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It's big and it's wild

Elaine Williams previews England's largest festival of children's film



Showroom Cinema, Sheffield. July 4-13

Today's children, raised on a blockbuster diet of fast-moving films, full of special effects and with obligatory happy endings, might baulk at foreign language films with subtitles and subtle narratives. Or so some adults assume.

Not so the staff at Arbourthorne community primary in Sheffield, an inner-city school of 400 pupils. They are taking the school to a total of 26 film sittings - 13 classes from reception to Year 6 seeing two films each - from a range of Canadian, Iranian, Danish, Dutch and British productions being shown during Showcomotion, Sheffield's film festival for children and young people, which opens today.

The largest festival of children's film in England, Showcomotion is a pound;50,000 initiative based on an intricate web of arts and education partnerships in South Yorkshire. Films on offer in the fifth year include The Boy Who Wanted To Be A Bear, a poignant animated "fairy tale" from Denmark about a boy raised as a polar bear cub, which received special mention at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival; Science Fiction, a BelgianDutch thriller based on the quest of nine-year-old Andreas Decker to find out if his parents really are aliens who want to take over the world; and the Danish production Wallah Be (nominated Grand Prix feature film at Berlin), about Aksel, a boy reluctantly facing a summer holiday at the after-school club when all he wants to do is hang around with the Muslim boys who look cool and drive fast cars.

Arbourthorne's deputy head, Joe Brian, says the festival presents a golden opportunity for the school, which serves a largely working-class white community, to gain a multicultural experience, while extending children's already sophisticated response to film. "Many children have a more sophisticated response than adults to film," he says. "It is their medium; they watch it all the time on television. We assume they watch undemanding pap, but Disney and a lot of children's film is cleverly crafted, and many children can 'read' film better than they can read books. They are well capable of giving a mature and measured response.

"We will take pupils to see You Are Free (about two boys' friendship in an Iranian reformatory school), a moving piece that is very satisfying for children to watch. You certainly don't get a happy resolution in this film, but pupils can take that on board."

Arbourthorne is using the festival as a springboard for work during the last two weeks of this term. "We can do a lot of fixing geographically, we can look at clothes, emotions, ways of life," says Mr Brian. "Children are used to seeing clips about other countries on news bulletins, but films take you inside and pupils can see that children in Iran are the same as in Arbourthorne."

With festival tickets at pound;1 a child, adults free, Arbourthorne has made sure that many parents will join the film trips. Many will never have visited the festival venue - Sheffield's independent cinema, Showroom. Mr Brian expects films made at Arbourthorne to be the next step. "This is a good way into literacy. There are so many close links between what you can write and what you can put into film."

Indeed, Showcomotion has become a platform for films made by many young people across South Yorkshire. Of this year's 101 films (including 30 animation shorts), 58 are made by young people. 2Be is a powerful, well-constructed 30-minute documentary made by more than 100 pupils at Abbeydale Grange, a 680-strong comprehensive where 40 languages are spoken.

The film features music, dance and the testimonies of pupils including refugees and asylum seekers who have suffered trauma or difficulties, talking about their experiences and feelings about human rights. A girl from Somalia talks of seeing her father killed in war, others describe racism they have suffered in the UK.

Andrea Parry, who was head of art at Abbeydale Grange and is now project manager and arts co-ordinator of the Abbeydale Corridor education action zone, says the filming improved pupils' mental health "as it provided a much-needed opportunity for giving them attention". Eleni Christopoulou from Gorilla Cinema, a local independent film-making company, who produced the film, says it forced many pupils with deep-seated problems to collaborate and listen to each other. "We started off making the film in curriculum time, but we soon found ourselves having to do more work after hours. It drew in so many pupils and taught them about framing and composition. Some were writing songs, but they all had to collaborate. It was a healing process. Young people learned how to be critical through film-making - how to see the world and how to put over ideas. It raised self-awareness."

Ms Parry has been promoting film-making as a creative tool and as a method of improving speaking and listening. Schools in the EAZ have been issued with iMac computers and iMovie software for flexible digital film-making and editing. "Speaking and listening skills are weak at key stages 2 and 3, but film is about speaking and listening through art and design," she says.

"Children see a lot of TV. They understand the technology and respond to this work."

She has used film to create community involvement. At Sharrow nursery and infant school, for example, Somali mothers have been shown how to film and edit, and given cameras to film their children at home, providing an insight into their lives. Ms Parry says film has become an important tool in the EAZ for social expression and involvement, and Showcomotion provides a crucial audience for this work. Abbeydale Grange has produced a photographic exhibition, Beyond the Frame, on display in the cinema foyer during Showcomotion, based on the gangster movie genre.

Kathy Loizou, director of Showcomotion, and Gez Walker, education manager at Showroom, have given the festival a unique educational profile and are running a series of workshops during the week on careers in the film business; developing stories for television; acting in front of the camera; film reviewing (with Charles Grant, film editor of Heat magazine). There are also day conferences on film-making with young people and on media education. Teachers have been offered festival programme preview nights at the Showroom.

Pupils at Chaucer school, a Sheffield comprehensive, have been recording their reviews of subtitled films from the festival in the TV studio at Sheffield College as part of The Big Sell, a project to extend literacy through film and media marketing. The review clips can be seen during the festival and on the website. And organisers hope books will benefit: Book Off, a reader development project in Sheffield libraries, will provide a selection of books in the Showroom foyer.

By providing a platform for films made by schools, Showcomotion hopes to foster a strong film-loving culture in the city and provide a real and vibrant alternative to the Hollywood diet.

Schools that make films have to meet quality criteria, but "if they can produce the goods they have a platform", says Ms Loizou. Gez Walker says the festival helps young people become more literate in the medium "most relevant to them". He adds:"We teach young people how to read books, but we don't teach them how to read film and television."

Showroom box office:0114 275 7727; school bookings hotline: 0114 276 3534; (with teacher resource pack)

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