Spending two consecutive weekends of a glorious summer sequestered away in a dark room as a jury member for the Chicago International Children's Film Festival might seem like torture to some, but it was life-changing for me.
The CICFF is the largest festival of films for children in North America, and each year, it showcases films from over 40 countries, and is also one of the only Academy Award qualifying children's film festivals in the world. The festival, which runs in Chicago this November, is a bastion of culturally-diverse, non-violent, value-affirming films for children of all ages through adulthood, and its mission is to teach media literacy to kids through cinema. It's not always an easy task.
Making a compelling film that captures children’s imagination is a difficult challenge for the (mostly) independent filmmakers who compete at this festival. Even after they've bankrolled and created their film, they need to stand out in today's constant stream of media--everything from kid-oriented apps, websites and social media,to TV and Hollywood movies--competing for the attention of children. I'm a big fan of this festival because of the spotlight it shines on intelligent filmmakers and the stories they tell. This year, these stories of children, shot in every part of the world, taught me 3 huge life lessons.
1. People are more alike than they are different. Many of this year's films dealt with loss: Japanese brothers visit their mom's gravesite; An Indonesian boy who lives on the streets searches the faces of women passing by to find his lost mother; A Swedish girl is shunned by an older sister with a new boyfriend. The sense of universality in these stories is strong, yet sometimes hard for adults to grasp. We often focus too much on the things that make others different from us. These films bring the people and customs of other cultures to life in a way that reveals not how we are different, but how we all share some very basic human feelings, faults and aspirations.
2. Don’t be afraid to talk about big issues. Mental illness, war crimes, extreme poverty, class division, incarceration of a parent, divorce, sexual abuse--These are just some of the challenging themes the filmmakers observed through the eyes of children in this year's festival. When we face these sensitive and often tragic realities with honesty, we open a dialog that can foster understanding, justice and healing.
3. A good story is universal. As a father of four children, I saw myself and my kids as I watched stories from Romania, Israel, Palestine, New York, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Ireland, Pakistan, and many other countries this year. For a lot of these films, the subtitles weren't even necessary, because the visual language is so strong. That's the power of great cinema: to make a statement about the nature of living on earth in a single shot that can spark the imagination of people in any country, in any time period. Watching great films can be a transcendent experience.
After our jury packed up the pencils and notepads and headed our separate ways, I stepped out into the sunlight of a warm August day with a keen sense of gratitude for the lessons I learned. More importantly, I was excited to be part a festival showcasing honest, heartfelt films that explore what it means to grapple with life in these difficult, brilliant times.
About the author: Marc Wellin is an award-winning digital content producer and the founder of Mothlight, a digital video production company that specializes in telling stories for agencies and their clients. Follow Marc on Twitter @filmbilly and Facebook.