The selections at this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival blend fantastical elements with serious real-world themes.
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By Laurel Graeber
The characters in the offerings at the 2023 New York International Children’s Film Festival often resolve crises in unexpected ways: by tossing magical seeds. Or slamming enchanted doors. Or, in what may be the most startling example, following a giant porcupine as it lumbers through the streets of Rotterdam.
These fantastical elements, however, appear alongside realities that more commercial movies for young people usually avoid. This year’s festival, which begins on Friday evening and continues for three weekends — two in Manhattan and Brooklyn theaters, and one at the Sag Harbor Cinema on Long Island — explores subjects like the civil war in Syria, accelerating threats of natural disaster, the plight of unauthorized immigrants and, in one short documentary, the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on a family with members in both New York and Odesa. Now in its 26th year, the festival seeks not just to entertain young audiences but also to expand their worldviews.
“There’s a concerted effort to talk about human rights and focus on global citizenry,” Maria-Christina Villaseñor, the festival’s programming director, said in an interview. But, she added, “I think that playfulness is really rolling out in all kinds of interesting ways throughout our slate.”
That menu, comprising 16 features and nearly 60 short films, which will be offered entirely in person for the first time since 2020, begins with Friday’s world premiere of “Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia.” An animated film from France and Luxembourg, it follows Ernest, a gruff but good-hearted bear, and Celestine, a vivacious mouse, as they journey to Ernest’s homeland to have his cherished violin, a “Stradibearius,” repaired. Once there, they’re shocked to learn that the country has prohibited almost all music-making.
The filmmakers, Julien Chheng and Jean-Christophe Roger (Roger will visit the festival for an opening-night Q. and A.), have filled the movie with wild chases, narrow escapes and a full-fledged musical resistance. But it also touches on autocracy and personal autonomy — relevant themes in a world where dissenters are sometimes imprisoned and certain children’s books are being banned.
“Kids are able to enter these films at the level that they are comfortable or ready for,” said Nina Guralnick, the executive director of the festival, which offers titles for viewers as young as 3 and has a jury that judges a broad swath of the short films. (The prizewinners then become eligible for Academy Award consideration.) “But that’s also what makes those films last,” she said, “because they will come back and think about them as their thinking becomes more sophisticated.”
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Marya Zarif, a Syrian-born filmmaker who lives in Montreal, said in a video interview that she intended “Dounia & the Princess of Aleppo,” the Canadian and French feature that she directed with André Kadi, to be a festival film to which young viewers can repeatedly return for new insights.
Dounia, its vibrant 6-year-old heroine, sees the war steadily encroaching on her joyful life in Syria. But she has powerful protection: nigella seeds, a Middle Eastern spice. In the movie, they have mystical properties that Dounia discovers after she and her grandparents become refugees on a dangerous and sometimes heartbreaking odyssey.
“I needed a magic that was rooted in Dounia’s culture,” said Zarif, who will appear via video link for a post-screening Q. and A. on Sunday. “And I needed something very small but that had big effects, like Dounia herself.”
The festival also has fare for viewers well into their teens. “Suzume,” an anime feature by Makoto Shinkai that is already a blockbuster in Japan, will receive its North American premiere at the festival on Sunday.
The title character, an orphaned high school student who lives with her aunt, encounters Souta, a youth who is “a closer” — one who has the task of shutting ordinary-looking doors that, when left open, unleash terrors like earthquakes and tsunamis. When a spell transforms Souta into a walking, talking chair, Suzume shoulders his world-saving burden.
Such stories of female empowerment are a favorite with the festival, which annually features the short-film program “Girls’ POV.” Its offerings this year include a story that illustrates the frustrations of obtaining menstrual products and a documentary about an American all-girl tackle football league.
Girls also take charge in the Dutch live-action feature “Okthanksbye,” whose two main characters are deaf 13-year-olds. When the beloved Parisian grandmother of one of the teenagers is hospitalized, they leave their Netherlands boarding school and head to France. Portrayed by Mae van de Loo and Douae Zine El Abidine — young, deaf first-time actresses — the girls embark on an adventure that includes traveling with a female punk band.
The film’s director, Nicole van Kilsdonk, who wrote the script with Lilian Sijbesma, said the movie wasn’t meant to be about disability, even though the girls’ situations — one has a cochlear implant; one doesn’t — play a role. Van Kilsdonk, who on Saturday will attend the first of two open-captioned screenings and take part in a sign-language-interpreted discussion, said this coming-of-age story held a universal message: “You can do more than you think.”
Far more perilous border crossings lie at the heart of the features about immigration. “Home Is Somewhere Else,” a Mexican documentary, chronicles, in their own words, the experiences of young people with different legal statuses. Framed by the spoken-word poetry of José Eduardo Aguilar, who was himself deported from the United States, the film eschews live action in favor of vivid, varied animation.
“That also was a way to protect our protagonists’ identity,” said Jorge Villalobos, who wrote and directed the film with Carlos Hagerman. (Hagerman will participate in a Q. and A. after the film’s screening on March 11.) But the men, who dealt with families on each side of the U.S.-Mexico border, also found that animation gave them freedom to employ visual metaphors and depict the world through their subjects’ eyes.
“Usually, documentaries are kind of talking about how the system doesn’t work,” Hagerman said. “And we are more into experiencing how does it feel to live in these situations.”
Similar struggles infuse “Totem,” Sander Burger’s fictional live-action feature from Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, which focuses on Ama (Amani-Jean Philippe), an 11-year-old whose Senegalese family lives in Rotterdam without documentation. Regarding herself as thoroughly Dutch, Ama ends up on the run and searching for her father after the authorities detain her other relatives. This high-spirited heroine gets aid from her spirit animal, a massive porcupine.
The strong language in both immigration-related features hasn’t deterred the festival’s organizers, who provide parental advisories online. And families who may be reluctant to take children into theaters during a virus-filled winter can look forward to the festival’s Kid Flicks National Touring Program, which, in the summer, will begin sharing selections from some of its short-film packages — including Celebrating Black Stories and the Latin-themed ¡Hola Cine! — with museums, libraries and cinemas. (The festival also offers film-based curriculums for schools.)
“We think we’ve doubled the number of programs that we send out,” Guralnick said. “And I feel like we just keep adding partners.” All share a goal, she added: “growing that next generation of filmgoers.”
The New York International Children’s Film Festival
March 3-19; 212-349-0330; nyicff.org.
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