Village of the Damned (1960)
★★★ / ★★★★
It was an ordinary day in an English village which suddenly turned extraordinary when the townsfolk fell asleep at the same time. Calls from people who wished to contact the villagers could not go through so they began to worry. Whenever someone from the outside crossed an invisible line, they, too, fell asleep. Officials concluded there must have been a force field or a biological agent involved that explained the strange phenomenon. When the villagers woke up, a few months later, the women made the discovery that they were pregnant. I found this movie fascinating because of its strong concept and consistency to keep me guessing. I admired it for not simply relying on the creepy blonde-haired children to generate chills. It actually took its time trying to explain the weird situation the village was thrusted into by monitoring women at various points in their pregnancies. We learned a handful of weird details even when the children were still in the womb such as their rate of development being faster than a normal human being which suggested, as my first hypothesis, that the kids may have been extraterrestrial by nature. But the picture did not give us defined answers. It asked questions like the children’s purpose, but the writers made an astute decision to simply offer the audiences several explanations and it was up to us which, if any, we wished to accept. The film constantly changed gears. When the kids were about three of four years old, led by David (Martin Stephens), son of a couple (George Sanders, Barbara Shelley) suggested to have been trying to conceive but to no avail, we learned that the kids had various psychic abilities. Paranoia covered the town like a permanent fog and the regular folks’ discrimination almost made me feel sorry for the kids. Wolf Rilla, the director, successfully tried to make us sympathize for the children so the material felt dynamic. Since they were so different, the people in the village did not quite know how to deal with the blonde-haired children. It was easy to relate the situation to the real world where educators struggle to find a way for gifted children to meet their true potential. The ostracization by their peers is another factor. “Village of the Damned,” based on John Wyndham’s novel “The Midwich Cuckoos,” had imagination but it did not result to gore or violence. The small details were the factors that sent chills down our spines. The story may have taken place in a small village but the ideas surpassed borders on the map–or in this case, force fields.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
Waiting for Superman (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five kids from disadvantaged districts across America hoped that they would be lucky enough to be chosen, lottery-style, to attend charter schools. Such schools were considered as public schools but they were independent from the many bureaucracies, like how much money should be spent on a child and the amount of material that needs to be taught in a year, that directly impeded children’s ability to learn as much information they possibly could. Directed by Davis Gunnenheim, “Waiting for Superman” was an eye-opening look at how public schools have gone from good (1950s), to bad (1970s), to inexcusably terrible (2000s). I was moved to tears when these kids looked into the camera and said that they just wanted to go to a good school so they could have a chance at a promising future. Odds were against them because four of them lived in dangerous neighborhoods which meant that they didn’t have many role models with whom they could look up to; their families didn’t have much money so even if they were sent to private schools, their possibility of finishing was slim; and despite being motivated to go to school, some teachers simply didn’t care.
Out of all the reasons the film cited involving why public schools have turned out the way they have, teachers who gave up teaching was what bothered and angered me most. In high school, I remember having some teachers who proudly said, “I still get paid even if you don’t learn anything.” They would just sit behind their desks and we were left to do mind-numbing “busy work,” completely detached from the reason why we were there in the first place. If we had a question, they purposefully (and vindictively) ignored us or they would order us to put our hands down and “just do your work.” How could we possibly do our work correctly if a teacher, who was not teaching, wasn’t willing to offer us any guidance? We might as well have stayed home or had a free period. We could have gone to the library and read something we were interested in. I didn’t go to the best high school (obviously), but I didn’t go to the worst either. We were known for our sports, color guard, and the debate team. Academics just wasn’t the main priority. But that was high school. By that point, I already knew the importance of education and I had a laser-focus plan. Despite such “teachers,” I was going to get the best grades, get solid scores on whatever standardized exams they threw at me (which, really, doesn’t measure anything significant about a person–don’t get me started on this issue), and I would go to a four-year university. My mind didn’t have any questions or doubts. There was no “back-up plan” that teachers so enthusiastically recommended “just in case.” Not being admitted wasn’t an option. I knew I was smart and I wasn’t afraid. My parents busted their ass, pardon my French, to save a bit of money so that I could get a college degree. I did. I graduated. And I was lucky. But most people aren’t lucky. Imagine the same apathetic teachers I mentioned but in extremely disadvantaged elementary schools. The damage they could wreak is irreversible. Kids absorb all sorts of information. If teachers don’t care or have given up trying, children can turn that way, too.
With the help of a hidden camera, even though I had a first-hand experience with those kinds of teachers, the videos this film showed us was still horrifying to watch. Millions of dollars of taxes are spent on teachers not doing their job. The film had its flaws, like not defining what makes a “good teacher” and not putting enough weight on internal motivations, but it was very informative. The statistics were mind-boggling (aided by fun animations that were easy to understand) but I never knew that tenures could be a weapon used against kids. Up to this point, I was led to believe that tenures were inherently good because it protected good teachers from being fired. In reality, it protected all teachers. It didn’t matter if they just sat behind their desks all day playing solitaire or looking at pornography or trying to hook up with strangers to meet on the weekend. They were set for life and they shirked their responsibilities with impunity. Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system, made an astute statement that some teachers felt that their position was a right and not a privilege. It shouldn’t be that way. Teachers should be agents of progress instead of parasitic impediments.
I’ve had experience in teaching kids and the trends I noticed were staggering. For instance, I would have kids in the same grade, assigned the same worksheets, yet there was a huge difference in their abilities. I could have five kids who were in the fourth grade but three of them could barely spell words like “announcement” and “scholar,” let alone apply rules of grammar and punctuation. How could they progress to middle school, then high school, then college if they didn’t have the basic skills? Lastly, I wished the film had acknowledged the division between “Honors Kids” and “Regular Kids.” There were times when I would teach a child and she would say, “I just don’t get it because I’m dumb.” When I asked, “Why do you think you’re dumb?” She responded, “Because I’m not in GATE. So I don’t get it. I’m not smart.” (GATE: Gifted and Talented Education) I was one of those “Honors Kids” so I’ll speak from that perspective. Yes, it made me feel special. It gave me a lot of positive attention. It made me want to perform above and beyond what was expected. In a lot of ways, it made me a very competitive person. But I think school districts should reconsider this divide because “Regular Kids” can’t help but feel defeated. The label can possibly stick with them forever. The first time I heard that response, it broke my heart. All I could say was, “You’re not dumb. You don’t understand it now. But you will understand it later.” After hearing that, the look she gave to me was like the very first time someone told her that she wasn’t dumb. I’ll never forget that moment. To say that it’s really difficult for one to fully understand how bad it’s gotten without first-hand experience with children is an understatement. We should be ashamed that education is failing in America. “Waiting for Superman” may have been a flawed mirror but it still reflects something to us so that we can see what changes we need to implement.
Butcher Boy, The (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Francie (Eamonn Owens), a boy with a very active imagination, values two things in life: his parents (Stephen Rea and Aisling O’Sullivan, respectively) and his best friend (Alan Boyle). So when the three important figures in his life were taken away due to varying circumstances, his childhood mischief evolved into an emotional disturbance despite the people in town treating him as nicely as they could. I understand that this can be a challenging film especially to people not used to over-the-top quirkiness mixed with surreal elements. I was able to stick with the story by focusing my attention on the psychology of a child who felt abandoned and betrayed. Further, he did not have a healthy way to get rid of his negative emotions. Instead, Francie channeled his energy toward torturing a kid from the neighborhood along with his mother (Fiona Shaw), who responded by asking other guys to physically assault Francie. The town eventually unable to deal with Francie’s indiscretions, he was sent away for extended periods of time. In such institutions, he failed to face his problems because he had no one to talk to and explain why what he did was wrong. The positive feedback of violence and emotional disturbance pushed the kid slowly toward a mental breakdown. Although the events that were happening on screen were wrapped in comedic elements, I thought it was really sad in its core because nobody understood how to deal with the tragic main character in a healthy way. The theme of the picture was abandonment which culminated when Francie returned from boarding school but his best friend was no longer his best friend. The schism in their relationship was especially painful to watch because earlier in the movie we had a chance to see them so close. They even had a pact to become “blood brothers” for the rest of their lives. The fear and disappointment in the children’s eyes (especially Boyles’) were apparent but they wouldn’t express them to each other because they either lacked the right words to say what they really felt or one did not want to hurt the other. All of the strange images and quirkiness aside, I thought the picture had a clear emotional resonance and I empathized with the main character throughout even though I did not necessarily agree with his choices. Based on the novel by Pat McCabe and astutely directed by Neil Jordan, “The Butcher Boy” was essentially about a childhood gone wrong because the child lacked guidance about life’s contradictions and challenges. Watching it was highly rewarding because its humanity was actually highlighted and not dimmed by dark comedy.
Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Zana Briski decided to go to Calcutta’s red-light district in hopes of getting a chance to document how it was really like, especially for women, to live in the brothels. But her mission evolved when she got closer to the prostitutes’ children; she realized that the kids needed a chance to get out of the red-light district so she handed the children simple cameras, used their photographs to raise money, get international acclaim and get them into boarding schools. I was really touched by this documentary because the kids offered such insight about their living situations. Even though the kids were very young, they knew the importance of education but at the same time some of them came to accept that most of them would never leave the district. Or worse, they would turn out like their parents. Despite knowing the nature of their mothers’ jobs, the kids were aware of the fact that their mothers had to sacrifice their own bodies and safety in order to support their families. One of the kids that really moved me said that she doesn’t ever see herself becoming rich, that she’ll be happy being poor because life is supposeed to be sad and difficult. I understand the hopelessness of the children because of how and where they’ve been raised, but it’s still difficult for me to accept that nothing better is in store for them because I wasn’t raised in an environment that was even as close to theirs. The realism of this picture was staggering but it’s nice to reminded of the fact that the events that we’ve seen in the movie is still happening today. Briski’s decision to teach the children the art of photography has to be commended. The children were powerless but having a camera their hands was like handing them a special power. It was easy to see the light in those children’s eyes when they would run around in the streets and take random pictures of people and objects. I was surprised with how well some of the photographs turned out and was convinced that some of them just had a natural gift in photography. I don’t know if the children realized it but taking pictures was like an escape from the harsh realities of their lives. And the way they talked about Briski, I could tell that the kids looked up to her so much and probably even considered her as their hero. “Born Into the Brothels,” directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, was a rich and emotionally challenging documentary. The movie may have been shot with a simple hand-held camera (at least from what it looked like) but it was bold in terms of really exploring the sociological and psychological impacts of the environment had on the children.
Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, Das (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte” or “The White Ribbon,” written and directed by Michael Haneke, was a stunning black-and-white picture that tried to offer some explanations regarding the cruelty of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Although I liked this film because it was on a league of its own, I couldn’t help but feel very disappointed because it was wildly uneven. Having a pattern of a great scene followed by two or three banal scenes hindered this film tremendously. The movie started off with a man on a horse tripping on an almost invisible rope. The whole small village was stunned by the horrible crime but little did they know that it was only the beginning of such monstrous acts. Throughout the film, with many main and side characters, we were given the chance to play guessing games on who might have committed those crimes. Was it the adults who were tired of the Baron and his family? Was it the children who were abused and mistreated by their parents? Or was it nobody from the village and all of it were just random acts of violence? Half-way through the picture, I grew exhausted of the film because the payoffs were few and far between. I could feel something sinister going on under the surface but the director either was too afraid to tackle the issue head-on or he was simply being pretentious by masking everything in “subtlety.” I didn’t understand what he was trying to do because his execution was so vague. I thought his goal was to explain possible reasons why unnecessary evils were committed in the ’30s and ’40s because it was promised by the narrator. Instead, we get scenes like a doctor having an affair or the Baron’s wife confessing her transgressions to her husband. When I look back on it, I felt like this movie could have been ninety minutes long and it would have been more interesting and more powerful. The best scenes were definitely the ones that featured the way different parents disciplined their children. Not only did those scenes say something about the parents but it told the audiences something about the children–the manner in which they immediately reacted to such punishments and later on when faced with decisions with similar consequences. I was able to think back to the child psychology courses I’ve taken and think about how repression, forceful application of shame (without the kids fully understanding why what they did was wrong), and one-dimensional way of raising children could impact the kids in both short-term and long-term. In that respect, I thought the movie did a good job. It’s just that the technical elements didn’t quite click with me because it lacked focus. For a movie about brewing evil, it didn’t have enough tension so it wasn’t exciting. It was interesting but in a monotonous manner that requires a lot of patience.
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, “Tekkonkinkreet” was about two children aimed to protect their city from people who either wanted to change the city for the better or demolish it altogether to build an amusement park. Although the medium is animation, the story is not for children because it is very violent and the issues it tackles are geared more toward adults. While I did admire its ability to take risks, it did not completely work for me because it started out as a story grounded in reality but elements of the paranormal or fantasy somehow was added into the mix. It became really confusing, especially toward the end, not only because the movie simultaneously showed events that were actually happening in the real world, it also showed what was in the characters’ heads, and possibly scenes of the future. Perhaps the reason why I didn’t quite get it was because I needed more background information. But then again I always judge a film as a stand-alone piece of work; it should be able to hold up without having to read the source from which it was based on. Undoubtedly, there were some positive things such as the intense chase scenes and the imagination embedded in the metaphysical and surrealistic scenes. Directed by Michael Arias, I wish “Tekkonkinkreet” had less visual stimulation and instead worked more on its emotional resonance. I was interested in the two main characters’ relationship with each other and their society. It would have been a great opportunity to explore how their role as homeless kids, who had to steal from citizens and live in an abandoned car, was directly affected by cops who really cared about their well-beings (and vice-versa). What I love about animes and animated features in general is that it is limitless when it comes to giving its audiences images and emotions. However, there are those animes that simply fail to get me to care or keep my attention due to that lack of balance between the two. Unfotunately, this film is one of those animated pictures that left me bewildered in a negative way.
Bes vakit (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
“Bes vakit,” also known as “Times and Winds,” was a story about how three children stopped being kids because of the many responsibilities that their parents thrusted upon them. Ozkan Ozen decided to kill his father because he could no longer take the maltreatment and favoritism toward his precocious brother. Elit Iscan slowly headed for breakdown because her mother insisted that she made herself useful even if the amount of schoolwork was more than enough for her to handle. And Ali Bey Kayali developed on a crush on his teacher, only to stumble on the fact that his own father was spying on her through her bedroom window. I have to be honest and state that this film was particularly difficult for me to sit through because of the many lingering shots on certain objects and sceneries. As stunning as such images were, I personally would have preferred to see more character development, dialogue and conflict among the characters. Without that emotional pull, it’s hard for me to be invested in the movie. I’m not saying that this Turkish film is not at all worth seeing, but it really is more of an acquired taste. Personally, I can withstand slow-moving pictures but this one gradually wore down my patience. The rituals that the children engaged in became a bit too redundant and I failed to see the point of it all. I also felt that the relationships among the kids weren’t established and therefore did not come together in the end. While all of them were obviously unhappy, I needed to see more commonalities among them to further observe them in multiple dimensions. Although I was able to evaluable their motivations and take note of their varying psychologies, there was still a certain detachment that did not quite dissolve as the picture went on. Written and directed by Reha Erdem, “Times and Winds” offered beautiful landscapes and a certain poetry with its tone. However, I hardly think it was strong enough to warrant a recommendation for viewers. I’m afraid this was just one of those coming-of-age films that left a bitter taste on my palate.
Entre les murs (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I thought “Chalk” was a realistic portrayal of the classroom environment but “Entre les murs,” also known as “The Class,” was grittier and far more realistic. Based on the novel and starring François Bégaudeau, this film was a docudrama about a teacher who tries to encourage fourteen- to fifteen-year-olds to be more passionate about learning via being honest with them and using various methods to find their strengths in a span of one year. However, this year was different because the kids he had last year were on the verge of growing up so, naturally, they began to question his different approaches and tried to constantly push him over the edge, blind to the fact that he was always putting his best intentions forward to try to make them more prepared for the future. This film is very difficult not to admire because it really captured how it was like to be in a classroom consisting on hormonal and highly unstable students. I was in high school three years ago and it brought back a lot of memories. I may not have had the same experiences as the students in this picture because I experienced both “advanced placement” classes and “regular” classes, but the conversations and dynamics in the classrooms were essentially similar. Seeing François Bégaudeau’s character reminded me of my best teachers in high school (unsurprisingly, my favorite classes: French and Psychology) because even though they always try their best and put on a mask that everything is okay, tiny cracks on their armors are sometimes seen and the frustrations leak out like a dam about to burst. I looked at the students who improvised most of the dialogue and I constantly thought that in less than five years, their outlook on education, ability in terms of social interactions and the overall concept of respect would totally be redefined to the point where they would look at this film and probably would not recognize who they were. I also found the interactions between the teachers and faculty fascinating. There were some scenes that suggested that they, too, were like children in the classrooms, which was a nice surprise because most American films about inspirational teachers have this message that teachers are always proper, always wearing decent clothes and always having that need to provide a big speech that would change everybody’s minds for the better. None or very minimal of that American formula was painted here. “The Class,” directed by Laurent Cantet, was a painfully realistic look at our educational systems and it shows that teachers need to be appreciated more even if their best efforts are simply not enough. (Don’t even get me started on how little they get paid for such an important and difficult career.) There was this scene in the end when one of the students confessed to the teacher that she didn’t learn anything throughout the school year, which totally broke my heart. As sad as it was, it’s more honest and more common than we can possibly imagine. That said, it shouldn’t scare us or defeat us; it should only inspire us to find other ways to accomodate such learners.