It was a great privilege to attend the 2015 PG Masterclass of the Childhood and Nation in World Cinema Network at the University of Cambridge. Apart from offering the ideal setting for encounters with peers, the event was a thought-provoking introduction to the subject.
From the offset, it was clear that what at once seemed as a niche subject is a broad and growing field of academic inquiry into a multitude of issues. Indeed, the event’s overarching theme is a suitable vehicle for varying frameworks, national cinemas and arguments relating to wider discussions on popular representations of sexuality, gender, adolescence, post-coloniality, otherness and of course nations and belonging. My own presentation was an attempt to draw attention to several issues at once: Greek transnational cinema, migration, otherness and postcolonial theory. Like most of my peers, I focused on a particular film as a case study and the figure of a child who embodies the themes I sought to address.
But what was revealed to me is that childhood is an ideal medium and mediator as much as it is an important subject of its own that requires in-depth research. This issue was highlighted by other delegates who, like myself, focused on representations of childhood through the prism of various other themes showcasing the versatility and adaptability of the masterclass topic. For example, Charlie Jeffries’ presentation on female sexuality in Larry Clark’s Kids was enlightening in many respects as it offered insight not only on the film’s portrayal of adolescence but also on American subculture of the 1990s and on the taboos and leaps made regarding depictions of sex on screen in American independent cinema. I understood that Kids is a pioneering film in its unswerving depiction and evocation of American discourses on sex, childhood and adolescence.
A different example of the chameleon-like nature of the masterclass theme was observed in Milosz Paul Rosinski’s presentation on Boyhood. His presentation focused on the notion of growing up and on philosophical meditations on time and its passing in the work of Henri Bergson which supported the debate on temporality in the film. Rosinski’s paper was dedicated to representations of childhood and boyhood as much as to a philosophical investigation.
By the end of day 1, it was the keynote speech by Michael Lawrence that forced me to reconsider my established set of thoughts as much as my own ideological bias that underlies my love for cinema. For someone, like myself, who is new to the scholarly debate on childhood and nation this presentation was an eye opener.
At first, I realized that this field of enquiry is not as narrow as I imagined and that film and TV studies scholars are currently engaged in research. This is more so obvious when one considers that an international conference on childhood and nation will be held in 2016 at Royal Holloway University in London. This is apparently a topical discussion. But what Lawrence’s speech, entitled “If the Shoe Fits: Children of Heaven and its Transnational Remakes” highlighted, was a clear division between children’s media and media that portray children.
The first tends to be patronizing towards its audience while the second is ethically and morally suspect. The latter is what drew my attention particularly for its reliance on child labour in filmmaking. Lawrence moreover addressed representations of boyhood and girlhood in his case study and the film’s transnational appeal, in particular the Bollywood adaptation. He referred to theory that I am familiar with in my own research and especially the popular argument that transnational is often a shorthand for internationalism. Indeed, what Lawrence showcased is that the film’s account of a coming of age tale of hardship and childhood innocence became an ideal vehicle for the promotion of international capital through a mise en scène that evokes the logic of TV commercials, showcasing further the pitfalls of transnational filmmaking and film discourse. Ultimately, the question of child labour in cinema emerged leaving many questions as to how cinema and filmmaking conceal this ethical issue (for example, the real-life children of Mumbai slums in Slumdog Millionaire and their function in the film’s success was something briefly discussed in the speech).
A natural consequence of my attendance thus was that I began to question the value of personal art cinema favourites like Bicycle Thieves and Iranian cinema greats such as Where is the Friend’s Home? This is however the importance of events such as this masterclass that can broaden our minds and force us to rethink certain orthodoxies (like art cinema).