunisian ancestry. As they are wandering through the streets of Tunis, we can feel the revolution in the air and by the time they find their way into an underground club where a local rapper is performing his infamous song about Tunisian police (that was at the time of shooting banned in the country, causing the mentioned rapper quite a few problems with the authorities), we almost feel like we ourselves are a part of the resistance, participating in their fight for a better future.

This feeling, however, soon gets pushed away as Marwann returns to Paris to be reunited with his love, but even though the ending felt somewhat unsatisfying, My Revolution ultimately ends up being a heart-warming coming-of-age story about the pains of growing up and learning to embrace one’s ancestry. And even though the film acknowledges the growing fear of terrorism that is leading to increased militarization of France, it refreshingly stays away from even mentioning the religion of Marwann’s family. It does not happen often enough to see a film about an Arab family where Islam is never even mentioned, let alone being presented as the core of their identity and family dynamics. This alone makes My Revolution a much-needed film about France’s Arab diaspora and even though the film is initially addressing teenage audience, its delightful and amusing story and endearing, naturalistic performances (even by the first-time actor Samuel Vincent) will make Silman’s debut feature a pleasant viewing experience for all generations.

I saw this film on the opening night of International Film Festival for Children and Youth “Eye on Film” in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The Basics:
Directed by: Ramzi Ben Silman
Written by: Ramzi Ben Silman, Thomas Cailley and Nathalie Saugeon
Starring: Samuel Vincent, Anamaria Vartolomei, Lucien Le Guern, Nassim Haddouche, Lubna Azabal, Samir Guesmi
Running Time: 80 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 7