The Boston International Kids Film Festival (BIKFF) typically celebrates films made by, for, or about kids with an annual in-person festival. But this year, as with so much else, the festival had to pivot to a virtual presentation. The mostly short films can introduce kids to nature, help them think critically about race, or see what remote learning looks like in other parts of the world. Some are educational, some have a message, and plenty are just plain funny.
The festival was started eight years ago by the Filmmakers Collaborative, a Melrose-based organization that provides support to media makers. Executive director Laura Azevedo says that a lot of members made documentaries “with hopes of getting into schools or libraries and hoping young people would see them and discuss them.” BIKFF gave them, and youth filmmakers, an outlet for their work. The youth-made films quickly became the most popular, she says, because kids bring lots of friends and families into the theater.
Though this year the festivities will happen entirely online from Nov. 20-22, Azevedo still expects great attendance over the 10 blocks of film screenings. Since independent films are not rated, BIKFF breaks down viewing in various ways — by suggested viewer age, movie form and language. All of the films with English subtitles stream together, for example, as do all of the student-made films. At press time, each block will stream once, at a scheduled time, and is followed by a live Q&A.
Opening night, Block #1 on Friday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m., features the much-lauded 2018 documentary “Biggest Little Farm,” with subject and director John Chester slated to answer questions. The film tells the story of how one family turns depleted California acreage into a thriving biodynamic farm. This is a good entry-level, feature-length movie for kids who want to learn about the importance of sustainable agriculture.
On Saturday, Nov. 21, in Block #3, the fest showcases an excellent pick for nature lovers. Screening at noon, “Beauty on the Wing: The Life Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly,” gets up close and personal with the remarkable molting, migrating insect. With footage gathered over more than 10 years, some from her own back yard, Gloucester’s Kim Smith has become not just a nearly one-woman documentary crew but also a vocal Monarch expert and advocate.
“Beauty on the Wing” especially excels in patient, extreme close-ups of the caterpillar releasing its exoskeleton, as well as the butterflies sleeping and mating. In addition to its scheduled screening, schools can sign up to stream this documentary Nov. 16-Nov. 20 and also participate in a Q&A with the director.
The remaining program blocks feature 68 short films from 17 countries. In many selections, the pandemic plays a recurring though not always obvious role. One of the most uplifting signs comes in the form of wildly creative shorts made by Boston area families sheltering at home.
One of my favorite examples, “The Magical Forest and the Things,” is an imaginative, memorable warning against overconsumption that audiences of all ages can appreciate. It features exuberant narration by 6-year-old Calliope Pietrewicz of West Hatfield, Massachusetts. Created while on lockdown in what her family calls their “quarantine attic,” Pietrewicz infuses the story’s fresh twist on “The Giving Tree” with impish expressions like “personal respond-a-billy-dee” (translation: personal responsibility). Artist and musician Dave Russo animated pen and marker drawings by scanning them into software. He also played the ukulele for the score.
“The Magical Forest and the Things” streams in Block #9, shorts for ages 10 and under, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 22. The other shorts for 10 and under, Block #2 at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 21, includes a deadpan Lucille Ball-inspired comedy that, despite its name, has zero to do with crafting. In “Hands On: Crafts With Olivia and Esme, Esme Gets a Job,” real-life sisters Olivia and Esme Cote, ages 10 and 6, pay tribute to Lucy and Ethel.
The Quincy-based Cote family has been making micro-shorts on Adam Cote’s (Olivia and Esme’s dad) iPhone for years. What started out as crafty clips has morphed into all sorts of recorded antics with the family’s kitchen island as a backdrop. (Their IMDb page goes back to 2016 and includes four seasons; they also have a YouTube channel.) This episode changes up the scenery and adds grown-up costumes to a witty script about a demanding starlet’s hotel visit. As with Lucy, come for the adorableness, stay for the slapstick. (Or the other way around.)
Also in Block #2 is the animated medieval tale “Daisy” directed by Sharon resident Tom Weston. Based on a short story from Weston’s collection “Tales from the Green Dragon Tavern,” Daisy says she’s too small, too slow and too weak to play with the other kids. Her wizard father makes a village proclamation. Daisy will become the most popular girl in school. Humor comes in the form of Daisy’s droopy-eyed “Yeah right, Dad” nonresponses as well as the narrator’s burly cadence for all characters.
Student-made narratives feature in Block #4 on Saturday, Nov. 21 at 2 p.m., and offer up a strong showing from the Boston area as well. The festival’s youngest filmmaker, 11-year-old Tobin Cleary from Winchester, turns in a convincing, succinct commentary on racism with “The Meeting Spot.” In it, two pals meet up at a posh intersection and experience troublingly different reactions from the white strangers passing by.
The technically impressive “Closet,” by Shrewsbury’s Deniz Akyurek, makes ample use of sound design, lighting, editing and effects to tell a physically compact but tension-filled story. Let’s just say if you’re a bored teen staring at your phone, don’t open the kitchen closet door. “Quiet,” by Needham’s Emma Scharf, also plays Block #4. The somewhat mysterious and magical storyline involves a shy young mage who wishes for an equally quiet family. Or maybe it’s for a spell to calm the chaos of everyone under one pandemic roof.
Portrayals of lockdown come from halfway around the world, as well. “Homeschool” (Block #2) depicts a day in the life of one New Zealand family where the mom has to talk her kids into playing outdoors. While not necessarily pandemic-related, the boldly animated “Kapaemahu” (Block #7 Sunday, Nov. 22 at 10 a.m.) recounts how four giant boulders on Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach became overlooked and misunderstood. The boulders represent healing figures who contain a mixture of male and female in mind, body and spirit. The short’s animator, Daniel Sousa, has taught at several universities in Boston and New England.
With a sharp script, precision acting and an overall Hollywood polish, Boston’s Mark Kiefer takes a jab at climate change in the comedic “Time Bomb,” playing in Block #10, shorts for middle-schoolers and older, on Sunday, Nov. 22 at 4:30 p.m.
With so many options, kids of varying interests and ages can tune in to BIKFF and find something that fits. Over the festival weekend and throughout the year, BIKFF hosts stop-motion animation and moviemaking boot camps, too. Who knows? It might inspire one kid — or the whole family — to pick up a camera, or pens and paper, and enter their own film next year.
Boston International Kids Film Festival streams from Nov.20-22. For a full schedule of screening times, visit the festival’s website.