The New York International Children’s Film Festival Puts Girls And Women In Front Of — And Behind — The Camera

by Rachel Withers


The 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival (NYICFF), the largest film festival for children and teens in North America, will be running from February 24 – March 19. But it’s not just for kids. The festival screens intelligent, thought-provoking feature-length and short films, and many of this year’s films spotlight inspiring girls from around the world.

BUST spoke with Maria-Christina Villaseñor, Programming Director for the NYICFF, about the festival’s films and panels, and the future of women both in front of and behind the camera.

The Children’s Film Festival looks like it’s going to be awesome, and congrats to the festival on its 20th anniversary! What’s it like being Programming Director for the NYICFF?

It’s intense, it’s exciting, it’s an honor and a challenge to think about shaping the next generation of both filmgoers but also active viewers: Creative, responsive and thoughtful kids who we are hoping to engage in all kinds of different ways — artistically and thematically and just seeing themselves reflected on-screen. It’s very big boots to step into, but it’s a really wonderful mission to have.

The festival does a great job of telling stories from girls’ points of views. Why do you think it’s important for films for children to tell women’s and girls’ stories?

As everyone knows, we are grappling with the imbalance of the industry’s representation of women behind the camera. Having women behind the camera often translates into female stories being represented on the screen in interesting and complicated and multifaceted ways. From that perspective we thought it was important to just get those stories out there, and to give young girls who may be struggling to find their place in their own generation a way to sort of see different role models, different complex scenarios that kids are negotiating, and just see all kinds of different stories of women and girls on the screen that they can engage with in a different way.

What are some of your favorite feminist picks at the festival this year?

There’s so many. In terms of the Girls’ POV program, we have a lot of really exciting things. We have a freshly minted diverse crew of female filmmakers that made the film Amelia’s Closet, which is an interesting story about a young girl negotiating issues of class and race, in a beautiful live-action short. 

There’s also a documentary [as part of Girls’ POV] that we’re super thrilled with called Free Like the Birds, which focuses on this amazing, very young activist Sophie Cruz, a child of undocumented parents, and that’s done by Paola Mendoza. She’s a really wonderful filmmaker who works on a number of different fronts. It’s fantastic in terms of having this direct mirror into how kids can have a voice and be actively engaged in very important contemporary debates. Sophie’s utterly charming, and just spoke at the Women’s March on Washington so it’s super timely, and it’s intense and very relevant subject matter. We are excited to be giving space to and opening up a dialogue about it.

And then in terms of the feature front, a wonderful feature that I think works really well in today’s climate, because it’s an allegory that doesn’t place you in any particular geopolitical location, is The Day My Father Became a Bush.

Screen Shot 2017 02 22 at 6.04.46 pmScreenshot from The Day My Father Became A Bush trailer

It’s a film about a young girl whose country falls into this war, but its a war between “the ones” and “the others,” so it offers this wonderful way to look at these issues of conflict and what it’s like for this little girl to have to traverse the border to safety and be a refugee, in this way that is almost like a fable. And it’s a really charming film despite its really heavy subject matter. It has this beautiful relationship between her and her father. The father is a baker and they have this wonderful bakery and they’re just in this lovely environment of cooking and creating and having fun together. It’s a really smart, poignant and accessible way for young people to start to think about some of these issues. And that’s by a female director, Nicole van Kilsdonk from Holland.

In terms of those films that are making a point like that, or teaching kids about global issues; is that something that the festival sets out to do? Or is it just something as a result of the type of submissions you receive?

I think it’s a little bit of both. We look for of course the artistry of film in whatever guise, whether that’s through innovative animation or strong live action or documentary, so that’s definitely foremost in our mind. But along with that, there’s also this opportunity we have to spark thought and dialogue, so we’re always looking for resonant stories, and this year I think we just really lucked out. But you know, the flip side of lucking out is also being prepared and knowing that you’re wanting to go deep on certain things. We lucked out having really well-made films that have these very timely and resonant topics.

We have this great animation that mirrors some of these issues called Window Horses, which also has a female director, Ann Marie Fleming from Canada, and it’s really this lovely and witty and sardonic film about a young poet finding her voice. She’s of Chinese and Persian descent, and ends up being plucked from her banal life to being invited to this poetry festival in Iran. It’s beautiful and funny and a wonderful investigation of finding your voice and Persian culture and literature, and there’s really beautiful animation that sort of plays with different graphic approaches to how you make characters. It just makes you think about so many different aspects of filmmaking and storytelling and cultural history.

Screen Shot 2017 02 22 at 6.10.22 pmScreenshot from Window Horses trailer

Going back to what you said before about women being so underrepresented behind the scenes; I’ve read that 50% of the films in the NYICFF were directed by women, which is fantastic! Was that part of your decision-making process, was there a quota?

That’s the fantastic thing, is that it wasn’t at all. Also it’s particularly challenging in animation to have good representation of women, so we were just super over the moon when we realized those were the figures that we ran, it was completely by chance.

Your background is in film and the arts, in curation and writing and programming. As somebody who knows the creative industry well, what do you think we need to do to get more young women going into these kinds of roles?

Encouraging them to have their voices heard. We have another thing that we just announced, a panel called Animators All Around. We really wanted to show kids, although the audience is all ages, that there is a diversity not only in terms of who’s making the films but how their stories are being told… one of our directors [on the panel] Elizabeth Ito made a short called “Welcome To My Life,” and its kinds of this playful taking on growing up in this Japanese-American family, and it’s an interesting way for audiences to hear how your own personal story can be transformed in different ways. 

I think it’s important for young girls, and kids to see things modelled and understand that film and any kind of cultural production, can come from all kinds of different inspiration, and that you can come from a different place, you can have a different intention, there are just so many different points of entry and so many different results that you can have in terms of creating whatever it is that you’re going to create out of your own voice. Hopefully through our Girls’ POV program and having Q&As and having workshops where they see those possibilities and it inspires them both in terms of filmmaking but in terms of any kind of cultural production. You can do it, you see it, you have a sense of how it comes about and your questions and your thoughts’ are welcome.

And finally, what can us older girls get out of the festival?

Our festival is unique because we really scour the globe for interesting work that has a point of entry for kids, but in very many cases it’s not work that was specifically made for kids, so it definitely resonates with all audiences. Window Horses is a case in point of a piece that was not specially made for a young audience but is appealing to them. We definitely have our own adult audiences as well.

I think whenever you share your experience with a young audience, the best part is that they’re so transparent and enthusiastic and vocal about responding to a film. I think it creates this great environment to be open and responsive and excited, and thinking in different ways about whatever it is that you just saw.

Anything else we should watch out for?

We also have a really wonderful South Korean title called The World of Us, which is this really beautiful examination of the challenges of young girls negotiating class and social divides. It’s just beautifully filmed, really unique in the way it represents these girls.

Finally, we’re excited that Lola Doillon, the director of Fanny’s Journey, is going to be with us on March 5. That’s also the case of a film that resonates for many different aged audiences. That’s a really intense film, a biopic actually, about a young girl’s experiences during the Holocaust

Screen Shot 2017 02 22 at 6.16.07 pmScreenshot from ‘Fanny’s Journey’ trailer 

All images via NYICFF website, used with permission

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