19 March 2015

Framing the child in art

A film with children is not necessarily a 'Children's Film'
Some years ago, when I was working in a Sunday newspaper, I was asked to do a story about children’s literature.  I as asked to interview some prominent writers about the status of children’s status. I remember what Ratna Sri Wijesinha said.

‘What is sold as children’s literature is basically adult narratives which child characters.’  He is right.  There are children, in text and illustration, a dash of the magical and a splash of baby words (well, the tone and language style can vary depending on the age of the ‘intended’ audience of course) in children’s books, so-called, but this doesn’t make them suitable to be read by children or even useful for them.  Ratna Sri Wijesinha explained the reason for this state of affairs thus:

“Those who write children’s books forget that in order to write a story that makes sense to children they have to first get inside the mind and heart of a child.  Instead of doing this, they focus on ‘message’. This makes them preachy. It takes away something from the story, the narrative, the whole unfolding which is what enchants the child. ”

I agreed back then.  What we get are authors who use the genre ‘children’s story’ to make a point, say, about morality, about good and bad, right and wrong.  What ought to happen is the opposite; a story that is written and is loved for its narrative worth. The telling is not framed by objective, rather the moral issues in an unobtrusive way which is the better way of persuading reader to reflect and embrace.

It reminded me of the difference between children’s literature that came from the former Soviet Union and that from Mao’s Culturally Revolutionized China in the seventies.  The stories from Russia, Ukrain and other Soviet Republics were not injected with socialist propaganda. There was no perceptible push to make the reader absorb ethic and values associated with the socialist ideal.  Folk tales.  Princes. Princesses.  Witches. Wicked people. Good people. Strange animals.  Magic. The simple triumph of good over evil.  All it did was to tell the child which side it is better to take given circumstances. Sure, there was the unabashed and life-misrepresenting lie: the good always emerges victorious.  Still, that is a ‘truth’ whose learning can be postponed without harming a child too much. 

The Chinese stories were different; at least the ones that my mother brought home from exhibitions of Chinese books.  There were no princes and princesses that I can remember. No unheard of creatures. Nothing magical.  There was however heroism, the triumph of good over bad, the putting down of the wicked and the consecration of righteousness   All this, however, was made insufferable by frequent references to Chairman Mao and the Great Communist Party.  I didn’t know Mao was or what this Great Communist Party was. I only remember my mother saying that she should have been more careful when she picked those books. 

It doesn’t ‘work’ for children whether it is political propaganda or morality lecture.  They are interested in storied, not messages.  That’s the bottom line.  Ratna Sri mentioned, I remember, Sybil Wettasinghe. He said that today we have so many who author children’s stories and none even close to the heights of creativity and charm reached by the Grand Young Lady of Children’s Fiction in Sinhala. 

Today literature is not just about giving into creative urge or the product of such engagement. It is business.  There’s something production-line about it.  You get one thing right and then its ‘replication, baby’ as far as author is concerned.  Most, I should say, since not everyone is that commercial-minded. 

We are just a couple of days since the world celebrated Children’s Day. Today, when there’s so much of children’s literature, it is ironical that there’s very little for the child.  We get tons of DVDs for children.  There are hundreds of cartoons. Almost every TV channel has a children’s programme made of cartoons. What are these about? In a word, violence!  Someone tricking someone, someone bashing someone over his/her head and a lot of little children being taught that this is good stuff, this is RIGHT stuff, this is ought-to-do stuff. 

Then we have children’s theatre and film.  Happily theatre appears to have more than a ‘fair’ share of decent and sensitive individuals.  Children’s plays are children’s plays.  They can’t really be described as the playing out of adult themes using children as actors and props.  Film however is a mixed bag.

We have had excellent films such as Udayakantha Warnasuriya’s ‘Ran Kevita’ and Somaratne Dissanayake’s ‘Siri Raja Siri’.  They were truly ‘family’ films.  There is drama, fantasy, a story line that was clear and entertaining.  There were ‘dark’ elements but nothing overdone to the point of terrorizing the younger child in the audience. Indeed those elements that are usually taken as ‘bad/wicked/fearful’ are in the end turned into funny, human and even lovable creatures. This was particularly evident in ‘Ran Kevita’. 

Somaratne Dissanayake proved in ‘Siri Raja Siri’ that he can do a decent children’s film. This came after the award-winning ‘Suriya Arana’ which was a violent film that was totally unsuited for the younger child. It was an adult-themed film that had a couple of children doing their child-thing, but ought to have been tagged PG-13 (Parental Guidance recommended for children under 13 years of age).  It was followed by several other ‘children’s films’ including ‘Bindu’, again touted as a ‘family film’ and therefore for ‘children’.  This too was unsuited for younger children. 

Right now we have ‘Ira Handa Yata’ (Under the sun and moon) by Bennet Ratnayake, again a film made for the entire family.  It is certainly unsuited for small children.  There is a lot of violence in the film.  The producers have carefully left out those colours in the advertising. It appears, if you went purely by hoarding and poster, like a love story in a stressful time with not a hint of the violence embedded in the film.  That’s trickery.  Cheap. 

These films clearly indicate how parents are being duped and children being abused for commercial gain.  The business enterprises camouflaged as art-productions needs to be taken to task and so too the ‘artists’ who are complicit in these ‘projects’.  We are not talking about people who are engaged in the business of providing entertainment for children and getting the wrong end of the stick (like those children’s authors mentioned earlier), but operators who may even be quite aware of what’s what in all this. 

Here’s the status report then.  We have more child-material in all art forms than we’ve ever had in our history. We got the volume sorted out. We just don’t have the quality.  For this reason alone, volume is a curse.  It is an obliterating curse for nothing is more pernicious and destructive than the trap that comes coloured as gift. 

Our children are poor indeed in this regard.  Some of them are lucky to have grandparents, yes, but that’s still only a consolation. 

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  This article was first published in the 'Sunday Observer' in October 2010 at a time when I wrote a weekly column for that paper titled 'From the Sidelines'.