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Schlingel, 2013

Five Times Seven Equals Respect for the Other
By Martina Vacková

The Blue Apple Tree
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"The Blue Apple Tree" (Olegario Barrera)

Chemnitz, a city in Saxon Germany which was named Karl-Marx-Stadt during the socialist era, has been home to the SCHLINGEL International Film Festival for Children for 18 years. The paradox is that in 2006, the city was found to have the lowest birth rate in the world. We might wonder if there are enough local children and young people to form a festival audience. Chemnitz had a large population in the past, but it has less than 250,000 people today. However, during the festival's school morning sessions, it was impossible to find a spare seat in the cinema. Seats which appeared to be empty from behind were taken up by children too small to reach the headrests.

The films at the festival created similar surprises. They contained moments which transported the viewer into a world of childhood fantasy, but without an effect of dumbing-down. The festival took place in the multiplex at a shopping center popular with children and young people. Here you saw ice cream-toting kids with young mothers; around the city center, you could see young students with dyed red and orange hair, wearing the cool uniform of lowrise pants and backwards-facing caps.

Since Chemnitz was bombed during World War II, part of the city disappeared and was reconstructed. One of the nicest buildings is the old Red Tower, built in the late 12th century as part of the city wall. Today the tower stands alone on the square, surrounded by angular socialist buildings and contemporary architecture. It looks as if it was constructed by a kid playing with dice.

The meeting of old and new styles of architecture served as a parallel to the films at the festival, which were often stories about children meeting adults full of wisdom. These included the Venezuelan film The Blue Apple Tree (El manzano azul) by Olegario Barrera and the Canadian The Peewees: The Winter That Changed My Life (Les Pee-Wee: L' hiver qui change ma vie) directed by Éric Tessier. In these films, people of wisdom pass on their experience to the younger generation. They do not do this in a didactic way, which is important since young people are hypersensitive to moralizing. This may be the reason why The Blue Apple Tree was so popular with young audiences.

The movie tells the story of 11-year-old Diego, who must spend three months with his grandfather because of his mother's overseas job commitments. The boy is not particularly thrilled that he has to stay with someone who is almost a stranger. He is irritated about living in a house with no electricity and therefore no TV or computer. However the grumpy teenager ends up melting, and thanks to his active and cheerful grandfather, he realizes the importance of certain issues: one's relationship to nature and the environment, the need for mutual respect, and the fight for human rights, particularly in the case of illiterate indigenous people. Crucially, the grandfather is far from being a stereotype of the respected senior; he is an ordinary man of flesh and blood with the usual concerns and desires.

The Peewees: The Winter That Changed My Life
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"The Peewees: The Winter That Changed My Life"
(Éric Tessier)

The Blue Apple Tree combines humorous moments (the wake-up call of a donkey braying every morning at the same time) with pleasant educational scenes, as when the grandfather takes the boy to teach illiterate indigenous people. When somebody asks the question "What is five times seven?", the grandson answers: "Any fool knows that the answer is 35." But he soon realizes that the right answer in this case is respect for other people, and that what is easy for one person can be difficult for another.

The central image of the film, the blue apple tree, grows in the middle of the field. Under this tree the grandfather relaxes and meditates, and the grandson also meets his future wife. The main messages of this story are passed on to the audience as well as the film's characters.

It might be considered ironic that the most popular meeting-place for young people at the festival was a huge bust of Karl Marx. The bust has a famous inscription written in several languages: "Proletarians of all countries, unite!" Young people chat here, skateboarding and gossiping. It does not seem as if anyone cares about the proletariat. When a teenager opens a red volume labelled "Karl Marx, Capital", it turns out to contain a blank notebook inside. Karl Marx has not been deleted from history, and maybe that's good. But traces of his identity are now just part of the atmosphere of the city.

In the Canadian film The Peewees, a group of young hockey players must stick together to win a major tournament called the Mini Cup, even though it is not easy for jealous teenagers to unite. But in the final match, the players succeed against the rough Russians. Karl Marx would have been very happy with some of the ideas played out in this film.

The film features a wise character, a hockey coach. He is aware that a coach does not only teach technical excellence, but must also train the minds and souls of his charges. He must stand against parents who want their children to live our their own unfulfilled ambitions.

The young audience in the cinema particularly liked a scene in which two rival players share a room, and even a double bed, during the championship. As director Eric Tessier announced after the screening, "I did not want to make a film purely for kids or a film in which parents have to suffer watching a childish story. I wanted to make a film that would delight the whole family and appeal to all generations."

In the end, the jury of children awarded films in which values of pure love and justice triumphed over falsehood and injustice: fairytales of simple wisdom. The children's jury gave the prize to the Czech fairytale Month’s Rulers (Dvanáct měsíčků) by Karel Janák. This snowy story is based on the motifs of a traditional tale by the famous Czech writer Božena Němcová. In the story, a poor girl named Maruška finally gets justice and love with the help of Twelve Months. It is a simple story which speaks to all children with its clear language. The adult audience also found that the tale transported them into a mood of childhood.

Of course, all movies for kids about kids contain happy endings. Compared to traditional film festivals, these were not depressing heavy stories. It is obvious that even the world of children is full of pain: the loss of parents, serious illnesses, broken relationships. But in children's films there is always a positive resolution. The world of youth is full of hope, joy and problem-solving: the same world we want to inhabit as adults.

Martina Vacková
© FIPRESCI 2013

Martina Vacková is a Czech film journalist and managing editor. She studied film, literature and linguistics at Charles University in Prague, and also lived in Sydney while working at SBS Radio's Czech program. She currently works at the public Czech Radio based in Prague.

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