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Movies for Kids Don’t Need to Be Simple: 5 Ways to Program a Children’s Festival Without Dumbing It Down

The New York International Children's Film Festival consistently puts on a forward-thinking, fun festival that other events can learn from.

At the annual New York International Children’s Film Festival, young movie viewers are the target audience, but that doesn’t mean that the festival’s programming leans toward the fluffy and light. Instead, the program delivers films that tackle big questions, often with timely messages, in hopes of both entertaining and educating their youngest ticket-holders.

If the definition of a “kids movie” is too narrow — and so often, movies that appeal to younger viewers, center on stories about kids or just so happen to be told using animation are bucketed into somehow only being for the non-adult set — festivals like NYICFF aim to change that in a major way. This year is no different.

READ MORE: ‘My Life as a Zucchini’ Exclusive Photos: Charming Stop-Motion Oscar Contender Is All About the Details

Here are five takeaways from this year’s lineup that prove movies for kids don’t need to be simple.

Look For Films That Tackle Big Problems

“If I do films for children, I don’t like them to be ‘childish’ films,” filmmaker Nicole von Kilsdonk recently told IndieWire. “I like for them to be suitable for children, but at the same time, they also have some engagement [for all ages].” That may as well be the theme of NYICFF.

Now in its 20th year, NYICFF’s wide-ranging 2017 program is riddled with films that aim to illuminate tougher stuff while still providing plenty of entertainment for the little ones and adults. The income gap and class system take center stage in the coming-of-age charmer “Little Mountain Boy,” while DisneyNature’s “Born in China” chronicles the wonders (and worries) of China’s vast and varied ecosystem. The stop-motion Oscar contender “My Life as a Zucchini” tackles such subjects as unfit parents, sexual awakenings, bullies and government assistance.

“My Life as a Zucchini”

Emphasize Coming-of-Age Stories

Elsewhere, the festival’s shorts similarly aim for resonance suited for kid consumption. Their popular “Girls’ POV” program is comprised of a series of shorts that provide deep and amusing insight into the psyche of growing girls, from understanding gender identity to learning about heroines of the past. This year’s program includes newly-minted Oscar winner “Sing,” which deals with school bullying from some unexpected baddies.

Von Kilsdonk’s own film, the Dutch action-drama “The Day My Father Became a Bush” (based on the novel Joke van Leeuwen) centers on young Toda, whose father is called away to fight in an unnamed war for an unnamed country. Her own journey takes her across borders — some simply political — to reach her faraway mother.

The filmmaker, who has made films targeted at both adults and kids over her two-decade career, is eager for her film to allow young audiences to “see something about the world,” while also being entertained by its road movie style and all the adventure that comes along with that genre. The filmmaker was intrigued by the possibility of telling a challenging story about borders and wars squarely “through the eyes of a child.”

Find New Ways to Explain History and Other Cultures

Lola Doillon’s NYICFF offering, “Fanny’s Journey,” similarly uses a decidedly adult backdrop to tell a story that allows children to explore history in a safe space (like von Kilsdonk, Doillon’s resume is heavy with more adult fare, like the dramatic thriller “In Your Hands” and the very funny series “Call My Agent!”). Inspired by Fanny Ben-Ami’s autobiographical novel “Le Voyage de Fanny,” Doillon’s French-Belgian film follows a group of Jewish children who flee the Nazis during World War II.

Doillon felt it was essential that she view her story through the eyes of her younger characters. “I wanted to make a movie that kids can see,” Doillon said. “[A movie that] was a story about the kids, what they’re living [through], without seeing the war or seeing them as victims of the war.”

“The Day My Father Became a Bush”

The animated outing “Window Horses” also uses a child’s perspective to untangle questions of conflict and identity. Director Ann Marie Fleming pulled from her own experiences of being from a mixed race background to craft a story with a topical hook. “Window Horses” chronicles a young poet’s experience traveling to Iran to attend a poetry festival, a locale that helps her more readily identify with her Chinese and Persian parents.

Like von Kilsdonk, Fleming never conceived of her film as being just for kids, and she believes that it has appeal for any and all audiences.

“The audience I made this film for are human beings, all sizes and all ages,” Fleming said.

Use the Movies to Explore Today’s Headlines

Many of the films at this year’s NYICFF come complete with a timely edge, including von Kilsdonk’s, which chronicles the struggle of refugees across Europe. That wasn’t always on purpose, but the filmmaker is pleased that her film will likely have new resonance with her audience, no matter their age or awareness level.

“Four or five years ago, it was already [a timely] story,” von Kilsdonk said. “We didn’t know at that time the whole situation with refugees in Europe was going to change so fast. At the same time, this story is a universal story that has been happening for ages and ages.”

Fleming, who has been working on her film for nearly a decade, was compelled to use her film’s setting as a way to combat certain prejudices against the Middle East.

“I really felt that there was a need to do it in Iran,” Fleming said. “Partly, because of the portrayals that are out there, but also because I just thought it was so relevant for the time.”

She added, “I never thought things would be where they are today, in terms of the political situation around the world, but the film is totally not political. Maybe that’s its politics, it’s that it’s not being political, it’s just about human beings.”

The festival also offers films that have major emotional stakes, trusting that the films screened will be able to inspire conversation on difficult topics.

“Fanny’s Journey”

Doillion was drawn to the story of Fanny and her wrenching journey because she hoped it would help her talk about tough issues and hard history with her own young son. When it came time to choose her next project, “Fanny’s Journey” inspired a whole spat of questions for her, including “What am I going to do? What do I tell to a little boy, to a little kid? What do I tell about the second World War?”

Von Kilsdonk worked in similar territory, and the filmmaker endeavored to make “The Day My Father Became a Bush” honest enough to honor its subject matter, but with a conclusion that didn’t bum out its littlest viewers.

“You have to give them some hope,” von Kilsdonk said. “I don’t want them to get out [of the theater] depressed. The story ends with some sort of hope, but if you look in real life, it’s not this optimistic, I’m afraid.”

“Window Horses” filmmaker Fleming hopes that her film can be inspiring during a tough time.

“[My film] certainly talks about how things change,” Fleming said. “The way that we see others, the way that we see circumstances and the things that we live through, [all] go through cycles, it goes through waves. It’s like, how do people endure? My film is all about compassion and having empathy for others.”

Festival settings often offer great opportunities for filmmakers to engage with their viewers, and NYICFF is no different, even if its audience members tend to be a touch more vocal when it comes Q&A time.

“Children are very direct. In a way, they are more sincere than adults,” von Kilsdonk said with a laugh. “If they are bored, it’s going to be noisy. If they don’t understand it, they will tell you.”

“Window Horses”

Trust Your Audience

Screening films that might be darker, tougher and more timely than most people would typically equate with kid-friendly fare also means being open to harder to answer queries. It’s part of the package.

Doillon remembered an early screening of her film that was mostly attended by little kids, one that ended with one young audience member asking her, “Why the war?” Another youngster added to that question, asking, “Why the Jews?”

Doillon embraced it. “I just want the kids to have questions — why, why, why? — and then the adults can, depending on the age of the kids, talk to them,” she said. “I really want the kids to be open to questions.”

Mostly, though, the filmmakers want to introduce the full range of cinema to a new generation, especially if that means stretching the boundaries of kid-friendly cinema.

“I’ve had some little dudes come to the show, like as young as three and a half, and they get it,” Fleming said. “They’re completely entranced. They’re even interested in the poetry! They’re completely engaged.”

Well, they’re movie lovers.

The New York International Children’s Film Festival runs until March 19.

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