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Eight Great Childhood Stories in Eight Decades: A celebration of UNICEF75 in film

18 Oct 2021
Eight Great Childhood Stories in Eight Decades: A celebration of UNICEF75 in film

UNICEF turns 75 this year. To celebrate its resolute commitment to children – and as we launch the second UNICEF Innocenti Film Festival showcasing new, high-quality cinema narratives of childhood – we look back to some of the greatest film narratives of childhood. After watching hundreds of amazing films about childhood from every corner of the world, from the 1940s to 2010s, we selected one from each decade that tells a story in consonance with UNICEF’s mission to protect children's rights, help meet their basic needs and expand their opportunities to reach their full potential. From helping displaced or abandoned children to ensuring special protection for the most disadvantaged – victims of war, disasters, extreme poverty, all forms of violence and exploitation, and those with disabilities – UNICEF strives to work for every child, at all stages of childhood, including adolescence.  



The Search, USA, 1948

Against the backdrop of post-World War II Europe, is the story of a Karel (Ivan Jandl), a young concentration camp survivor in search of a future; Steve (Montgomery Clift), a US Army engineer in search of justice; and Hanna (Jarmila Novotná), a mother desperately in search of her son. While Steve befriends Karel, he devotes himself to working with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) – re-emerged in 1946 as “temporary” programme then called the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Directed by Fred Zinnemann, a pioneer in “location” films – mostly shot among the ruins of war in Germany – The Search is one the early films to show the horrible impacts of the war on children. It might also be the first Hollywood production to depict the work of the United Nations and UNICEF, which still addresses the most challenging humanitarian issues facing children in conflict zones today. The Search won the 1948 Academy Award for Best Story and a Special Juvenile Oscar given to Ivan Jandl was accepted on his behalf by Fred Zinnemann because he was not allowed to travel to the US from his home in the country today known as Czechia.  


Pather Panchali, India, 1955

A poetic and immersive directorial debut by one of India’s greatest filmmakers, Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road in Bengali) was a bona fide international film festival sensation. While not widely distributed at the time of its release, it premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955 – just two years after the UN General Assembly approved a new, and for the first time permanent, mission for UNICEF to assist vulnerable children around the world. Heavily influenced by the Italian neorealism movement, Pather Panchali focuses on the lives of poor children and their family, particularly their female caregivers, in a rural Bengal village. India’s first independent film to attract major international attention and sensitize a global audience to the hardships of the country’s rural poor, it has been criticized for romanticizing the lives of the poor, and praised for its realism and humanity.  


L’Enfance nue, France, 1968

Abandoned by his mother, François is a child of the French foster care system, continually placed in and kicked out of foster families because of his troubled and, at times, cruel behavior. However, at 10 years old, he also has a softer, reflective side. Maurice Pialat’sL’Enfance nue (Naked Childhood), presents an unvarnished look at what happens to children when things go wrong, and parents cannot provide the care they need. Released during the tense May 1968 civil unrest in France, which began with a series of student protests, L’Enfance nue, drew attention for its unsentimental portrayal of children in the foster care system. At the same time, new research and thinking about children in care showed unacceptable outcomes for institutionalized children. Orphanages and childcare institutions – including the Ospedale Degli Innocenti in Florence – had begun to rethink their forms of care for abandoned children and to consider closing such institutions in favor of homelike care settings, a trend which would grow and expand to countries at all levels of economic development in the years to follow.  


Tale of Tales, Soviet Union, 1979

Judged in 1984 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be the best animated short film of all time, Tale of Tales is a good example of the great achievements in animation across the Eastern Bloc prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Director Yuri Norstein’s scenes were said to appear like masterful oil paintings that came alive with perfect realism. This powerful impression was said to have been achieved by a unique system of photographing animated cells on multiple glass planes which were moved relative to the camera. The film’s structure is non-linear, and designed to convey the fragmentary and fuzzy images of human memory. The binding element is the perception of childhood during war-time poverty combined with nostalgic scenes of close human relationships experienced during times of deprivation. In Norstein’s words, the film is “about simple concepts that give you the strength to live.” Tale of Tales appeared at a time when international efforts toward the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) began to accelerate with the passage of numerous international agreements in the 1970s, building to near universal consensus on the need for the Convention and culminating in a International Year of the Child in 1979. The CRC was eventually passed by the UN General Assembly in 1989.  


Bashu, the Little Stranger, Iran, 1986

A dazed and traumatized boy emerges from a truck thousands of miles from his war-ravaged town near the Iran-Iraq battlefront of the 1980s. Little Bashu finds himself in Northern Iran, haunted by the spirits of his deceased mother and family members and unable to understand a single word of the local dialect (Gilaki). Taunted for his dark skin and seemingly alien ways by the villagers, he is taken in by Naii, a mother of two children trying to manage the family farm while her husband is far away in the war. Considered by many as one of the most powerful Iranian feature films of the time, director Bahram Beyzai successfully portrays an ostracized child with dignity and dimensionality, while revealing the problem of racial and ethnic prejudice. At a time of growing awareness of and concern about the dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties of armed conflict, with disastrous implications for children, Bashu, the Little Stranger tells an important story about overcoming differences.  


Spirited Away, Japan, 2001

While driving to their new home in a faraway town, nine-year-old Chihiro’s family falls into a mystical world populated by humans and Kami, the traditional Japanese spirits of the natural world. To rescue her parents and safeguard her future, Chihiro embarks on an epic journey, one that will test her judgment, courage and loyalty. That said, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away – an enormously popular film that remains one of the top grossing Japanese feature films of all time – defies any simple description. It combines the highest art of storytelling with a deep meditation of complex themes: the transition from child to adult; resistance to consumerism; and respect for the natural world. Appearing at a time when UNICEF and others started focusing more attention on adolescent health and skills, it speaks to those same themes. “It's not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances.”— Hayao Miyazaki.  


La Jaula de Oro, Guatemala/Mexico, 2010

Despite the dangers, Samuel, a rag picker, Chauk, an indigenous boy, and Sara – disguised as a boy named Osvaldo – are determined to leave Guatemala for the US. After crossing the Mexican border by boat, the trio hop on slow moving trains headed north. Along the way, they are exposed to violent police, drug cartels and petty criminals, all looking to deceive or exploit them. Only one of the three survives the journey. Screened at Cannes Film Festival’s 2013 “Un Certain Regard” showcase, The Golden Cage (distributed in the US as The Golden Dream) received notable attention. Diego Quemada-Diaz won awards for best director and best ensemble cast (played by young non-professional actors). Shot in Guatemala and Mexico, the film offers a stark look at what happens to the thousands of unaccompanied minors who still undertake this same journey today. When the film opened, the news of surges of unaccompanied minors arriving at the US border began to hit the headlines, foreshadowing an even larger version of the same humanitarian crisis affecting Europe in 2015. The film authentically portrays children on the move in the 21st century, providing an unflinching revelation of the danger and trauma these young people are exposed to and the depths of their determination to move. (Please note: The UNICEF Innocenti Film Festival, 2nd edition is being held in theater at Cinema La Compagnia and online 21 - 24 October 2021. In 2021 UIFF presents 38 films from 29 countries touching on the exhileration, the pain the joys and the dangers of childhood).

Dale Rutstein is the Chief of Communication for UNICEF Innocenti and Coordinator of the UNICEF Innocenti Film Festival  which showcases cinema narratives of childhood from all parts of the world.