BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
With 262 films from 52 countries, the 37th Annual Chicago International Children’s Film Festival presented virtually November 13 – 22 by Facets comes at a time when programs for families couldn’t be more in demand. “Empathy-driven” is the common thread tying together these full-length and short films for children from age two through teenagers, covering topics such as climate change, gender issues, and blended families.
Facets Executive Director Karen Cardarelli explains, “It’s always important to share stories with our children that allow them to see themselves or to see stories about people who look different than they do. This festival has a very unique ability to do both for our children. And now, as we move into the colder months, COVID cases are climbing and we have to cocoon even further with our children, families need fresh new worlds and stories to help them get through and inspire them to create their own stories.”
“This year for the first time ever we can bring the festival into your comfortable home. Your entire family can watch it together for the price of a single ticket, and you can share an all new, magical experience together,” she continues. “And after the movie—the best part—you can all talk about it together! That’s what Facets does: bring extraordinary stories to you, to inspire extraordinary conversations.”
Ann Vikstrom, Festival Director for Facets, curates thousands of films from around the world each year. The first competitive children’s film festival, it is one of only two Oscar-qualifying film festivals in the world.
“We’ve had 44 of our films nominated for Academy Awards and eight have won. In 2018, of the five nominated animated films, four had been in our festival,” according to Vikstrom, pictured above. “Our films are very topical. For example, there are more and more films dealing with climate change including Jovanna for Future a documentary short film about a young girl in the Netherlands, taking a clue from Greta Thunberg, who wants to use her voice to speak out. Kids need to know they have a voice and many of our films give them this agency. Especially girls!”
“Then there is the animated Dreambuilders from Denmark about blended families. The plot line concerns a tween enjoying her country life until her father’s fiancée and her daughter move in,” she adds. “One of the most beautiful of the films based on books is The Snail and the Whale, an animated television production, narrated by the late Diana Riggs, with Oscar winner Sally Hawkins.”
Among the entries with a scientific focus are Germany’s The Peppercorns and the Treasure Deep Sea about five tweens in a race against time as they set out to save the world from plastic waste in the ocean and the Octavia Spencer-narrated animated short film Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, which champions girl empowerment as well as STEM education. “It’s so important for our young people to know how to dream big,” Vikstrom says.
Another favorite: Shooom’s Odyssey, an animated television production from France. “It is such an inspiring story. It tells of a little owl finding its way after a storm, eventually finding a raccoon with whom to take shelter. Especially in times like these, knowing who one’s supports can be is reassuring. Family can be who you make it to be. This film really spoke to me,” she reveals.
The Festival’s Children’s Jury is made up of graduates of Facets’ summer film camps. Anah Ambuchi, herself an extraordinary filmmaker at 13, shares, “I like suspense because it keeps me engaged. But if a movie that can keep me questioning, I have to say wow.”
At just age 11, Ambuchi, who is part Kenyan, wrote, starred in, directed, and produced Made in His Image, her personal story of how she was bullied by classmates who made her feel that she wasn’t worthy. Her film played in 12 film festivals in the United States, and she took the film all the way to a French film festival.
“I am now working on a four-part miniseries, which will deal with bullying, racial injustice, and the black family. I like to think of myself as being able to do it all, much like Tyler Perry. Youth today, particularly during this time of COVID, are really inspired by the arts. I love being a part of Facets,” she says.
Karina Hans, an eleven-year-old juror from the South Loop, describes herself as an inquirer: “I am someone who asks a lot of questions and am trying to learn new things.”
In addition to training her new puppy Koko, Hans keeps in touch with friends now by watching films online and talking about them. “I like films with a strong message, that are not boring. Fantasies are great, but there must be a message, and one of the strongest is to never give up,” she explains.
Facets’ Education Director Kathleen Beckman, who also heads the Facets’ film camp, explains how the jury, comprised of 160 teen and adult jurors works: “The children’s jury is an integral part of the Festival’s commitment to actively engage children and to allow them to be directly involved in the film industry. A requirement is that they have participated in our summer camps where they learn about artistic choices and why a film connects to its audience. The children’s jury watched they films synchronously and then came together to talk about them. Winners, to be announced on the final Festival night, are determined by averaging jury member ratings in each category.”
One of the most prestigious awards to be presented will the newly created Milos Stehlik Legacy Award, named for the Facets and Festival founder. “The festival was his vision,” Vikstrom says. “We stay true to his legend.”
A former columnist for Classic Chicago, Stehlik wrote in October 2018 when describing the Festival:
A child’s life can be changed in the movies. This is both terrifying and exhilarating. The terrifying prospect is of a child growing up into a disconnected media-addicted teenager whose adrenalin is pumped up by violent and sexist movies and video games. The exhilarating possibility is of a child growing up as a self-confident individual caring and connected to the world, embracing learning, and making a contribution to the universe.
Cardarelli sums up how Facets mission joins the Festival to its educational programs in Chicago schools: “Facets’ mission is to connect people through transformative film experiences. A large part of realizing this idea, when we are working with schools, is to listen to educators’ needs. In particular, we ask what curriculum themes do they need the most help visualizing for their students. Often the response is science or social emotional learning. But overwhelmingly teachers are looking for visual storytelling methods such as film to simply draw their students to remote learning platforms. Getting students to merely participate online is a huge challenge, and an area our film festival can act as a critical classroom partner.”
Single tickets are $15 and Facets member tickets are $14.50. Passes are $50 for nonmembers and $45 for members (valid up to four programs). Super passes, which grant access to the entire festival, are $250 or $225 for members.
Programs will be presented as both general public and private school screenings. School group tickets are $8 each for groups of 12-24 students, $5 each for 25-99 students, $4.50 for groups of 100+ students. For synchronous media education, the cost is $100 per group, which includes virtual media education facilitated by one of Facets’ media educators via Zoom.
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