Interpreting Cinema Is a Learning Process – Interview with Dóra Bartal and Krisztina Peer

The PrimaTeen project was launched in 2019, when we introduced for the first time a new section of animated shorts dedicated to teens. PrimaTeen has now grown into a complex programme that, alongside the Primanima festival, also visits schools, other festivals and collective spaces. To mark the occasion, we interviewed the creators of the initiative, Dóra Bartal, programme curator of the PrimaTeen section, and Krisztina Peer, clinical child psychologist and consultant of PrimaTeen programme.

You have been involved in the PrimaTeen programme for a long time. Where did the original idea come from and why do you think it is an important project?

Krisztina Peer: The first time I attended the festival as a visitor with my own children, I absolutely loved what we experienced and started to wonder why more people don't have access to this great opportunity.

Apart from the fact that we as parents, as educators – and psychologists, too, I might add – tend to worry about what media content and cartoons children and young people are getting into, we still choose a strategy of avoidance.

Rather than getting ahead of the issue and consuming quality content and learning to read cinema well.

Dóra Bartal: At the very beginning, I didn't have a particularly clear and mature idea about PrimaTeen, it evolved from a practical problem.

What happened was that in 2019, when I was watching basically all the short films during the pre-selection, I noticed that we had received several films that would be a bit too gloomy for children, or maybe they wouldn't understand, but could appeal to teenagers because they talk about issues that are relevant to them. And these films were so good that we definitely wanted to include them in the programme somehow, and that's how PrimaTeen was born.

Of course, we didn't invent anything new, many other festivals have similar initiatives, and I was quite inspired by the Berlinale's Generation section and Verzió's school programme, the Student Verzió where there are long discussions following the screenings, which I've heard very good things about. That's how I got the idea that it is necessary to involve a youth expert as well.

Dóri, you have been working on film programmes for a long time. So what's different about selecting animations for teenagers?

D.B.: PrimaTeen is the festival's most thematically focused section, with a specific focus on how films can inspire viewers to have a conversation on issues such as body image, abuse, love, bullying or grief. We like crazy, abstract and experimental films, but those do not belong here. This is not an easy task because teenagers have sort of outgrown fairy tales, they prefer to watch live-action films, and they have not yet had the chance to see auteur animation, so we have a responsibility because it may be the first time they see this type of content, so we have to think about accessibility, and it is also essential that the film is somehow cool in terms of imagery or narrative and keeps their interest.

In practice, the selection process is that either I or Annaida (Anna Ida Orosz, programme director and co-founder of the Primanima festival) sends a shortlist to Kriszti and she makes suggestions about which films she considers would work and which she would recommend for which age group. For me, it's very reassuring to have a professional review the programme, because we're not sure we can think with a teenager's mind, and I certainly wouldn't want them to see content that might stir up difficult emotions they can't yet cope with.

The programme's animated films display on screen the colours of a wide visual and emotional palette. Which films did you find really challenging for this age group? Can you highlight a film that is a personal favourite? And why?

K.P.: Two things come to mind on this subject, and I don't refer to specific films now. On the one hand, it is a challenging task for a young child, a schoolchild, to watch, understand and enjoy an animated film without text, with only noises, which, apart from being a challenge for them, certainly helps their visual understanding. On the other hand, animated films for adolescents are an amazing match for the issues and age specificities they are facing, making each film a goldmine for teenagers.

I don't really have a personal favourite, but I'm basically a devotee of films for teenagers. Especially the ones that are less didactic, that show the issues they care about and the world that surrounds them (from their perspective of course).

I first came across Julia Ocker's animations (in the PrimaKids film programme), and I loved them because they are fun to watch with the youngest children, but also have something to say to teenagers and adults.

D.B.: I was most worried about the reception of films about minorities, identity issues, women's equality and the beauty ideals, because we know the political environment we live in, even a nuanced film based on personal experiences has a different impact if the power structures do not reinforce solidarity thinking. This was the case, for example, with ‘Fire Next Time’ from a previous season, which is about social inequalities in a neighbourhood where riots break out, but I would also include ‘My Fat Arse and I’, which is a very entertaining film about body image. But fortunately Kriszti and Annaida always reassured me that these had a place in the programme and that there would be a way to process them, so they didn't let me self-censor myself.

I also really liked this season's ‘Gen Tree’, an animated documentary about social media and the generation gap. And as a personal favourite, I would also highlight ‘A Devil in the Pocket’ and ‘Louis I. King of the Sheep’, which deals with questions of power and politics. In the first, we see from a child's point of view that opportunism and cruelty only breed more cruelty, and in the second, how arbitrary it is who rules, debunking the myth that our position in the society is based only on our merits and talents.

PrimaTeen screening at Primanima 2022

Having a look at the PrimaTeen programme of the 10th Primanima Festival, it is obvious that many of the films are about relationships, own body, identity search, freedom and autonomy. Serious and often uncomfortable themes emerge. How much do you think animated films can help us to reflect or talk about these issues?

K.P.: These topics are not so easy to talk about, they are very often intangible, and adolescents often cannot articulate what is going on inside them. However, reflecting on them together is essential to understand what exactly is going on in young people - whether as parents, teachers or other professionals. And animated films do a great service in starting conversations, helping to bring the topic closer, but also allowing for distance.

Kriszti, during the PrimaTeen sessions at the festival, what is your experience of how animation as a genre helps participants to connect with their own and others' thoughts or emotions?

K.P.: Film is definitely a mediator between adult and child, between adolescent and parents, between adolescent and teacher, between the kid and society, between the kid and the world.

In this sense, film is a language that all children and adolescents can decode and let into their psyche according to their emotional state.

As much as they can. Thus, there are always some teenagers who are more actively involved, while others are only present as observers, but still get their thoughts and feelings across.

Children and teens who learn to read cinema well – and this is where the festival itself and the workshop support them – will find it easier to navigate the world and will be more courageous to take the initiative in emotionally charged situations. Animated films can help us to reflect, but if the subject is too distressing, the genre also allows for distancing, as I mentioned earlier.

'Gen Tree' (2020), directed by Hod Adler, Ronni Shalev, Alon Sharabi

Would you say that these films are also for adults? If so, why? Where do you draw the fine line between animated films for teenagers and animated films for adults? Were there any themes or visual representations that you felt were taboo?

K.P.: In my view, all the animation at the festival is aimed at adults, even the films for the youngest. Most of the ones for adolescents are certainly exciting, not only for the professionals working with them, but also for parents whose children are going through the turbulence of puberty. 

Perhaps those films that are too abstract and complex at a cognitive level are less comprehensible and easy to follow for teenagers, but it might be worthwhile to encounter these films as well, to help them read the cinema and thus make sense of it. And if we also talk about it, they can realise how many layers they can relate to. But someone may also become very emotionally charged by the appearance of a theme because of some personal involvement - this is, of course, unpredictable. I always tried to pay attention to these in the discussion following the films and only go as deep as the group would allow. 

I think that taboo subjects remain taboo precisely because we make them taboo. I have already answered that nothing is taboo for me, and that you can talk about anything with anyone - taking age and maturity into account, obviously.

D.B.: I totally agree with Kriszti, I many times wish these films could be included in the adult competition programme, and I regret that we don't screen them in the main hall so that more people could see them. Although this is not necessarily the most significant criteria, many of these films have also been screened at major festivals such as Cannes, Annecy and Berlin. Even now, as an adult, a lot of the films have very much touched me and helped me to understand my teenage self, the problems I had then that I still carry with me today, and I think many adults can have similar insights.

There are also films in the programme that deal with adult issues, such as divorce, but from a child's perspective, such as ‘Plans for Love’. But if I had to single out a group, I would recommend PrimaTeen films mostly to adults, teachers and parents who want to get closer to the emotions of teenagers.

PrimaTeen session with Krisztina Peer on Primanima 2019

This year, PrimaTeen is travelling the country visiting schools, collective spaces and other festivals. What impact do you think a programme like this could have on the thinking of the community (beyond students, class teachers, visual culture teachers, educators, social workers and so on)?

K.P.: I can't wait to find out! I believe it's a great opportunity for communities because, apart from the community-building role of such a session, it shows us what I think we don't spend enough time and knowledge on; that interpreting cinema is a learning process, thinking about films and encountering art in this way should be part of our lives because it promotes personal development and of course it entertains. We have just forgotten to take advantage of it.

D.B.: I personally find it very important to get these films to as many places as possible, to be seen and talked about outside the capital and Budaörs. The session plans that Rebeka and Marci (art therapist Rebeka Kajos and drama teacher Márton Somorjai, leaders of this year's PrimaTeen sessions) and Kriszti curated are very exciting and brave, I wish I could have participated in something like this as a teenager. And it's a bonus that participants get to experience auteur animation and learn how rich this film form is and how much potential it has.

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