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Thursday, June 5, 2008

And the winners are!

Up to 6 Fiction: A Sunny Day - ARD/SWR-Germany

Up to 6 Non-Fiction: Numbers and Beards - SVT-Sweden

7-11 Fiction: The Magic Tree: Devourer of Books - TVP-Poland

7-11 Non-Fiction: The Wrong Trainers - CBBC-UK

12-15 Fiction and Non-Fiction: Sexteens - Artear-Argentina

Theme Prize (Gender): Mortified - Nine Network-Australia

UNESCO Prize: Genji - KRO Youth-Netherlands

UNICEF Prize: Buddyz on the Move - SABC-South Africa

Next Generation: Tsehai Loves Learning - Ethiopian Television-Ethiopia

Interactivity Prize, Pre-School: Oline - Danmarks Radio-Denmark

Interactivity Prize, School Age: CBBC Me and My Movie - CBBC-UK

Children's Jury, Fiction: Desperados - CBBC-UK

Children's Jury, NonFiction: Mathematica - NHK-Japan

International Youth Jury: Under Pressure - ARD/NDR-Germany

Heart Prize: On the Block - RTE-Ireland

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sheep Thrills

Sheep = Funny

Not just my opinion, but the learned conclusion of the PRIX JEUNESSE moderators, after their deconstruction of the discussions over the past week. Their finding is based on Shaun the Sheep, Jakers and The Wonder Pets.

Baby TV

The very first TV show for babies (up to 18 months) I ever saw was here at PRIX JEUNESSE, as far back as 1988. "Tik Tak," from Belgium, was five minutes, daily at 5:55 pm, meant to give parents five minutes to prepare dinner (does that sound familiar to today's debates?). It consisted of colorful images and black and white geometrics, spinning and bouncing and moving. It was simple, with no vast claims of educational value, just a daily engaging TV break.

As we look for information on the efficacy (or lack thereof) of baby TV, perhaps we need to look farther afield. Japan's public broadcaster, NHK, has been doing baby programming for 20 years, and its representatives say they have an extensive research library. Their lead researcher will be in the UK for the July Showcomotion conference, and coming to the US after that; I'll be in Japan for the long-running Japan Prize, so I hope to have a chance to examine their findings on baby TV.

The PRIX JEUNESSE "Finalists"

The finalists for tonight’s PRIX JEUNESSE Award Ceremony were just announced. In this case, “finalist” includes the top three rated programs in each major category (12-15, 7-11 Fiction, 7-11 Non-Fiction, Up to 6 Fiction, Up to 6 Non-Fiction), plus contenders for the special prizes: UNICEF, UNESCO, Next Generation, Gender, Youth and Children’s Juries. So, not every program in the list below will take home an honor, and some may win more than one.

In any case, the geographic, genre, content and other diversity of the list below is impressive! I’ll be reporting the winner as soon as possible after the ceremony.

Nominees – top three in each category, plus the special prizes (UNICEF, UNESCO, etc.)

Sexteens, Argentina – A short clay animation encouraging safe sex

The Daltons, Netherlands - The full cast returns to a drama series that was a hit ten years ago; now, the young children are teens and this episode deals with first loves forming and breaking

Love Agents, Sweden – Tweens give relationship advice and help a peer make a date

Under Pressure, Germany – A crime drama with teen protagonists

Buddyz on the Move, South Africa – A non-fiction offshoot of the legendary South African drama series “Soul Buddyz,” here a village of children helps a classmate afflicted with HIV get a cell phone so she can keep up with her classmates, and helps her grandmother keep her house.

Mathematica, Japan – Clear and innovative graphic demonstrations of math concepts.

The Gift, Norway – Children submit a request to give a friend a special gift; here, two girls arrange a day as a fashion model for a friend who is recovering from cancer.

On the Block, Ireland – Youth made documentary about the dismantling of their neighborhood housing estate, and their impending move to new homes.

The Wrong Trainers, UK – Animated stories of children living in poverty in the UK.

Desperados, UK – Comedic drama around the formation of a wheelchair basketball team.

Genji, Netherlands – A little girl learns martial arts to ward off a bully who terrorizes her and a blind friend.

The Magic Tree: Devourer of Books, Poland – Multi-PRIX JEUNESSE winner Andrzej Maleszka’s newest episode of his anthology series, this one about a cupboard that turns books into cakes that give the consumer all the book’s knowledge.

Shaun the Sheep, UK – Aardman Animation series built around a sheepdog and his flock.

Mortified, Australia – An early teen-angst sitcom covers crushes on older boys and fear of having “the talk.”

Peek a Boo – Happy Hands, Japan – Baby TV that has been on air for 20 years in Japan.

Numbers and Beards, Sweden – Not a math series, just an innovative, if not unusual, way of sharing a love of numbers with pre-schoolers.

Outside, Netherlands – Documentary footage of children at play, animated to reveal their fantasies

A Sunny Day, Germany – A one-off animation in which a very proud sun rises, spends the day, and sets, showing all the people and animals who are influenced by its rays and heat.

Adriaan, Netherlands – Adriaan’s dog, Spottie, has died; he and his father make plans for the burial.

Christmas with Linus and His Friends, Norway – Part of a 24-episode Christmas mini-series, Linus’ little sister, given to lying about everything, runs away to “Japan.” We see the adventures she has, but only at the end of the day do her parents realize there’s more to her tall tales then they think!

Tsehai Loves Learning, Ethiopia – Puppet series targeting Ethiopian children’s physical and emotional health.

Ending on a High Note

I have no say in, or knowledge of, the nominees for the Next Generation Prize, but I have a personal favorite. The contest’s final program to be screened ought to be a competitor for this prize.

“Tsehai Loves Learning” is a puppet program dealing with social and emotional issues, done on a shoestring by a husband, wife and small team in Ethiopia (Shane Etzenhouser and Radiet Alemu are here; Bruktawit Tigabu is at home, about to deliver Shane’s and her first child!). The writing is direct and clear, using simple interactivity in the style of “Blue’s Clues” to invite children at home to participate. The characters aren’t fancy, but they are well conceived and colorful, culturally familiar and empathetic.

In the competition episode, Tsehai the giraffe is trying to figure out why his friend Tsinat is sad. The storytelling is supplemented by games to identify emotions by facial expression, and by Tsehai interviewing children about their experiences with emotions. When Tsehai finds out Tsinat is sad because his mother died of AIDS, he tells a story that reassures Tsinat that his mother loved him very much and is watching from above.

The producers have such a strong sense of their culture and audience that mentoring from a developed-world producer or writer or director wouldn’t rob Tsehai or their next project of essential cultural roots or loving nature.

One in eight children in Ethiopia is an AIDS orphan.

Building the Next Generation

New to PRIX JEUNESSE 2008 is the “Next Generation Prize” for promising talent shown by the person or team behind a competing program. The award is meant in particular for “a program produced under difficult circumstances, with scarce finances, or in a developing or emerging production environment.”

The award includes cash, but also a year of mentoring toward a new project, by experts from one of the broadcaster sponsors behind the prize – Nickelodeon UK, Disney Germany, BBC, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, KRO Youth and ZDF/Germany.

I asked Bernadette O’Mahony, representing the ACTF, what they were looking for in the Next Generation Prize-winning entry. “We were looking for somebody who, with resources – financial, plus support and advice – has the ability to grow and create something that is worthwhile for their audience. We wanted to help as developed world companies, without taking away the essential cultural nature.

“We looked at the experience of the overall team, but mostly the role of the young professional (“young” being defined more as early in a career than chronological youth) at the core, since the prize goes to an individual. We looked at what kind of support they had around them, and then at the creativity and quality of what they were doing now.
It’s always around this point of PRIX JEUNESSE that I realized about 80% of the people around me have been operating for almost a week in a language that isn’t their first. For many years, the festival was run simultaneously in English, French and German, later adding Spanish. Every program and plenary session was translated live, and there were parallel discussion groups in each of the languages. Once that became financially impractical, PRIX JEUNESSE decided to run in English, with all programs either translated or subtitled, and discussion groups run primarily in English, but with bilingual moderators where possible.

Still, the English spoken by so many of the participants from all over the world is so proficient and fluent that it’s easy to forget the intellectual strain it must be to translate everything – six hours per day of TV, formal discussion sessions, lunchtime conversations, information sessions – from English as you take it in, and then back into English as you contribute.

A few years back, I attended a PRIX JEUNESSE offshoot in Chile, run entirely in Spanish. I spent the first day being resentful that no accommodation was made for me…and then realized that this is what it must be like for most people at PRIX JEUNESSE.

This morning’s five minute lecture – an innovation for 2008’s theme of gender and children’s TV – was on why boys always win in the end. For the 2006 PRIX JEUNESSE, all but two programs featured boys in the lead role. In many cases, the characters weren’t stereotypical – an Israeli documentary about a boy pursuing a peace club wth Palestinian children, a sympathetic and emotional profile of a stuttering German boy, a female Swedish pre-school science show presenter – but these are the basic numbers. It would be interesting to project them back over past festivals and see if this was an anomaly.

This much I can say, based on the most recent two programs to screen – little sisters are nothing but trouble…from Mongolia to Norway.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Death for an Early Age

Since few pre-schoolers worry about taxes, perhaps the toughest topic to take on in children’s TV is death.

We’ve just seen a movingly simple drama from KRO in the Netherlands, in which Adriaan (roughly six years old) and his father go to get a coffin for Spottie the dog, and then bury him in the neighbor’s woods. The program takes its time in telling the story; it’s not afraid to rest its gaze on Adriaan’s face and register his very real emotions, not does it rush through a burial in which Adriaan is too angry to say his goodbyes. Adriaan quarrels with the carpenter’s son when he asks too intrusive questions, but when the son accompanies the family to bury Spottie, the two reach a friendship.

On the other hand, in conversations since I wrote the above paragraphs, I’ve heard from others that the family in the film was cold and unfeeling in how it dealt with Adriaan, and that the program never allowed the boy to truly show sadness.

But – as Reading Rainbow used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it. The program is on KRO Youth’s wonderful YouTube channel. Here’s the link – watch and let me know what you think.

Adriaan and Spottie

Pardon the especially poor photo quality.

Every year, someone asks why there are no children at PRIX JEUNESSE. There are two simple answers – the first is that this is a professional gathering, designed for expert analysis of program structure, development, content and age appropriateness. The second, and more compelling, reason is that children don’t naturally sit for 8 hours at a time watching television, not even with the aid of coffee and the promise of good German beer.

The festival has developed means of getting young people’s reactions to the finalists. A group of Munich schoolchildren judges the 7-11 category shows, and for the first time in 2008, seven international youth juries of teens year olds (including one organized by the ACCM, WTTW and the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival) screened, discussed and voted on the 12-15 category.

Still, every once in a while, children appear at the festival. One participant brought her 10-month-old baby (who was closely studied during the one “baby TV” entry, from NHK/Japan), and Meenakshi and Vinay Rai – filmmakers from India brought their two children, who often serve as their films’ presenters. Their youngest, Raghu, is the focus of one of the festival’s more controversial films, a dispassionate documenting of Raghu playing rather roughly with a kitten.

Team Arbeit!

We’re currently watching the Nick Jr./Little Airplane series “Wonder Pets,” but since it was submitted for 2008 by Nick Germany, the episode is screening in German. As much as I’m used to seeing voiced over animation when I travel, there’s something marvelous but a bit disorienting to a series you know well, especially with such distinctive voices, rhythms and repeating features, entirely familiar except for the soundtrack -- the eyes take it in but the ears aren't quite certain. Still, the Germans have done a remarkable job of finding perfect voices for the Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming.

Was funktioniert?
Team arbeit!

Communicating Without Language

What will a five-year-old do when sent into a room to get a piece of basic information from someone who doesn’t speak his language? “Wow How” from Korea tests this question, first with two girls tasked with getting a German visitor’s name and country, and then with two boys who have to find out her age.

The boys, in particular, react with shock at finding someone so different from them (“she looks like a mannequin”), but are also most innovative in devising a means of communicating, using blocks to show their own ages, which the visitor gladly shows in return.

Maleszka Magic

Polish director Andrzej Maleszka has been a stand-out at PRIX JEUNESSE as long as I’ve been attending. In either 1998 or 1990, he brought a brilliant game show, set in a wooded park, in which mixed teams of Polish children who spoke no German and German children who spoke no Polish had to find ways to communicate to complete tasks.

Only a few years later, his genius as a drama director began to emerge. “Jakub” was the story of a boy sent out for milk who returns with a cow. “Kitten” featured a little girl who, disappointed that she got a cat instead of a dog for her birthday, wakes the next morning to find she can only speak ‘cat.’ “Tele-Julia” continued Maleszka’s love of magic, as an enchanted hat turned into a mega-TV antenna, and compelled the girl wearing it to act out whatever was currently on TV.

Maleszka has a winning streak at PRIX JEUNESSE dating to 2004 with his “Magic Tree” anthology series. The link among the films for TV Poland is that each traces the ultimate fate of some piece of a magic tree, that itself carries a bit of the magic. So, in “The Sceptre” (2006), two boys fight, with predictable results, over a baton that allows whoever holds it to compel others to do as they say. In “The Wooden Dog,” a boy’s sled runs by itself, since he’s allergic to dogs.

In 2008, Maleszka may be up for a “three-peat.” In a highly competitive category, people in the discussion groups loved “Devourer of Books,” where books put into a magic cupboard are magically turned into luscious cakes that imbue those who eat them with all the book’s contents. The class’ non-reader suddenly becomes the academic quiz champion, but was it magic…or just newfound confidence?

Much of Maleszka’s directing magic comes from his longstanding technique of spending a long time in workshops with his child actors, giving them time to become comfortable together.

Interactivity Prize - Play Along at Home

Tonight, the finalists for the PRIX JEUNESSE Interactivity Prize present their sites to the audience; anyone who attends the session can vote to choose the winners in Pre-School and School Age categories.

The Interactivity Prize was created as the Web Prize about 10 years ago, in order to reflect the growing presence of web sites linked to kids' TV shows. Now, as the environment has shifted, the sites have morphed from reminiscent of the associated TV show to full-fledged partners in extending kids' participation and enjoyment of what they've seen on television.

If you want to "play along" with the PJ Interactivity Prize, here are the URLs for the nominated sites:



Word Girl Website

Are We There Yet? World Adventure

School age/Youth:

The Apple Core Game Studio

CBBC Me and My Movie


Monday, June 2, 2008

Cowboys, Indians and Palestinians

Would Palestinian children understand an essentially American allegory as told by a Syrian-American filmmaker? In the Fiction 6-11 category, we just screened “Kemo Sabe,” a short independent film made in California under American Film Institute grants in the US, and aired on Al Quds TV in Ramallah.

Little Yussef (about 9 years old) is desperate to join the cowboy team in his neighborhood Cowboys and Indians games. The “captain” of the cowboys has said he needs jeans and a belt to be a cowboy, so he borrows his big brother’s jeans and acquires a belt with a big state of Texas buckle. Now, he’s got the goods, but finds the team reluctant to take him on. They finally do, but we notice as the two teams huddle up that Yussef is now the only non-white face on a wary-looking cowboy team, and all the disdainful-expressioned Indians are children of color. The captain of the cowboys says, “it’s going to be hard to know who’s who if you start mixing things up.”

The film closes with a quote from James Baldwin, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5,6 or 7…to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”

A colleague from Syria says he is working to acquire the film for his channel, but doubts children there will understand the American cultural essence of the parable. In any case, it seems like a strange and defeatist message to deliver to young children – you can’t escape your pre-determined lot. There’s also a not-very-hidden message about collaboration.

In the formal discussion groups (the one I attended, at least), the broad feeling was that this was made for adults, not children. Many thought any audience would understand the “cowboys and Indians” metaphor, given the global distribution of western films, but that children in particular would never make the association to the Middle East conflict (perhaps fortunately, per some?).

Others noted that the story was missing an essential conflict of a children’s story, because Yussef acquires the trappings of the cowboys, since he takes his brother’s jeans and his father buys him a belt (when his mother has said “no”). Would his transition (and subsequent disappointment) have been more meaningful had he had to work harder to make the transition?

How do you know you're at a kids' TV festival?

Poverty Through a Child's Eyes

The British government has vowed to end child poverty by 2020, and the animated short documentary stories of the BBC’s “The Wrong Trainers” show just how far there is to go. Each of the stories, in the words and voices of children living in poverty, visualizes government statistics about the root causes of poverty, such as drug use, low income or disability. By using different styles of animation, the stories protect children’s anonymity but also lend an appropriate and engaging style to the details of each child’s story.

“The Wrong Trainers” aired as part of CBBC’s “Newsround.”

In the type of whiplash change that is common due to PRIX JEUNESSE’s lottery-determined screening order, “TWT” was immediately followed by the US’ WGBH/PBS hysterical game show, “Fetch With Ruff Ruffman.”

Both shows got audience applause afterward.

Now, where was I?

Sorry for the long dry spell and "blocked" messages you may have received – Blogspot’s bots apparently decided this blog might be spam, and denied access temporarily. In any case, back to our previously scheduled festival! I've been saving up posts and will try to finish updating during the day today.

In any case, the football game ended as all good international “friendlies” ought to – in a 6-6 tie.