The Man with the Child in His Eyes: Visions of childhood in IFFR
By Young Film Critic Héctor Oyarzún Galaz
Films about childhood tend to blur the line between big and small events. Truffaut said that: "nothing is small when it comes to childhood". Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between making a visual imitation of a child’s point of view and the real effort to try to submerge into their symbolic world. It is impossible for us to go back to a previous mindset, but cinema is a tool that allows filmmakers to think through the psychology of a character.
While some filmmakers are able to recognize which kind of formal traits can imitate a child’s view, others can go further into merging their own angle with their character’s perspective. This is one of the elements that make a difference between how two IFFR films, the Swedish opening film Jimmie (Jesper Ganslandt) and the Philippine Hivos Tiger competitor Nervous Translation (Shireen Seno), present such different ways to look through their main character’s eyes. Both films share some of the same formal traits, but they use them in opposite ways.
In IFFR’s opening film Jimmie, a 4-year-old Jimmie and his father are forced to flee from Sweden after it becomes an unsafe territory to live. The boy's mother has disappeared, and war has taken all over the country. The rest of the film follows the uncertain journey of the boy and his father to start a new life as refugees somewhere else.
Ganslandt film is an effort, as he has stated before, to "walk in other people's shoes". The film inverts the roles of the refugee crisis to make an empathy wake-up call for European audiences. Ganslandt casts his own son as Jimmie, and the whole film is narrated through his point of view. This focalization explains a lot of the formal aspects used in the film: low-angle shots, shallow focuses, and a fragmented narrative are combined to portray Jimmie’s trauma and confusion. All these decisions emphasize the difference between the cruelty of war and the broken innocence of the kid. To put a child on the lead is, in a way, an understandable decision to generate empathy. The injustice of war becomes even more evident when a child is the one who suffers from it. But does that mean that the film is actually trying to understand his character's point of view?
In Jimmie, most of these formalities work more as a shock triggering strategy than an actual reflection on childhood. The way Ganslandt shots their escape shows us that Jimmie is not able to see the dead bodies, but the camera angle is actually showing them anyway in the corners of the frame. The narrowness of Jimmie's vision makes its point to remark how uncompressible the situation can be, but the shot is actually revealing everything that Jimmie is not supposed to see. There is a shocking quality in this kind of scenes. Even if Ganslandt orchestrates these elements to deliver a message ("refugee's life don't have a break"), his effort to take a child's perspective functions more as a shocking device than a way to get into his character’s psychology.
On the other hand, Shireen Seno's second feature-length Nervous Translation can be seen as an exercise to apprehend a confusing political moment through the chaotic memories of childhood. In the film, a solitary eight-year-old Yael cooks at home, writes letters, and listens to cassettes recorded by her absent father. This description could make us think of a slice-of-life kind of film, but there are a lot of big events going on around her. Nervous Translation sets after the People Power Revolution– a series of demonstrations held against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos in The Philippines – but the film only shows some glimpses of the political climate.
The shots of Nervous Translation share some common ground with the visual traits used in Jimmie. Most of the shots are done in low-angle, and some of them have the same kind of shallow-focus. The difference lies in how the film actually tries to get into Kael’s psychology. Different events – such as the fall of Marcos, the absence of her father, or her desire to buy a pen she saw on TV – are diluted on the same receptive level. The film's narrative hides some crucial details of the plot to provide us fragments of the whole information. Unlike Jimmie, where we are able to see what Jimmie can’t, Nervous Translation is a reflection taken from Kael’s perception of the world. The personal and collective dimensions of the film are mixed through the surreal perception of the formative years.
These two films are new entries into one of cinema’s oldest obsessions. Is the camera capable of thinking like a child? Even if the answer remains unclear, it is possible to notice a difference in how these filmmakers are disposed to try to change their own mindsets. Most of the childhood films just force adult emotions into their smallest characters, but there is also an alternative path that allows filmmakers to modify their own perspective of the world. A film is not capable to bring back our childhood, but when it is a good one; it may be capable to bring back some glances of it.
Photo in header: Arleen Cuevas and John Torres