Behind the Screens: New York International Children’s Film Festival Brings Family Fun

We spoke to Programming Director Maria Christina Villaseñor about what makes programming for young audiences such a uniquely challenging and rewarding endeavor.

Maria Christina Villaseñor, programmer for the New York International Children’s Film Festival.
Maria Christina Villaseñor, programmer for the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Via Maria Christina Villaseñor

It’s no secret that most American kids movies have a same-ish quality. If they aren’t animated (CG-only, of course), then they feature a wacky comedian like Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler getting into silly adventures with their kids. Even the most avant-garde Pixar movies, like Wall-E and Up, invariably feature pulse-pounding chase scenes, whether they make any sense or not (look at that 78-year old sprint and jump!). Although there are smart, uncompromising, and fun kids movies being made around the world, it’s rare for any of them, especially live-action ones, to make their way to the U.S. For the past twenty years, however, the New York International Children’s Film Festival has brought the best of the rest of the world to American shores, if only for a few screenings (though GKIDS, subject of a previous Behind the Screens, was initially created to provide distribution for festival hits). This year, the festival is stuffed to the gills with must-see films from Oscar nominee My Life as a Zucchini to Japanese anime mega-hit Your Name to an all-star animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. We spoke to Programming Director Maria Christina Villaseñor about what makes programming for young audiences such a uniquely challenging and rewarding endeavor.

What is the festival’s definition of a children’s film?

I think that’s kind of the wonderful thing about this festival, that we have an open-ended definition. Although we are specifically geared for young people and their families, in many cases we’re looking at films that weren’t expressly made for children. We’re looking for a certain quality of awe and wonder and unpacking of ideas and visual artistry that speaks to kids and offers them a point of entry, but we’re definitely also looking at films that take on many subjects and, in some cases, that don’t pander to kids. I think that’s something we ask on a case-by-case basis.

Do you think that American children’s movies are softer than the ones you program in the festival? 
I think that there’s a little bit of caution that tends to happen in mainstream children’s media in terms of feeling like you sometimes have to soft-pedal an idea or you don’t want to push too many hard topics. And that all makes sense, but I think children are wonderfully open. They’re okay with not completely understanding a situation. They can be patient with a story unfolding. Especially with the Children’s Film Festival, we’re able to bring families in and expressly talk about the films as an opening for dialogue. That’s one of the things that attracted me to children’s programming, sitting through a children’s film back in the day with a very young audience and being very excited that they were so open and vocal about everything.

Each film in the festival has a suggested age, like 7+. Is that coming from the distributors or from the festival?

In most cases, it’s something that we’re generating within the festival. In a few rare cases, we’ll actually have a rating. But for the most part, it’s something that we really have to think about, not just in terms of content, but also if there are any ideas or levels of tone that are more appropriate for older audiences. Like, “Is it something that will tonally register with an 8 year older, rather than a 6-year-old?” There are a lot of really nuanced thoughts about that. And sometimes, like, with My Life as a Zucchini, which is taking on some very serious subject matter, it has a very clear rating in terms of what children will have addressed in terms of their education and conversations with their parents. We want parents going in open-eyed.

Is there some sort of rubric about what works best for what age or is it more of a gut feeling?

There is some gut feeling, but it’s about weighing everything from kids’ development to their ideas of what is fun or intriguing. Sometimes it’s really evident, and other times, we need our whole team and even outside advisors from the media field to weigh in on it.

Did the election change at all how you programmed the festival?
The thing is that we, for the most part, had this program in place prior to the election, but a lot of our stories were already touching on things that have now become even more potent. There’s a certain film in our “Girls’ POV” shorts program that deals with the only child of undocumented parents and, obviously, having a “Girls’ POV” program at all is a pretty strong statement. Actually, that film is an interesting story because the little girl who’s the protagonist of that film, a six year old named Sophie, had this amazing trajectory as a young activist. She was actually able to get a letter to the Pope that advocated for undocumented families and even ended up meeting with Obama. We were already interested in the film because Sophie was on this amazing path, but then she ended up being invited to speak at the Women’s March on Washington, so the filmmaker filmed that and re-cut the documentary. Overall, I’d say that more dialogue, more exposure to any kind of broadening of kids’ spectrum of understanding, whether it be from other cultures or other countries or very specific issues, is more important than ever.

How do you categorize and program short films? 

We have some predetermined categories for the shorts. But there’s also this tradition in the festival of having a series of shorts programs that are just categorized by age range, that don’t have a pre-determined theme to them. So you’re really seeing a broad range of filmmaking. Mini-themes happen in there, but it’s nice to be able to go in different directions. There’s Short Films One, Two, and Three, which are the broadly-based ones. Our “Shorts for Tots” are so visually inventive and playful and are a great introduction for little ones to the big screen theatrical experience. There’s also the aforementioned “Girls’ POV” program that focuses on stories with strong female leads. There’s a “Heebie Jeebies” program, which is actually one program that I was really hesitant about when I stepped into this role. I was like, “Why do we have one program that’s genre-based and what kind of audience are we going to get for those?” But it turns out to be this wonderful repository of children’s horror shorts that upend genre convention. This year, we’re also doing a program we’re calling “Birthday Shorts,” which is in honor of our twentieth anniversary, but we’re thinking about it like a birthday party, which is much more exciting. For that, we’re picking out stories that look at growth, change and transformation, along with some of our favorites from over the years.
How did you decide on My Life as a Zucchini as an Opening Night film?

It was definitely something that had been on our minds for a long time. It’s an extraordinary film, in terms of the storylines and the visual storytelling. It’s so emotive and deals with challenging topics through this lens of childhood that I think is really effective and compelling. Also, the nature of the stop-motion animation is so arresting.

Most adult-oriented festivals are built around binge-viewing a bunch of films in one day. I have to imagine that’s not as possible when your audience is full of younger kids, so how does your scheduling account for that?

It’s interesting. I’ve been surprised by how many hardcore families there are who are maximizing their scheduling, but it does go into how we slot our schedule. We definitely try to anticipate, if you were a family that had this particular type of interest, would you be able to go to X, Y, and Z? Our benefit is that our festival takes place over four separate weekends and five different venues, so we actually do try to make sure that somebody with a specific kind of interest is able to hit all the key programs and films in those areas.

Many of the films in the festival seem to require some form of context, whether it is an explanation of certain cultural traditions or even the current socio-economic climate of a country or region. How do you go about providing that to your audiences?
We always introduce the films, but we’re also lucky to often have the filmmakers come in. We have these great Q&A’s with the kids and filmmakers, and there’s just this great level of exchange that’s from very straightforward questions about everything from why they made a color choice to a really intense and thoughtful question about the content to a very honest question about something that they didn’t understand. It allows the filmmaker to engage with kids’ interest and understanding and enthusiasm and, overall, go on this trajectory of unpacking the film. We also do these film education programs, which happen not just during the week of the festival, but also during the year. One of the things that I got most excited about that I didn’t previously know about the festival is that we have free and low-cost programs for Title I schools, which are low income schools, to come in and do mini-screenings. We have a film educator there who contextualizes the films. They get to watch a series of short films and have a conversation after. Just allowing kids to share their opinions and questions about the films, it can go in so many different ways and our educators are really good at guiding them through that. The fact that we can expose kids who wouldn’t necessarily have any opportunity like that to that level of cinematic experience is super gratifying.

I imagine most kids, not just kids in Title I schools, have never thought of a film as something to analyze like they would a book.

Exactly. In all our screenings, whether they’re our educational screenings or public screenings, there’s always a ballot so kids get to vote on our films. It’s huge just having that simple prompt to say your opinion matters. It’s telling these kids to think about what they just saw, to take two seconds to say they whether they liked it. It’s meaningful for them to feel like they have a voice. I think part of the job is just priming the pump so kids are ready to be thinking about something. They don’t always have to be understanding and unpacking every nuance of the film, but I think sometimes those are the films that end up being the most meaningful to you as an adult. You remember that moment when you were 7 and you watched that film and there was something that you didn’t quite get and that stays with you for years and you end up interpreting and understanding it in different ways. It’s this really impactful art experience, and questions are a totally valid part of that.

Does the festival prefer to use dubs over subtitles, given the age of the audience?

Curiously, dubs are not for us. For our very young audiences, for our tots, we try to have films that are dubbed or that are non-dialogue and tell stories in different ways. But I think that it’s really important to start ingraining this idea of foreign languages and subtitles as not being challenging, but rather, a joy. Bringing films in their original languages to any kind of audience is a different experience. You have a different texture and nuance. Just hearing other languages is a great thing. We have a lot of subtitled films, including animation. We start early on. Starting with 7-year olds, we’ll do subtitled animated films. That’s just something that we realized is part of educating the film goer. Sometimes, parents who have not exposed their kids to that might be a little bit hesitant, but once they do, I think younger kids find their way to follow stories just fine, and it becomes a habit almost instantly. I think there’s something to be said for not doing dubbed films when you can. At the same time, I think that there are some dubbed versions that bring a lot to the table and have their own artistry. With My Life as a Zucchini, it’s a wonderful cast. You have this terrific originating film that was able to have an extraordinary roster of people and great direction. We’re premiering the English language version, and I think it’ll be interesting for kids to have an understanding of what that means, how that whole layer of filmmaking makes differences in the film. I think we want to make kids think about the art of filmmaking and how every layer is a decision and is bringing different things to the table.
How many programmers are on your staff? 

I’m the Programming Director, but we have different people on our screening committee and everybody weighs in in their own fashion. We also collaborate with other programmers internationally. But it’s a pretty modestly sized non-profit so everybody has a little bit of voice in it.

As a programmer for this specific festival, how do you define success?

I think people coming out of theaters, kids, families, adults, chattering, being excited about what they’ve seen, having conversations, eager to see more, having that little sparkle that you see in people’s eyes when they’re both blown away by what they saw and inspired by something within their imagination, whether it is that they want to see more films like that or learn more about that subject or have their own ideas about how they might want to make film. Just knowing that you’ve kicked off that desire is how I would measure the festival’s success.

You have a couple of big name films getting a lot of attention, but what are some great films that are flying under-the-radar?

Window Horses is a really beautiful film that raises a lot of issues about art and culture and animation styles. The flip side of that is The Day My Father Became A Bush, which is this wonderful allegory for the refugee crisis. It helps kids better understand what it’s like to be in those circumstances, which I think is really valuable in this climate. It’s also just a lovely piece of filmmaking.


Behind the Screens: New York International Children’s Film Festival Brings Family Fun