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When the Road gets Rough, the Kids get Tough
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

Indeed a time of change echoes through Hamburg’s seventh Michel Kinder and Jugend Filmfest (Children’s and Youth Film Festival)!  Albert Wiederspiel, father of this category, has seen many transformations through the years.  The most obvious one is the location for the festival which began at Grindel then moved to Cinemaxx, and now has landed on its feet in its new location, Zeise Cinema. Built on the ruins of Theodor Zeiser’s former ship propeller factory, this cinema reflects the former battlegrounds of economic challenges with the new confidence of the late 1980s. The only drawback to the architecture is around the ticket and concession counter where the congestion becomes overwhelming while waiting for cinema seats. Unfortunately, the kids’ pre-performance of dancing and singing was completely lost in this mass, since the kids were not on a stage but on the ground below the ticket stand.

In spite of the 2009 economic crisis which also hit the film industry, we still stand strong with an attitude of “Yes we can,” thanks to our American Nobel Peace Prize winner/president. Wiederspiel alluded to the effects of the economic crisis on the film festival, when he creatively told the young audience how it was possible to show eight films from 11 countries. He mentioned the need for Tachengeld from various countries in order to help complete certain films. Besides eight films, they showed two new episodes of Die Pfefferkörner. In a workshop kids learned how to fake scenes, e.g., make a window of frozen snow flakes even in summer. All this was presented by the vivacious actress Pheline Roggen whose repertoire includes Chiko, Morder auf Amrum and the opening film of the festival: Soul Kitchen.

In the past the festival concentrated on films for older teenagers but, this year, five of the eight were for children under 10. A common thread showed children who were faced with complex and unsolvable problems which stemmed from their immediate surroundings, forcing them to make choices to deal with the situation. In the film Eli and Ben directed by Ori Ravid, Eli is faced with two sets of problems: one was the arrest of his father for corruption; the other was witnessing the mobbing of a boy by the gang he himself hangs around with after school. For Eli, his father Ben, formerly the perfect role model, now needs his help to make the right choice. This movie won special mention and would be an excellent film for schools since it shows how complicated kids’ lives are today, but they can still follow the right path with aid from outsiders.

In the animated film Niko and the Way to the Stars young reindeer Niko lives with his single mother in a herd in Lapland. Convinced that his absentee father is a hero who helps guide Santa’s sleigh, he begins a dangerous search for him at the North Pole. In the end, his father is no longer important, Niko learns to fly, and he makes the right choice: to return to the herd and share his new-found maturity and knowledge.

The winner of the Michel and a check for Euro 5,000 was Leuchtende Sterne. In this film the daughter Jenna confronts death when she learns that her mother is terminally ill. She is in full-blown puberty and really needs the guidance of her mother, which isn’t possible. Her outrageous behavior attracts an unlikely ally who then accompanies her through the processes of losing her mother.  The film is extremely emotional but done in a funny, light-hearted way that makes the characters endearing. Young adults can understand why this girl reacted the way she did. Since director Lise Siwe was unable to be there for the award ceremony, she used modern technology and sent a video to address and thank the audience.

The festival closed with the Lithuanian film The Balcony, which dealt with two children who become acquainted through a shared balcony in a high-rise building.  Rolanas, from a divorced family, has just moved in; Emiljia’s family is at the brink of the same turmoil that is so familiar to Rolanas. They communicate through the walls and over the balcony and in this way he gives support. At the end the kids go on a play date, meeting each other far away from the others and then walk off the screen. This strange ending was uncomfortable for the kids in the audience. One small spectator asked the director why she chose this ending, adding that she always says “Tschüss” before she leaves. The director was struck speechless but the audience had a good laugh.  This year’s film festival did a wonderful job of taking a global look at what kids have to face in today’s society.  The tough go on making the right choices.