Programming experimental films for children

An article by Marie-Pierre Bonniol

I started programming experimental films for children at the beginning of the pandemic and the first lockdown, in the spring of 2020, in Berlin. Like many people, especially in the field of art and culture, I was extremely anxious at the time, with the cancellation of projects I had been working on for several months, the sudden loss of my income, the lack of short- and medium-term perspectives and the full-time responsibility of my family, with two young children aged 3 and 7 who had to be looked after and home-schooled for many, many weeks.

Although I couldn't have any influence on the situation, I could work to generate energy within this context. With my eldest son, Walter, we quickly made a film in March, Korridor (2020, 1'16), for which we filmed a clothes horse in our windowless corridor, played with the lights and assembled these images with music we did, collaborating together for the first time. The programming of this film in a Fluxus programme powered online by Re:Voir and initiated by Mathilde Bila, was the trigger for its release. The encouragement and support we received from animator Giulia Palombino, who was in charge of the Cool Marbles Stuff 2D animation workshop that Walter was taking part in at his primary school, also lifted our spirits.

Following this film, its broadcast and initial reception, I showed Walter a short experimental film every day, while home-schooling him, at the end of each daily work session. Using these films as a starting point, with Walter's input, I began working on a YouTube playlist to share these films with the people around us in Neukölln, the district where we live. I didn't speak German very well at the time, and the idea of sharing films without dialogue also made sense to me as a way of getting involved in our neighbourhood by passing on to other families things that I found interesting, and which could cut through the hypnotic video loops that children can sometimes get caught up in.

This playlist, called Experiment 120, covered 120 years of experimental films from Melies to motion graphics videos, including works by Norman McLaren, Len Lye and Sesame Street. It was well received and circulated in many countries, with articles in Brazil, Hungary, Romania, Belgium and China. Thanks to the support of Collectif Jeune Cinéma and its then administrator Théo Deliyannis, this initiative was quickly transformed into the creation of programmes on various themes, such as music, games, water, portraits, holidays and transport, with partner institutions and structures in several countries, including the CAPC, Le Lieu Unique, the Centre Pompidou Metz in France, the Borealis festival in Bergen and the Film-Maker's Cooperative in New York, both online and in person.

This frame is the one that allowed the emergence of a programme that is, in truth, the only one I could be able to ever put in place. In fact, feature films make me lose patience and so-called fictional constructions make me angry because of the way they manipulate and drive emotion. I have a very complicated, if not non-existent, relationship with cinema: hypersensitive, I feel very strongly about the work I come into contact with, and films often have a too powerful impact on me once they reach a certain format. Likewise, I'm not able to watch series. Working with very short, experimental formats allows me to come into contact with many forms in a safe way, and to appreciate all the beauty of the possibilities offered by the audiovisual medium in its visual, sound, graphic and sequential dimensions, while at the same time being on a films duration that allows contact without necessarily forming an inscription.

It is this relationship that drives my programming: at a time when algorithms and compulsive viewing are the new audiovisual horizons for children in many homes, how can we present multiple forms that sow the seeds of possibilities for doing, being, seeing and envisioning? Experimental audiovisual forms, in a broad sense that includes all original, unique and singular creations, form a reservoir of openings to multiple practices, from painting to animation, from digital creation to music, that invite us to write about emotion and what constitutes, at least for a moment, the self.

Experimental films, with their very short formats, show that films can be made without a script, without a climax, without huge production machinery. Films can be made with telephones, pencil and paper, tracing paper, computer movements, a camera, books, images, natural elements and objects. This freedom, and the possibility of having a finished film without any substantial prior knowledge, is not only an opportunity for the person making the film to fulfil themselves through the artistic act, but also for their viewers to come into contact with other ways of seeing, feeling, experiencing and shaping.

My programmes are very mixed, presenting films originally made on film, documentation on artworks and installations, artists' videos, demonstration videos, films made by children and animation. A number of people have collaborated on the programmes since their inception, including animation film programmer Maria Pia Santillo, who has now set up her own curation and distribution structure Tondo in 2023, artist and curator Marion Orel, and curator Francesca Veneziano. I also benefited from the expertise of the film-maker and curator Théo Deliyannis, as well as from the one of Ute Aurand, director and co-programmer of Grosses Kino, Kleines Kino, the programme of films for children presented by Arsenal in Berlin since 2016. The role of distributors is also very important, and I regularly work with distributors such as Circuit in New Zealand and Collectif Jeune Cinéma in Paris, for example, but also with other funds and collections. I always make sure that many women directors are featured in the programmes.

The films generally vary in length from 1 to 4 minutes, and all have no dialogue. In this respect, the conditions under which I created the programme (Experiment 120) were crucial: living in a multicultural neighbourhood with little knowledge of the local language forced me to think directly about the project in its transnational dimensions, without any language barrier. In this respect, the opening credits of Norman McLaren's Boogie-Doodle, made in 1940 and released in 1941 by the National Film Board of Canada, were also a crucial element: presenting the film's credits in 8 languages over hypnotic synthetic sounds, these credits contribute to the archetypal scope of the film, which was intended to be universal. The 2009 inclusion of Norman McLaren's work in the international "Memory of the World" register, UNESCO's list of documentary heritage collections of universal interest, will be one of the outcomes of this project.

I'm very interested in this universal dimension. What is a form that can circulate in several countries, with several audiences, and strike a chord as a trigger for an appetite for artistic and cultural forms, and creativity? I'm interested in experimental film because it's not there to entertain, but to convey a certain kind of amazement: amazement at what is, amazement at what is revealed, amazement at what can be created and transformed, amazement at what we can do to change the world and the way we see it. I often speak of experimental film programs, in general, as recommendable to everyone. With each program, an idea - like a pollen grain - will leave its mark on the mind and give a new direction, a response, to something that is carried within ourselves. We need surprises and beauty. So do children. That's what I want to share.

In 2023, I was invited by Gloria Vilches of Xcèntric, the cinema of the CCCB, to curate around two themes, music and water, for the Cinema 3/99 programme that has been in operation since 2022. Our ping-pong collaboration is the kind of one I've been experimenting with since my programs were born: a shared network of spotted gems, a shared and sharpened curatorial reading, a real taste for transmission, and an open reading of forms and things at children's level, in the happy openness of that period before teenhood. Because for me, this period is the one where it's all about making contact, and offering a wider spectrum of alternatives to what is normally designed for children, with wondrous and surprising forms for everyone, from 3, 7, 10 to 99 years old.