• Film
  • Tótem, The Quiet Girl and the cinema of children


Tótem, The Quiet Girl and the cinema of children

In Totem, The Quiet Girl and Little Fugitive, Berlin will soon screen three films exploring the pain and beauty of life through the eyes of children.

Tótem, d. Lila Avilés, (Mexico, 2023). Image courtesy of Limerencia Films

The child in cinema is a potent symbol across all genres of film. Childhood representation examines our understanding of protection and innocence throughout different cultures and places. The child in cinema is a reflection of the anxieties of adults as they return to memories both traumatic and beautiful. The simplicity of the child’s gaze in film is often so much clearer than that of adults. Lost and wayward, unfettered and intense: there is a particular way that a child looks and experiences things which can be felt poignantly on screen.

One of my top picks of Berlinale 2023, Tótem by Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés, is one of the most beautiful embodiments of the power of childhood-centred cinema. The film depicts the story of seven-year-old Sol, who spends the day at her grandfather’s home as her family organises a surprise party for Sol’s father, Tonatiuh. As twilight descends, Sol comes to understand that her world and life are changing exponentially.

Avilés captures perfectly the tension between total eccentricity and normality inside a family; as Sol’s bohemian relatives jostle about in party prep mode, Sol wants to go upstairs and see her dad, but she’s not allowed. As adults talk in hushed voices, we understand together with Sol the deeper realities of what is happening around her, and just how ill her father really is. Sol slowly realises that death is a painful but unavoidable factor of life – and in many ways, the adults aren’t as capable and open when it comes to acceptance. Avilés creates an environment removed from the outside world that is inspiring to watch.

The Quiet Girl, d. Colm Bairéad, (Ireland, 2022). Image courtesy of Berlinale.de

The simplicity of the child’s gaze in film is often so much clearer than that of adults.

Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl was a huge hit on the Generation Kplus programme at Berlinale 2022 and has gone on to find international acclaim since its debut. This winter, it finds its way to Berlin Kinos for the first time. Adapted from the popular Irish novel Foster by Claire Keegan, the story follows Cáit, a young girl spending the summer at a distant relative’s in the countryside in 1980s Ireland. Here, Cáit is far removed from domestic neglect, and the poverty and overbearing intensity of her family home is swapped out for love and care from a childless couple. Forever feeling like something more sinister is about to unfold, the film is brisk and acutely observant, small in scale and light in its touch.

A jewel of Berlin cinema culture, global distributor and production house Rapid Eye Movies is helping Asian directors such as Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk break into the European market. Among many brilliant restorations, they’re offering a masterpiece of brilliantly candid childhood cinema this winter: Little Fugitive. This 1953 landmark film by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkinwhich influenced the French New Wave and is now considered a masterpiece for its verité style and groundbreaking use of amateur actors in lead roles.

At this year’s Berlinale, Wes Anderson (a great example of a director who understands the dichotomy of childhood/adult cinema) chose Little Fugitive as his pick for an influential coming-of-age film in Berlinale’s Retrospective programme. The film follows Joey, a seven-year-old in Brooklyn. As Joey’s family is busy dealing with their own struggles, we see him on a day out, riding the carousel, playing baseball, eating cotton candy and collecting bottles. A blueprint for many children-in-cinema directors, from Larry Clark to Lyn Ramsay, Little Fugitive presents a raw and energetic look at the buoyant spirit of children.

Little Fugitive, d. Ray Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkinwhich, (USA, 1953). Image courtesy of Berlinale.de

If you missed Berlinale earlier this year, these haunting childhood wonders hitting cinemas are your chance to catch up before February’s festivities. Tótem, The Quiet Girl and Little Fugitive are bringing the sentimental realness and magic only felt through a child’s eyes to the screens of Berlin.