Short films for kids
Children watch too much television. Ten-year-olds sit in front of the box for an average of over 100 minutes a day. Everyone agrees that escalating television consumption is by no means conducive to their development. But the motto is unfortunately all too often: the longer, the better.
The fact is, though, that it sometimes takes just a few minutes to watch an exciting, funny and yet instructive children’s film that leaves a lasting impression – even after the telly has long since been switched off. Such is the case with “Outsourcing”. The six-minute fiction short asks questions that in these days of unemployment, the rising cost of living and financial crises are of universal interest: How do economic constraints influence our everyday lives, and what happens when we let economic criteria determine all our decisions? How efficient can we become before we endanger our humanity? “Outsourcing” manages the -by no means easy – feat of addressing these complex issues in a playful way that children can readily relate to.
The film communicates with children on their own level, taking place in a setting they’re familiar with: the family breakfast table. But then the cosy Sunday breakfast suddenly turns into a scenario that transforms the five family members into a proverbial “small family business”, their behaviour toward one another no longer determined by love, affection and caring, but instead by streamlining “operations” for greater efficiency. The housewife and mother, whose work is no longer regarded as cost-effective, is thus dismissed without notice. The kitchen is sold on eBay and the little sister, seen now merely as a spanner in the works, is dispatched to grandma’s house. All that remains to meet basic needs is the microwave.
The “What would happen if…?” formula applied here is a perfect way of testing the viability of complicated theoretical constructs in everyday life. In this case, the young director Markus Dietrich unmasks the myth of efficiency enhancement through outsourcing as a shortsighted and inhumane practice, which makes sense – if at all – only on paper. What’s special about the film is that he does so in a very straightforward manner that is easy for children to comprehend but is by no means uninteresting for adults.
“We thought about how far a family would go were they to examine their home life from an economic standpoint”, says the junior filmmaker, describing the idea behind his entry in the short-film competition “The future of work”, initiated by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Cultural Foundation). The competition’s organizers found the script he submitted for “Outsourcing”, written in conjunction with Hanna Reifgerst, compelling particularly because few German-language children’s films have addressed this complex theme to date. Dietrich took charge of directing the project while still a student at Bauhaus University in Weimar, like many other members of his team. In 2007 he then joined forces with his fellow students Hanna Reifgerst and Christiane Schlicht to found the film production company Gruppe Weimar.
They set themselves the goal of making films for children and young people that tell exciting, uncommon stories from the point of view of their protagonists. In order to realize this aim, the fixed team of three choose different cooperation partners to work with on each project. They occasionally develop documentaries and animated films, but fiction is the main focus. Gruppe Weimar has made a name for itself primarily with short films, but there are a few feature-film projects in the pipeline at the moment, all still in the development stage. Christiane Schlicht says there are pragmatic as well as content-related reasons for the group’s concentration on short films to date. Some stories meant for children can simply be told better and more precisely when longÂ¬-drawn-out background plots are dispensed with. Practically speaking, the hurdles that must be overcome to finance a short film are much lower than those for feature films, where, particularly in the case of fiction, “absolutely nothing can be accomplished” without participation by broadcasting stations and the major film promotion agencies, Schlicht says. It is still the exception to receive funding for a high-level children’s film project that does not shy away from addressing complicated issues and places greater importance on an intelligent screenplay than on developing matching merchandising products. High-quality children’s and young people’s films, which are the order of the day in the Scandinavian countries for example, are still regarded in Germany as economically risky – by both broadcasting stations and funding institutions.
After “Outsourcing”, Gruppe Weimar’s first official production, enjoyed resounding success at many national and international festivals (in 2007 it won prizes including the short film award of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, the dkf Award for Young Directors and the Camera del Lavoro Award at the International Film Festival in Milan), the group produced its next fiction short in 2008, “My Robodad” – once again directed by Markus Dietrich. Hanna Reifgerst and Markus Dietrich again wrote the screenplay, while Christiane Schlicht was once more producer. After creatively treating the absurdities of the economy in “Outsourcing”, the group took on a completely different, but no less complex, theme in “My Robodad”, one that likewise hardly seems appropriate for a children’s film at first glance: Parkinson’s disease and its consequences for both victims and their loved ones.
At first, “My Robodad” seems like a funny science fiction film for children. The story is about Leni and her father, who is supposedly a robot. He twitches when he walks, he doesn’t smile – and he has a remote control that can be used to steer his movements. Leni’s dad can be manoeuvred and controlled like a toy car. For Leni, this is completely normal – but not for her classmates Olaf and Franz, who visit Leni and her father at his garage one afternoon to find out if Leni’s story is really true.
There are plenty of laughs in these eight minutes, during which, just like in a “real” science fiction film, everything builds to a dramatic climax. Skilful slapstick alternates with small action scenes, and in the end it’s clear that Leni has not told a lie: her father really is a robot, because he has a computer chip in his brain that can be activated by remote control. The truth is that Leni’s father has Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that gradually destroys the nervous system. Colloquially referred to as “the shaking palsy”, the disease causes symptoms such as slurred speech and motion disorders that are frequently taken to be signs of alcoholism, meaning that those affected and their families are forced not only to live with the trials of the disease itself, but also face negative reactions by others. One form of treatment involves implanting a brain pacemaker that facilitates walking and speaking and can be switched on and off via a small electrical impulse. Leni’s father is therefore really a “Robodad”, and Leni has invented a creative explanation for this unusual situation – one that is not even a lie. This, Christiane Schlicht emphasizes, is a central demand the group places on its film material: “We want to show that children are capable of solving problems themselves sometimes and by no means always have to rely on help from adults.”
It is the declared ambition of the young production company to take viewers of all ages seriously and to not only entertain them but also to make them think. This is an aspiration that does not always fit in well with editorial practices at the major TV stations, which have a tendency to ask external producers with demanding scripts to frame their subject matter in simpler terms. Filmmakers, and not only those in the field of children’s film, are often told to “make it a bit less complicated; otherwise, our audience won’t understand it”. Gruppe Weimar has had discussions along these lines more than once. None of their children’s films have been co-produced by television yet. Schlicht regrets the TV stations’ lack of confidence in the abilities of their own audience, as she’s convinced that all viewers – no matter how old they are – grow with the challenges they encounter, whether in terms of story or formal aspects.
A prime example of how conventional narrative forms can be turned inside out with the simplest of means, is the short film “Sag mir wo du stehst” (“School Rules”, 2003), which Markus Dietrich and Hannah Reifgerst produced while still studying. The film takes place in East Germany in the late 1980s and shows how a schoolgirl’s non-conformist behaviour gets her into trouble with the school directors. The animated film was created using the so-called “paint-over” technique, in which scenes are first shot with actors on location and then the finished material is painted over on the computer with the help of a drawing board program. Using this relatively simple technique, the filmmakers achieve an effect that tellingly conveys how the situation depicted was not an exception in East Germany, but rather part of everyday life there. This student work was presented at festivals including the Tampere Film Festival, the International Film Festival in Dresden and the Russian animated film festival KROK.
East Germany, and its demise, is a theme that Gruppe Weimar would return to it later works. “Teleportation” (2009), produced for the Berlin Today Awards, the short film festival at the Berlinale Talent Campus, asks the historically not insignificant question of why the Berlin Wall actually fell. Markus Dietrich took part in the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2008, applying for and winning a grant from the Media Board of Berlin-Brandenburg to make a children’s film based on an inventive script about the fall of the Wall.
It’s the year 1989: the friends Frederike, Fabian and Jonathan are planning to conduct a secret experiment in a family barn. They want to beam Jonathan to West Berlin. But something goes wrong and, instead of the ten-year-old boy, suddenly all of the other people in town have disappeared. Trying to find out what has happened, they see on images on television of people climbing the Berlin Wall and driving toward the border in their Trabbis. The children suspect that they have accidentally beamed all of the town’s inhabitants to West Berlin, so they try to repeat the experiment in order to rescue their parents and neighbours.
With this adventurous retelling of the events of 9 November 1989, Gruppe Weimar also impressed international audiences, who praised above all the matter-of-factness with which the childish perspective is raised here to the same level as the “authentic” historical facts. The film celebrated its world premiere at the opening of the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2009.
The next year witnessed a few excursions into other genres (among them a music video, an interview project and a few theatre pieces) as well as the short film “Eine feste Burg” (“A Mighty Fortress”, 2010), a fictional story about a real-life event in Weimar in 1988. At a time when more and more people are trying to flee East Germany, two young people occupy the sacristy of the City Church of St. Peter and Paul in Weimar to try to force the state to issue them an exit visa. They think the church is a safe haven, but its superintendent, furious at the repeated occupation of his premises, turns them in to the people’s police. In this project, the group once again divided up responsibilities in what was by then the proven constellation: Hanna Reifgerst and Markus Dietrich wrote the script, Dietrich directed and Christiane Schlicht produced the film with the help of Hanna Reifgerst.
The resulting film is 15 minutes long and designed to whet viewer’s interest in seeing more: it serves as teaser for a feature film project on the same theme. Asked if now, after its first five years as production company, Gruppe Weimar will be moving away from short film, Christiane Schlicht answers diplomatically that the group is naturally interested in the long form as well, but the length of each film will always depend on its subject and target group. In the long run, however, she says that something will have to change in the quite problematic financing situation for short film so that such works are no longer viewed merely as “calling cards”. As long as classic film funding is not available for short-film projects (the argument always being that short films are per se not commercially exploitable), producers are compelled to switch to feature-length films at some point, or to earn their money with image films or in the service sector.
At the same time, there is still much work to be done in developing the area of children’s film in Germany (no matter which length), and we can by no means speak of a saturated market. Christiane Schlicht would therefore like to see film funding institutions and TV stations show more willingness to take risks and consider more unusual material and methods, her reasoning being that it is ultimately always the uncommon films we remember best, i.e. those that demand something more of viewers, in which they have to invest some effort, be it emotional or intellectual. It makes her sad that no one trusts children to relate to an unusual story or the special language of a film.
Childhood is after all the time in life when our tastes and predilections are formed. In this respect, one can compare media consumption with diet. Just as parents should try to get children accustomed to different foods and tastes from the very start, in order to show them how delicious variety can be, so must those in charge of television aim to show films exhibiting diverse aesthetic qualities, narrative methods and dramaturgy.
Perusing the delectable treats Gruppe Weimar has served up so far, we are certain the next course will be well worth waiting for.