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Voiceless children
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 03 - 2006

The 16th Cairo International Film Festival for Children highlighted the lack of visual media targetting Arab children: Rania Khallaf investigates
So modest was the Arabs' share of awards handed out by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni at the closing ceremony of the Cairo International Film Festival for Children (CIFFC) last week, it felt somewhat pathetic. Egypt received only three prizes: two for animated films -- Ragya Hassan's Anouch and the Shadow and Bassam Halabi's Friends and Greed -- and one for Magda Abdel-Aziz's TV programme for disabled children, "Hearts that Love You". Executive Production Manager at Arab Radio and Television channel (ART) Layali Badr, formerly a children's programme director and on this occasion the winner of Ministry of Culture's silver prize for producing "Adventures of the Internet", was eager to point out that, though the issue of productions targeting children has been widely debated for a long time, no answer has been found to "problems pertaining to financing children's animation work -- which seems to be the main obstacle".
By producing Abaa Sighar (Young Parents), Egyptian producer Youssef El-Deeb's company Takhayal has, in this sense, managed the impossible. An Egyptian-Syrian co-production written by Rafiq El-Sabban and starring Syria's best known comedian Doraid Laham along with the young Egyptian movie star Hanan Turk, it deals with the dilemma of a newly motherless family in which the breadwinner, Wadoud, a police investigator in his last year at the Faculty of Law, is about to give up university in order to supplement his income by driving a taxi following the death of his wife. It is a decision opposed by his children, played by four incredibly talented Syrians, who take it upon themselves to work in their free time so that Wadoud can earn his degree. Though aimed primarily at children, the film voices an adult discourse; is that why most of the seats at one of a handful of screening venues currently showing it were empty? Though not wholly pedagogic, the film is loaded with moral lessons on, among other topics, child labour, education as the principal means to social mobility and the need to respect difference (the Syrian and Egyptian dialects providing a paradigm for the latter). All of which does not sit very well with a flaw typical of Arab movies: the forced integration of a love interest in Wadoud's growing love for his Egyptian tenant, played by Turk, who is an archeologist on a mission.
Though an achievement in its own right, the film remains divorced from the proper mandate of children's cinema, which should focus on imagination and adventure, using animation or other exciting visual idioms. Robert Rodriguez's The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D, with which CIFFC opened, for example, managed to keep the children's attention from beginning to end with the story of Max, an imaginative child who in his daydreams creates a fantasy world in 3-D to make up for lack of attention on the part of his constantly quarrelling parents. Yet such work requires a certain fluidity, both bureaucratic and financial, not always available locally, as the Cairo Studio's Mohamed Salah notes. Producers of the vastly popular animation series Bakar, following the sudden death of director Mona Abul-Nasr, the Cairo Studio, Salah says, was obstructed by red tape-oriented TV officials, who routinely reject children's animation projects: "with great difficulty we managed to produce Adventures of Uncle Amin, which we presented in the broader social context of day-to-day family problems; it will be on Egyptian TV within months." Though widely popular, educationalists have likewise harshly criticised the Egyptian Sesame Street adaptation Alam Simsim for relying on an American model -- to which producer Amr Koura responded by pointing out that it is such elements as the local costumes worn by the children and representing various parts of Egypt that make the programme interesting: "the programme raises issues of girls' education, national identity, tolerance and respect for difference."
For Mona El-Hadidi, dean of the International Academy for Media Science, it is censorship that prevents Arab productions from reaching out to Arab children, together with the absence of interactive relations with parents and respect for children's opinions. Syrian writer Hala El-Atassi, a CIFFC jury member, said that children's programmes in the Arab world are made by unprofessional entertainers and broadcast at unsuitable times: "in most cases they carry a disciplinary message, which leaves children watching adult entertainment." Sara, a drama premiered last Ramadan and currently screening on Channel 2, for example, the love story between a psychotherapist and semi-retarded girl (Hanan Turk), was widely followed by children. Psychological studies are warning that such viewing experiences might give rise to a precocious sexual awareness. A new, challenging trend for the developing world is to produce children's programmes featuring children themselves -- an idea strongly recommended by Mushira Khattab, chairwoman of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood during the closing session of the regional preparatory meeting for the world summit on Media for children, held last week in the framework of the CIFFC: "Children's participation is a necessity. Children should be given the space to express themselves, and contribute to producing media programmes calling for peace and democracy." Khattab also encouraged inter-Arab cooperation in the field, to "deepen national feeling" among children.
Programmes in a foreign language, too, are said to have a passive effect on child psychology -- another issue debated at the conference. Firdooze Bulbulia, chairwoman of the Johannesburg-based Children and Broadcasting Foundation for Africa, stressed this point: "because of our imperial past, we in Africa have had to speak colonial languages. So I think it's very important for children, especially pre-school children, to receive information and entertainment in their mother tongue. No doubt learning languages is an important and required skill, but this has to happen when children are older. Watching television programmes in your mother tongue helps endorse self respect, pride and integration." El-Hadidi also urged businessmen to invest in children's programmes. "Such programmes are seen by most investors as a waste of money," she said. "It's not true. There is a big market in Arab countries and it is in dire need of them."

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