The call came just four weeks ago, imbued with a sense of urgency. Child protection had been top of the agenda in governments talks, the Ministry of Interior said. Could cinema be used as a means to reach a wider audience to raise awareness about child abuse and neglect?
For the organisers of Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), all of this posed a dilemma. They had already made their selection of 166 films from 51 countries, including a number of premieres, and were in the final stages of drawing up schedules with a mere five weeks to go before launch.
But when they went back to the drawing board, scratching their heads, it became clear how many of the movies they had already selected focused on the younger generation and the pressures they faced, whether from being used as marketing tools for internet giants, as victims of abuse or as targets for bullies.
“It was a strange coincidence,” says Teresa Cavina, director of programming for the film festival.
“Sometimes I think filmmakers have telepathic connections and this year we had been flooded with films relating to relationships and dysfunctional families.
“When we went through, we realised quite a few involved children so although it was late and the programme was finalised, we decided to do something this year.”
The result is the Child Protection Award category, a new addition to the film festival calendar that will be a regular fixture every year with a top prize of US$70,000 (Dh257,117).
The entries, which include 14 feature films and five short films, have been assembled from shortlists for pre-existing competition categories such as Documentaries and New Horizons.
But what might have been born in haste has carried a more profound impact and speaks to issues at the very heart and fabric of society.
For what the festival organisers have done is quite bold. It would have been quite easy to find films illustrating textbook examples of abuse: the monstrous paedophile, the innocent victim and a denouement where justice is (hopefully) served.
Instead, the shortlist includes challenging films that broaden the scope of child protection and by its definition, abuse.
There are films that tick those obvious boxes, such as Je M’Appelle Hmmm..., the first feature film from the fashion designer Agnès Troublé.
But more profoundly disturbing is the suggestion that abuse can take all sorts of forms, from the societal pressures which send half-man, half-boy Siyar on a mission from his Iraqi-Kurd village to carry out an honour killing on his runaway sister Nermin in Before Snowfall to the fateful decision taken by well-meaning labourer Mahendra in dispatching his 12-year-old son to work in a factory in Siddharth.
And in Baroness Beeban Kidron’s InRealLife, the award-winning director asks whether the smartphones we issue to our children without a second thought are insidiously manipulating and controlling their behaviour in a way that is both dangerously addictive and rides roughshod over cultural norms.
From technology to cultural burdens and a basic need to survive, there are, says ADFF, many ways in which parents cause untold damage to their offspring.
And underlying that message is a question parents will find deeply disquieting: in that context, exactly how safe are your children?
Thursday May 3, 2007, is a day etched in every line of Kate and Gerry McCann’s care-worn faces.
There cannot be a day that goes by when they do not wonder what happened to their daughter Madeleine, then aged three.
She disappeared without trace from their holiday apartment in Portugal and despite years of searching and plenty of false leads, her whereabouts are still a mystery.
Yet just this week, they told BBC’s Crimewatch programme they had not given up hope of finding her.
“When it’s a special occasion, when you should be at your happiest and Madeleine’s not there, that’s when it hits home,” Gerry McCann said.
The case struck a chord worldwide because the McCanns were the everyman couple: both doctors, they were middle-class, respectable and while their decision to leave their daughter sleeping alone might have been questionable, their plight was every parent’s worst nightmare come true.
There have been other high-profile cases: the Ariel Castros and Josef Fritzls of this world, who operated unbeknown to those around them and were able to pluck victims from their neighbourhoods and sometimes their own families.
These are the monsters we recognise and the dangers we warn our children against.
But lieutenant colonel Faisal Mohammed Al Shimmari, director of the Ministry of Interior’s two-year-old Child Protection Centre, says it is not that simple.
His centre’s child protection policy has a 14-point plan covering not just sexual abuse but also categories such as safety in homes, buildings, schools, public venues and transport.
It can, he adds, engender anything from advising parents not to drive with children on their laps to questioning whether it is appropriate for maids to act as nannies without proper training or experience.
To Cavina, having a better understanding of child protection means asking cinemagoers to step into children’s shoes.
“We ask the audience to feel what children are feeling,” she says.
“Parents can become busy with their own lives. We are asking them to look at how children deal with things.
“The child protection centre is not asking us to duplicate their work. It is asking us to distribute consciousness about children with the language and forms of cinema.”
Even if the message is all-encompassing, it has been undeniably prompted by a spate of recent cases involving child abuse and torture so horrific as to be almost incomprehensible.
Who cannot recollect the sweet face of 8-year-old Wadeema Al Sherawi, captured on a mobile phone while wearing a raspberry pink headscarf and an impish grin?
And who can fully comprehend the fact that just months after this photo was taken, her life was ended by violence meted out by her own father and his mistress?
Then there was Moosa Mukhtiar Ahmed, the four-year-old raped and murdered in a Dubai mosque just yards from the home where his family had lived for three decades.
His attacker faced the firing squad for his crimes against what the prosecution described as “an innocent angel in the house of God”.
And there is the Abu Dhabi couple in police custody for the death of their four-year-old daughter. The mother is accused of torturing her and offering the defence that she was “trying to teach her manners”.
These are, of course, extreme and isolated cases and rare in a nation which holds family values dear.
But they have been enough to prompt calls for a change in legislation.
Wadeema’s Law, which comes with the full support of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE, and is under review by the Federal National Council, will introduce tougher penalties for those who fail in their duty of care toward children and instigate more checks and balances along the way to ensure no child falls in the gaps.
New powers for law enforcers will mean they can enter homes and take preventative methods; in short, the health, safety and welfare of the nation’s children will be a state responsibility.
But what does this have to do with cinema?
Al Shimmari says: “It is difficult through a speech or a presentation for people to visualise the topic you are addressing.
“When you match visualisation with human emotions – that is what cinema is all about. Your audience becomes connected to human suffering in a way they cannot if you just speak about it.”
It seems, then, little coincidence the McCanns chose to sanction a televised reconstruction of Madeleine’s last known movements this week in a bid to jog memories.
Al Shimmari and his cohorts came up with the idea of linking awareness of child abuse and film during an Abu Dhabi conference last year for the Virtual Global Taskforce, a collective of child protection agencies whose aim is to target online abusers.
The film Trust, directed by David Schwimmer and featuring a 14-year-old victim who falls prey to an internet paedophile, was screened during the December conference and left all the delegates reeling with its powerful message.
“What we saw,” says Al Shimmari, “is that people who attended could visualise the threats and potential impact of such crime and work on a preventative approach.
“That experience led us to think of enhancing the collaboration with cinema.”
It was an issue close to the heart of festival director Ali Al Jabri, a father-of-six whose youngest son Zayed was born just two weeks ago.
“These stories make us care more and better understand those human beings in whose hands will rest the future of the world,” he says.
“Every time I turned around, young people I knew were attached to a console or a phone or a device and I had a moment where I thought: ‘What does this mean?’”
Kidron, 52, has been making films for more than 30 years, a period that has seen revolutionary changes in her art, and insists she is no Luddite.
But she says when she started probing into the way teenagers use the internet – and it uses them – what made her blood boil was the “idea that it is OK for the next generation to be collateral damage.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange warns on her film the internet is the “greatest spying machine the world has ever seen” and to Kidron, that means children eager to own the latest gadgets are the ultimate unwitting pawns.
Her latest documentary portrays a series of teenagers across a vast social spectrum and the different ways they engage online.
There is the 19-year-old who sacrificed his place at Oxford University because of his addiction to gaming; the teenage girl who endured a sexual assault to get back her stolen BlackBerry; a budding online romance; and the sombre tale of Thomas Mullaney, a 15-year-old who hanged himself after being bullied on Facebook.
“I am someone who embraces technology,” Kidron says.
“I know firsthand benefits come at a price and when I looked at those kids, I was not entirely sure we have worked out the price of that technological change.”
The big game changer, she adds, has been the smartphone and the portability of technology.
“I do not think parents realise,” she says.
“Half of them say: ‘This is great, I can always talk to my kids’ and the other half say: ‘I’ve lost my children’.
“We have to ask whether it is reasonable for young people to be deliberately addicted to a technology of any kind and that because they are addicted through a chemical in their brain, dopamine, and deliberately so, it also makes them very passive, so whether it is a message or an ad or a cultural thing … that is distorting and makes them passive and unthinking. Is that something we want to bequeath our kids?”
Kidron, who directed Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, finds “the culture of splurging out information” online problematic.
“It is a footprint they cannot contest or get rid of. It is unimaginable,” says Kidron. “If everything I had done before I was 18 was public, then I would not be the adult I am.”
She was so concerned about the impact of appearing in the film of one of her subjects, a girl who had operated a webcam from a young age, that she cut her from the documentary altogether.
“There is one story missing about image and how young women feel about the net,” she says.
“I had to make an adult and personal choice about someone else’s well-being and I felt she was too vulnerable.”
Ironically, webcamming was much of the author of the girl’s insecurity in a double-edged sword. Unlike Kidron’s surrogate parenting by extracting her from the film, cyber bullies abound and the anonymity of the internet makes them crueller.
“I think up until 18, we all have a collective duty of care to kids and they should not be in a world that is so Machiavellian in the way it attaches to them and uses their data and exploits their lack of maturity. This should be a protected moment.”
She would like to see a ban on collecting data on anyone under 18. Also, she would like to see more age verification introduced online.
Kidron is well qualified to talk about the impact of film and technology on the younger generation.
Seven years ago she cofounded FilmClub, an initiative making a library of up to 10,000 foreign language, classic and contemporary films available to 7,000 British schools with the opportunity for pupils to make their own movies.
That scheme is just about to be rolled out nationwide as FilmNation, which will make it accessible to every schoolchild between five and 18.
“I feel passionately that we judge young people as myopic and self-centred and at the same time, keep giving them the limited choices of wanting Nike or Adidas shoes,” she says.
“There is a huge appetite for things beyond themselves. Cinema’s innate ability to involve you and make the objective and subjective a little bit more muddled up is its greatest gift.”
Depicting child abuse without delving into clichés or gratuitous violence was never going to be easy.
Agnès Troublé, better known as Agnès B, never quite pulls it off in her debut feature film, which has received mixed reviews from the critics.
Its sensitive subject matter, the abuse of 11-year-old Céline Meunier by her father, feels too delicate for direction which veers into the clumsy and over-experimental with a maudlin Vivaldi soundtrack to boot while her characters are never quite rounded enough.
But it was a brave choice for Agnès, an established French fashion designer and a long-standing benefactor of film festivals and directors, and has certainly got audiences talking.
“I know what I am talking about,” she says, without elaborating on how.
“I wrote the story 10 years ago and feel it is universal. I wrote it very carefully [based] on the impact on everyone around the girl.”
Its artistic merit aside, what makes this most problematic as a contender for the child protection award is that the abuser effectively gets away with it; although he burst into tears a couple of times, his remorse is unconvincing and feels more like self-pity.
His victim returns to the family after running away and although the abuse stops, there is no recrimination or showdown. Agnès insists there is redemption and says she wants to tell her story from different aspects: “We never talk about the abuser.”
Do directors have a responsibility or a moral duty when highlighting such a sensitive topic to at least offer some answers?
“This is real life,” says Al Shimmari. “Life is not a fictional movie where everyone lives happily ever after.”
Cavina agrees: “I think Agnès is brave enough not to shy away from the truth.”
Victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence do not always report family members, she adds, and a public institution to help them is crucial.
Indeed, if art imitates life, then many of the films in the award category conjure bleak, uncompromising visions.
Siddarth, evocatively shot in the streets of India, shows the hopelessness of searching for a lost child among the millions swallowed by the cities into the labour or sex trade; Harmony Lessons depicts a harsh school bullying regime echoed in the brutal violence of a totalitarian state; Siyar in Before Snowfall is hopelessly, and ultimately catastrophically, torn between two worlds.
It is left to the beautifully-filmed, poignant Short Term 12 to provide resolution. Set in a foster care facility – similar to the one young director Destin Cretton worked in for two years before film school – it focuses on the teenagers living there and the increasingly complex lives of their carers.
Significantly, there is no depiction of the abuse which has taken place. We see only a glimpse of one of the offenders who have caused so much hurt and the award-winning film is all the better for that subtlety.
Its protagonists are like the survivors of a shipwreck; washed up in the aftermath like broken pieces, they need fixing. Some, like carer Mason, only hint at the trauma which has gone before; others such as Grace are going through a revelatory process of catharsis.
From Mason’s opening monologue, which wraps both humour and pathos in one, it is grippingand moving all at once.
Hawaiian-born Cretton, 34, who is in negotiations to direct The Glass Castle starring Jennifer Lawrence, says while the plight of his characters is extreme, their emotions and behaviour are universal: “Most people can relate to Grace’s feeling that she does not deserve to be loved and the human ability to create family even when one is not available.”
He adds he was “terrified” by the subject matter: “It would have been extremely easy for me to mess it up.
“It is a rare I see a movie that takes place in such a highly emotional environment without it being a TV movie of the week and highly sentimental.
“It was a challenge to make it feel authentic. I felt a lot of weight and obligation to make it as close to the real experience as possible.”
Ultimately, it works because it speaks of the human condition, of the need to make connections whatever one’s background or history.
And while Cretton did not set out to make an educational film, that is, in effect, what it became.
He says: “I hope this movie is a starting point for creating more conversations around how our country – and any country – treats its youth, who are not able to vote yet and make decisions to help themselves. All these decisions are made by adults. “We are, in so many ways, their voices.”
* Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs from October 24 to November 2. See abudhabifilmfestival.ae for more details