Amberly McAteer

When Vancouver director Adam Mars’ film screened at Sprockets, a Toronto children’s film festival, the young audience sat in silence.

“At first, I thought the kids were confused or that they didn’t like it,” he told FineCut. But he soon realized that every child in the theatre was absorbed in his film.

“It turns out they loved it, because they understood and related to the story.”

For the past 10 years, the Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival has been showing emotionally mature films to children of all ages.

The films, which come from all over the world, challenge their viewers. Some have happy endings, some don’t. But all tell a story from a child’s point of view and let their young audiences in on a secret that every kid should know: they’re not alone.

These stories are complicated, ranging from death and grief to the deconstruction of family. Children not only have the ability to understand these experiences on screen, but they understand their world better because of them. 

In 2004, Mars won the Best Short Film Award at Sprockets for Chika’s Bird, a short film about a 10-year-old girl who uses origami to connect with her ill grandfather.

Mars says children can understand very adult topics when the story is told through the eyes of a child.  “Sure, when they hear Alzheimer’s, the kids might lean over to their mom and ask what that means. But really, it’s quite simple. All kids know what love is, and they can relate to that.”

Mavis Reimer, the Canadian Research Chair in the Culture of Childhood at the University of Winnipeg, says films are essential in producing responsible youth.

“You want to provide a range of experiences to create young sophisticated film-goers and have children that can take away meaning from film.”

She says children should be exposed to many different types of films, not simply those with easily digestible happy endings.

“I think a lot of North American adults tend to restrict their kids’ film experiences to those utopian movies,” she says. And by doing so, she says, they limit their children’s cultural perspective. 

Like adults, children will be entertained through a fantasy film, Reimer says.

“But [adults] also enjoy a very realistic gritty story. These are different kinds of experiences, and I don’t think young people should be restricted to just any one genre.”

Jane Schoettle, director and creator of Sprockets, says most mainstream filmmakers don’t give children their due credit. “Just like adults, kids want to experience art that deals with issues they face in their lives,” she says. “They have that same need for catharsis through art that grown-ups do.”

Schoettle says she learned the power of a good movie early, with parents who encouraged her to watch and read everything in their Northern Alberta home.

“My mom says I saw Bambi, but I don’t remember it at all. But I can vividly remember watching the film Ben Hur in the theatre with my dad,” she says, who explained the history behind the story to her. Schoettle credits that moment with teaching her that extraordinary experiences are possible through film.

Schoettle’s husband, Murray McRae, has been writing award-winning scripts for kids’ movies for over a decade and insists the key to writing a good script is a core respect for the audience.   

The inspiration often comes from personal experience, he says. “I lost my grandfather when I was 10. I remember those feelings of grief and the process of dealing with those feelings,” he says.

With a personal knowledge of the grieving process from a young child's perspective, McRae wrote Blizzard, a Christmas film about a young girl who befriends a reindeer after her friend moves away and her father loses his job.

“It’s really important that I told the story from the character’s perspective, a child coming to terms with loss.”

Ottawa-based documentary filmmaker Rob Thompson won the Audience Choice award for best feature film at Sprockets in 2004 for Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown, a chronicle of one of the first black high school students to attend a white high school in segregated America in the 1960s.

Thompson said he was shocked that children reacted the way they did to a film with serious themes such as racially-motivated hatred.

Thompson intended to make a movie for adults, but when he got the opportunity to show it at Sprockets, he went for it. “I was surprised, because it’s not your typical kids’ film,” says Thompson. 

When the real life Minnijean Brown was at the theatre to answer questions after the film, the kids responded well.

“It was great for the kids to be able to speak to her after watching what she went through,” says Thompson.

The festival showcases children’s films from all over the world, with winners from Belgium, Sweden and many African nations.

In the months leading up to the April festival, Sprockets holds the Globetrotter series, monthly screenings of international films to arouse and excite their young viewers.

In February, The Golden Ball, a story of a Guinean boy who has dreams of becoming the best soccer player in the country, was screened to a packed audience of parents and children.

Seven-year-old Issa Traore of Toronto attended the screening. Abdoulaye Trarore, Issa’s uncle, says he is surprised that at such a young age, Issa is enthralled with foreign films.

Issa says he likes movies from Africa because his mom is currently in Mali. “They’re not the same as Disney films, like Mary Poppins,” he adds.

For Jane Schoettle, showing international films to kids in Toronto is especially important.

“A lot of children in our city are from places around the world,” she says. She hopes seeing movies from faraway places will help the children learn something about their classmates and neighbours, who “might not look the same, but are exactly the same inside.”

For certain, kids react positively to films that speak to them, instead of speaking down to them. Schoettle says that her dream is to one day stop holding the fesetival.

"That would mean that these non-mainstream films would be easily accessible to kids everywhere."