Around the world in 17 films: The Cinema of Childhood

Take a cinematic trip around the globe with our guide to the international gems screening in Mark Cousins’ The Cinema of Childhood season in cinemas and on the BFI Player.

Samuel Wigley
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Mark Cousins

Mark Cousins

When we compiled our list of 10 great films about childhood last year, we limited ourselves to titles that were readily available for home viewing in the UK. This meant, regrettably, that some familiar classics were included at the expense of more obscure gems, but what’s the point in recommending something if it’s impossible to see?

A Story of Children and Film, Mark Cousins’ inspiring new documentary tracing representations of children in cinema from around the world, might have been one long recommendation for films that were impossible to see. A delight, sure, but also a frustration. Luckily, an accompanying season, The Cinema of Childhood, puts paid to all that. Seventeen films about children, from 12 different countries, will be screening at BFI Southbank and other venues across the UK, with 11 of the titles also available digitally on our video-on-demand service, the BFI Player, later in April.

With one fell swoop, the canon of classic children’s cinema is redrawn. We can now share in Cousins’ excitement about figures such as Iran’s Mohammad-Ali Talebi and discover for ourselves the magic in films that have until now been next-to-impossible to see.

To help you navigate your way through the programme, we’ve put together this guide to the 11 films available on the BFI Player, many of which have never been screened in the UK before.

Children in the Wind (1937)

Where’s it from?

Japan

What’s it about?

The idyllic village life of a Japanese boy falls apart when his father is falsely imprisoned.

Who made it?

A lesser-known (at least in the west) contemporary of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu made some 160 features during the golden age of Japanese cinema, between the late 1920s and the 1950s. The recent release on American DVD of films such as Japanese Girls at the Harbour (1933), The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Ornamental Hairpin (1941) have made these his most familiar titles, but Children in the Wind is rare opportunity to experience an early example of the child-centred films for which Shimizu later became famous.

What Mark says

“Hiroshi Shimizu’s luminous masterpiece is nearly 80 years old, but still shines brightly.”

Little Fugitive (1953)

Where’s it from?

The US

What’s it about?

A seven-year-old boy runs away to Coney Island when he thinks he’s killed his older brother.

Who made it?

Brooklyner Morris Engel had been a combat photographer during the Second World War before returning to New York in peacetime. In 1953, in company with his wife Ruth Orkin and friend Ray Ashley (both fellow photographers), he picked up a hand-held 35mm film camera and took to the city streets and Coney Island to make Little Fugitive – among the first American films made independently from Hollywood.

What Mark says

“A film this fresh could not have been made in America in the 50s, and yet somehow it was – the first true indie movie, real life captured wild in the streets.”

Long Live the Republic (1965)

Where’s it from?

Czechoslovakia

What’s it about?

A bullied boy tries to survive in a Czech village as the Germans retreat and the Russians advance.

Who made it?

One of the major directors of the new wave that reinvigorated Czech cinema during a brief spell of artistic freedom in the 1960s, Karel Kachyna is less familiar to the English-speaking world than contemporaries Milos Forman and Jirí Menzel. The banning of several of his films, including Long Live the Republic, until after the end of the communist regime ended in 1989 certainly played its part in keeping Kachyna’s work well below most cinephile radars.

What Mark says

“Beautifully shot and darkly ironic, Karel Kachyna’s forgotten masterpiece jumbles reality, memory and fantasy to capture the intensity and confusion of childhood in a war zone.”

Hugo & Josephine (1967)

Where’s it from?

Sweden

What’s it about?

The lonely daughter of a rural pastor makes friends with a wild boy who lives in the woods.

Who made it?

Once married to Bibi Andersson, one of Ingmar Bergman’s favourite actors, Kjell Grede has made only eight more features since making his debut with Hugo & Josephine in 1967 – none of which quite match the heights of his first film in the eyes of Swedish critics. But then Hugo & Josephine occupies a special place in their hearts: it’s routinely voted the greatest Swedish children’s film ever made.

What Mark says

“Kjell Grede delivers a Swedish summer classic, blond and gorgeous and heart-breakingly innocent. A pure pleasure.”

The Boot (1993)

Where’s it from?

Iran

What’s it about?

A little girl craves a new pair of red wellies – but then loses one.

Who made it?

The Cinema of Childhood season is doing much to raise the profile of Mohammad-Ali Talebi, a one-time collaborator with Abbas Kiarostami who’s never enjoyed much attention in the west. The season includes no less than three films by the director, indicating just how important the pint-sized perspective in Talebi films like The Boot, Bag of Rice and Willow and Wind is to Cousins’ conception of children in the cinema.

What Mark says

“The story is fairy-tale simple, but the emotions swell, like in Bicycle Thieves. Director Mohammad-Ali Talebi had been working with children for years, and it shows. He makes Samaneh one of the most vivid characters in the movies. The Boot is a brilliant introduction to his world.”

Crows (1994)

Where’s it from?

Poland

What’s it about?

A neglected girl steals a younger girl and treats her as her surrogate daughter.

Who made it?

The daughter of documentary filmmaker Jadwiga Kedzierzawska, the director behind Crows is another talent who will be unfamiliar to most British viewers. Born in Lodz in 1957, Dorota made her feature debut with Devils, Devils in 1991. Both this and Crows, her second film, focus on young girls living on the margins of society. Talking about her 2011 film Tomorrow Will Be Better, she said: “As long as we have dreams, as long as we have faith, and as long as we keep hoping for the impossible, we find meaning in everything that surrounds us.”

What Mark says

“Dorota Kedzerawska’s remarkable film about a damaged girl trying to heal herself is tough yet tender, elevated by gorgeous cinematography and ultimately exhilarating.”

The White Balloon (1995)

Where’s it from?

Iran

What’s it about?

A stubborn little girl wants a new goldfish, and won’t let anything get in her way.

Who made it?

Jafar Panahi is among the most famous of the directors with films in this season – though for unhappy reasons. In 2010 he was charged with creating propaganda against the Iranian government and issued with a jail sentence and a ban on making further films. The punishment met with international condemnation. Panahi’s work includes the riveting La Ronde-style drama The Circle (2000) and the exuberant Offside (2006), but he first assured his place among the world’s greatest living filmmakers with The White Balloon – a film which both the BFI and The Guardian have included in lists of essential family film viewing.

What Mark says

“Utterly real, quietly hilarious, totally brilliant. One of the most honest films ever made.”

The King of Masks (1997)

Where’s it from?

China

What’s it about?

An old illusionist buys a young boy to become his apprentice – but the boy isn’t quite what he seems.

Who made it?

The late Wu Tianming, who died on 4 March 2014, was considered the godfather of Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. As a producer and studio head, he helped foster their early careers – with his name appearing on the credits of some of the greatest Chinese films of the 1980s, from The Horse Thief (1986) to Red Sorghum (1987). As a director himself, Wu was best known for 1986’s The Old Well, the story of the quest for water in a poverty-stricken village, and this film, The King of Masks, made after a period of exile in the US.

What Mark says

“Swooping emotional drama about a kid who wants to be loved, and an old man who learns how to open his heart.”

Bag of Rice (1998)

Where’s it from?

Iran

What’s it about?

A little girl and an old blind lady decide to carry a sack of rice across Tehran.

Who made it?

Five years after The Boot, Mohammad-Ali Talebi made this follow-up of sorts, another tale of preteen determination and stubbornness. 

What Mark says

“A gentle take on Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Talebi’s disarming film starts as an odd-couple adventure, then opens out into something profound and unforgettable.”

The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999)

Where’s it from?

Senegal

What’s it about?

A feisty disabled girl tries to improve her life by selling newspapers on the streets of Dakar.

Who made it?

Once seen never forgotten, Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty’s debut feature Touki-Bouki (1973) is the only African film to be voted into the top 100 of Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade poll to determine the greatest films ever made. Sadly, it was nearly two decades before he’d follow it up, with the similarly acclaimed Hyenas in 1992. He died aged 53 while completing The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun in 1999, which despite its diminutive 45-minute running time appeared on many newspapers’ best of the year top 10s. His body of work is small, but all of it is essential viewing.

What Mark says

“Djibril Diop Mambéty’s little film is a big-hearted odyssey about daring to imagine what you can be, and to hell with what anyone else thinks.”

Willow and Wind (2000)

Where’s it from?

Iran

What’s it about?

A boy breaks a school window, and must mend it himself before he’s allowed back in class.

Who made it?

Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s third film in the Cinema of Childhood season is his most recent, but as little known in the west as his others. As such, Willow and Wind is one of the season’s great recoveries, which (in a recent interview) Cousins told us was guaranteed to blow minds. In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw writes: “it is utterly unreal, like a lucid dream, of such stark plainness that it seems like a quest fable from the middle ages.”

What Mark says

“In the hands of writer Abbas Kiarostami and director Mohammad-Ali Talebi, this simplest of stories becomes an epic quest, poetic and breathtakingly beautiful. It has big-hearted humanism, but Hitchcockian tension too. An edge-of-seat masterpiece.”

Also screening in cinemas

Palle Alone in the World (Astrid Henning-Jensen, Denmark, 1949)

A boy wakes up to find Copenhagen deserted, and it becomes his giant playground.

Forbidden Games (René Clément, France, 1952)

A boy and a girl retreat into a fantasy world to escape the horrors of the Second World War.

Ten Minutes Older (1978)

Ten Minutes Older (1978)

Tomka and His Friends (Xhanfise Keko, Albania, 1977)

A gang of Albanian boys in WW2 become secret agents for the Resistance when German troops occupy their village.

Ten Minutes Older (Herz Frank, Latvia, 1978)

One close-up, 10 minutes long, of a small boy’s face as he watches a thrilling puppet show.

Moving (Shinji Somai, Japan, 1993)

A girl struggles to come to terms with her parents’ divorce.

The Unseen (Miroslav Janek, Czech Republic, 1997)

Documentary about Czech blind kids with remarkable talents, including taking photos.

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