Cinesparks is usually the BIFF's program for under 18s however this year saw it split off into its own separate festival. I helped out, and in the process, saw some films. Or maybe I saw some films, and in the process, helped out...
The Bluebird: I gather bullying is a very serious issue in Japan. Sadly, like a lot of film-makers, Nakanishi feels that such a serious issue deserves a ponderous, didactic think piece. The prevailing tone is cold and airless: important conversions are delivered in a torturous, measured style and the weather is constantly overcast. Characters are thinner then they need to be because they are largely present to elucidate the nature of bullying and how it should be dealt with. Such elucidation is thoughtful, even incisive, but is delivered in a style which would be more at home in an essay. Subtlety does not entirely elude the film-makers however - a teacher's past history is conveyed in only a handful of suggestive shots. It's a pity they couldn't have trusted the viewer's intelligence more often.
Stella: A more engaging piece on education. It's clearly got as much on its mind as The Bluebird but dodges becoming a liberal pean to the power of education and the triumph of the committed individual by focusing on the smart, puckish yet troubled character of the title. The camera stays more or less locked on her which, along with some sparse voiceovers, proves an effective device for aligning us with her child's eye view of the world. There's something uncomfortably classist in the outsized misery of her similarly poor rural friend but by and large the film is fairly even-handed to both sides of the divide.
The General: Didn't strike me as the masterpiece it's billed as but definitely worth seeing nonetheless. The slapstick, outside of an early scene at a recruiting office, is more amusing than outright funny but the literally death-defying stunts performed in its service are nothing short of astounding. That sense of astonishment, and Buster Keaton's mesmerising, beautiful face, ensured that I was amply entertained. The live organ accompaniment was icing on the cake.
Ponyo: Despite being aimed squarely at the kids it kept a silly grin on my face for its entirety. I really don't have anything else to say about this one.
Pesantran: 3 Wishes 3 Loves: Awful acting and a rather simplistic, thin approach to the radicalization of one of the students warred with some mildly engaging personal details. Ultimately the former won out and I bailed to check out the international shorts next door. A decision I have little regrets over (although a fellow viewer suggested that Pesantran got more complex as it went on) - indeed I wish I'd done it sooner if the last 10 minutes of Australian short Franswa Sharl are any indication of the unforced warmth of the whole. The Scandinavian one that followed, about a boy and his parents' downward spiralling relationship, was similarly accomplished. The boy's narration provides a beguiling patina of humour over a reality that is by turns mundane and sad.
Mai Mai Miracle: Gorgeous, hand drawn animation (my favourite kind) conveys a well observed story of a well-off girl from the city moving to a rural area. The first school scene in particular shows an astute eye for classroom dynamics and scenes outside the pedagogical realm don't disappoint either. Structurally it's a little bit awkward with a parallel "B" story from hundreds of years ago telling much the same tale with the girls' positions reversed - a device which adds little thematically. However aside from this and a few clumsy lines ("Everyone is nice!") this proved to be an enchanting experience.