One way of understanding - or trying to - what young people are thinking is to see some of their creative work. And then, be prepared to be baffled by their ideas.
I spent the last week in Dubai at the Children’s International Film Festival, which was started last year by the enterprising Deepak Jain. It has a carefully picked (considering the UAE’s strict censorship rules) selection of international children’s films, and the more exciting section - a competition of 15-minute films made by school children from the Emirates. The enthusiasm of the 160 or so participating schools was amazing; of these, 53 films were shortlisted, 18 from the 12-14 age group and 35 from the 14-18 group.
The Children’s International Film Festival in Dubai has a carefully picked selection of international children’s films, and the more exciting section — a competition of 15-minute films made by school children from the Emirates. Representation Pic/Thinkstock
Dubai does not have a filmmaking culture, the UAE does not have a film industry to speak of. A lot of films - particularly Bollywood films - are shot in Dubai (and Abu Dhabi) but hardly any are made locally. There isn’t much of a film-going culture either, so the kids’ exposure is limited to home viewing on TV or computer. Since a large chunk (almost 70 per cent) of the population of Dubai is of Indian origin, Bollywood is obviously a big source of inspiration.
Dubai has a kind of glamour attached to it, because, from the outside, it’s all about luxury and scale - the tallest buildings, the biggest malls, the swankiest hotels and so on. If there is any ugliness like poverty, racism or exploitation of the working class, it is well-hidden, and certainly not reported in the local media. It is a multi-cultural society, but the various races seldom mingle. So, the kids grow up in a sheltered environment, amidst all that visible glitz. From where would they get story ideas for their films?
Still, their films are not short on youthful energy, and with modern technology, the shooting and editing is not so much of a challenge - there is immense talent there, but many of the stories are bizarre in their unreality. Several films were clearly made to impress the jury and this tendency is not restricted to the films entered for the CIFF; kids everywhere think that if they make films about social issues, they will win prizes. So there were half a dozen films about autistic children, who finally find acceptance after first being mocked by their school mates. (One young actor was very influenced by Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name Is Khan performance.) There are films about kids trying to steal question papers, and the obvious source for this one is Three Idiots.
In one particularly strange film, a boy watches a clip about starving kids in Africa and is so affected by it that when he next visits the mall with his buddies, he makes them order just one dish instead of many, because kids elsewhere are going hungry. Then, this boy and his friends accost old people in the streets trying to help them - if they did this in real life, they would probably scare the hell out of the hapless seniors.
But, in the midst of all this part-sincere, part-spurious compassion, some genuinely-felt stories emerged. A charming film called The Good Side of Bad was about something every child must have gone through - being dumped by her (or his) best friend because she is not cool enough. The cool kids, of course, bully the nerds and this anti-bullying sentiment was echoed in some other films as well. The dark side of youth was depicted
in Stalked, about a girl who inadvertently gives out her Facebook ID and is kidnapped by her stalker - a very real threat, even though Bollywood tends to glamourise stalking.
A lot of films reflected on the loneliness and alienation of a child, who is unable to make friends; the parents are too busy to care and there is no safety net of family and neighbours that we in India take for granted. The solution for these forlorn children was to acquire an imaginary friend to help support and motivate them to “follow their dreams” (Paulo Coelho would be happy!). The dreams could be as simple as learning to ride a bike, become a skateboarding champ, or a successful blogger.
The longing for a friend was depicted beautifully in Sphra, which told of a little girl deeply missing her grandfather, who has returned to India, so she talks to a big teddy bear that he gifted her. Another award-winning film Mind Bender had a chilling story about a teacher who controls boisterous children by vaccinating them with a chip that makes them quiet and obedient.
Even though children in Dubai are different from, say, those in India or the US, certain traits and fears are common - being successful or being accepted by peers are big issues for teens; parental pressures and bullying seem like bigger problems than world hunger.
When asked how he thought of starting such a festival, Deepak Jain (an engineer by profession and self-confessed tech geek) said, half seriously, “I want to make films, and am developing an audience.” The fact that 20,000-odd kids went to various cinemas to watch international children’s films as well as the cinematic efforts of other kids was as impressive as it was daunting.
What Jain and his small team have done (with generous help from the government and corporate sponsors, notably Nikon), is sown the seeds of filmmaking as a means of expression in the minds of children; with a bit of training and support some of them might actually grow up to become filmmakers. The CIFF model can, and should be, replicated. Apart from encouraging talent, it’s a good way of gauging what goes on in the minds of young people.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot