My life as a child

Never work with kids, unless you want to make a serious film for adults. Lizzie Francke considers the ways that movies about childhood made for grown-ups have an angle all of their own
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"Once upon a time..." The lulling phrase that frames Small Faces, a feature film by the director Gillies MacKinnon and his co-writer Billy MacKinnon about a group of young lads growing up in Glasgow in the late Sixties, provides the prompt for the audience to shrink to the size of its sprite-like hero, Lex. For though the film may be set amid the high rises and derelict wastelands of Govan, the territory it charts should be familiar, for the film is a perceptive account of the hazy time of childhood. It is a dazzling addition to the cluster of movies that accomplish the difficult task of persuading us to engage with the world as observed from a lower angle, proving that this is indeed a grown-up subject for cinema.

Not to be confused with those films designed specifically for the pint- sized (though some children's films, like books, have a more mythical thread to them that can be read in an adult way), the genre has thrown up some powerful examples. These include Francois Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), which detailed the turbulent young life of his alter ego Antoine as he moved between a neglectful family, reform school and the Parisian movie houses; or Lasse Hallstrom's My Life As a Dog, whose impish hero Ingemar finds himself bereft of mother and father one summer. Then there is Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), set in Franco's Spain and told from the point of view of a small girl, Ana. The fact that these films are considered world cinema classics is no coincidence. For while the subject of childhood is perceived as universal, it certainly requires an innovative and sophisticated mind to successfully imagine the realm of innocence, and in doing so touch an adult sensibility without becoming sentimental.

Truffaut's experimental ploys in Les Quatre Cents Coups, his debut feature, ushered in the New Wave, with his friend Jean-Luc Godard commenting of the film, in typically elliptical style: "What shall I say? This Les Quatre Cents Coups will be a film signed frankness. Rapidity. Art. Novelty. Cinematograph. Originality. Impertinence. Seriousness. Tragedy. Renovation. Ubu-Roi. Fantasy. Ferocity. Affection. Universality. Tenderness." It is an apt list of appraisal for, shot as it was in a vivid and almost documentary- like fashion, the film reflected the mad energy of its small protagonist. Meanwhile, The Spirit of the Beehive's innovation was in its fragmentary use of image and sound, which could convincingly draw audiences into the mind of a child for whom the real and fantasy worlds had blurred after seeing the black-and-white classic Frankenstein in her village's makeshift cinema. The Australian director Ann Turner also made a striking debut with the haunting Celia, which cleverly explored how its young heroine's nightmares came to eclipse reality. In this instance, such a confusion alluded to the film's political core - as Erice's film had explored the bewilderment of a country infantilised under dictatorship.

As such The Spirit of the Beehive points to the way that childhood - and the misconception that films about childhood can only be about childish things - can be used as a decoy in films that have more overtly ideological concerns. It is a tactic that has been deployed in recent years by film- makers in such countries as Iran. Amir Naderi's The Runner (1984), for instance, which followed Amira, a 10-year-old street child as he tries to make a living selling water. While it was a lyrical evocation of the exuberant and playful aspects of childhood - and as such could be sold as an innocent project to the authorities - it was also an indictment of the terrible poverty that surrounded the young boy. Jafar Panahi's recent The White Balloon, which was told from a little girl's point of view, followed in The Runner's path.

Making a film about childhood might seem like the best solution for film-makers in places like Iran, but it hardly seems the easiest option for directors and writers who want their work to deal with a complex range of emotions and ideas. It's back to that old "never work with children and animals" thing. But, as Gillies MacKinnon points out, "The difference between directing children and animals is that animals don't understand stories, whereas children love them." In directing Small Faces it was important to him that his young cast could understand and feel excited about the tale. "It is a much longer pre-production process. In selecting young actors it is important to get the chemistry right. I would tell them the story and ask them what they think of it, we would look at photographs of the time and get out the costumes."

MacKinnon was rewarded with an exceptional group of young actors, particularly in 13-year-old Iain Robertson who gives an outstanding performance as Lex. "We were looking for someone who had the wildness and imagination, and could respond to the metaphorical dimension of the story, and were very lucky with Iain. He's a working-class boy from Govan who, instead of going out with the boys and buying drugs, stayed at home to write poetry." The screenwriter Billy MacKinnon adds: "Lex's role is quite cerebral and the way he articulates his conflicts with the other characters is cerebral as well. Iain read the text and got it. But it was equally important to think about physical things that he can do to express his character. For me, a key scene is where he loses a shoe - it's like losing his childhood, the completeness of himself, so when he asks for his shoe back, it's like asking for his life back. Simple things like that emotionally correspond to adult life." In this respect, Billy confirms that writing children's roles can be creatively liberating. "There is a certain caprice that childhood allows you. For instance, a child could be doing something quite playful - reveal his or her thoughts about themselves to a packet of biscuits - which would seem strange if an adult was doing it."

Billy MacKinnon has now been asked to adapt Esther Freud's novel Hideous Kinky, a sharply observed take on the Sixties told from the point of view of a five-year-old. It might seem a hard challenge. "I don't know any children, so it is a peculiar brief as a writer to again write a screenplay where certain characters are totally strange to me, but that's good." He adds: "But the children I write are like pre-Renaissance children; they are like fully formed baby divinities - the forces of adults on the scale of children. I think that's an important thing to remember; after all, we are all children."