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Alumni evoke thought, emotion at Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival

By Alicia Caldera/Daily Bruin

Los Angeles International Children's Film Festival

May 11

James Bridges Theater

By Gavin Meichelbock

May 9, 2024 11:45 a.m.

UCLA alumni are emphasizing the important effects cinema has on its youngest viewers.

On May 11, the James Bridges Theater will host the annual Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival, featuring over 25 short films from around the world. Animation, live action and documentary styles will be featured to pass on empowering messages such as choosing one’s own adventure, the positive perspective of divorce and the importance of kids hugging their parents. While the stories these filmmakers created may differ, they all aim to emphasize one thing – the emotional impact movies can have on children, said alumnus Michael Plewa.

“Those stories at those points in your life are the times when you can open up to the world in a way that’s important,” Plewa said. “I think there’s enormous importance in stories for children.”

[Related: Sundance 2024: Alumnus Michael Fitzgerald talks progress in representing disability on screen]

Plewa, who said he grew up thinking “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” was a kids film, is now showcasing a very different type of children’s movie at the upcoming festival, titled “How to Make a Film About My Son, Jack.” The short is a glorified home-movie that allowed him to capture the brief window of his son on the verge of becoming his own person, Plewa said. Documenting this time not only allowed him to be around for pivotal moments of his son’s development, he said, but also gave him the chance to explore one of the most important aspects of children’s media – allowing children to see themselves represented on screen. Now more than ever, Plewa added, there is a need to show young viewers media of other kids playing, sharing and getting along.

(Courtesy of Michael Plewa)
Michael Plewa smiles for his portrait. The recent alumnus will be presenting his film "How to Make a Film About My Son, Jack” at the 18th Los Angeles International Children's Film Festival. (Courtesy of Michael Plewa)

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Plewa said watching the documentary “Hoop Dreams” when he was roughly 10-years-old had a major impact on his life. He said the film showed him a different side of the city through the lens of boys at a similar stage of life who were facing poverty, family drama and drug addiction. Despite not knowing them, Plewa said he was intellectually challenged by their stories, a feat that would not have happened if not for the film. “Hoop Dreams” challenged Plewa to open his mind and think about more important issues, he added. His sentiments about showing children on-screen representation was echoed by his fellow alumnus and film festival participant, Liam Wallace.

As one of the most accessible mediums, films excel at evoking thoughts and emotions in young minds, especially with the inclusion of music, Wallace said. Wallace will be the first-ever recipient of the Daniel Koops Award for Emerging Film Score Composer on Saturday for the score he composed for the festival film “Purple and Green.” He said his score provides a bed for the production’s acting, writing and cinematography, enhancing the emotional impact of each scene in the larger narrative centered around a parents’ divorce. Although conveying emotion is the goal of any musical composition, Wallace said it has a greater significance in children’s media due to how intuitive kids can be with their emotions.

(Courtesy of Liam Wallace)
Alumnus Liam Wallace holds two drumsticks while smiling for a photo. He will receive the first Daniel Koops Award for Emerging Film Score Composer on Saturday. (Courtesy of Liam Wallace)

On top of a film’s story and musical accompaniment having the capacity to change the way children view the world, the experience of going to the theater is equally significant, said alumnus Matthew B.W. Sheehan. The animator recently directed the film “Sally Chooses Adventure,” which will be featured at the upcoming festival. Sheehan said his feature stars his daughter, who gets upset by the restrictive paths of a “choose your own adventure” book and consequently starts writing her own endings. The message of the story ties back to how, growing up with his own set of limitations and setbacks, Sheehan had to forge his own path – one he said became clear in the darkness of a movie theater.

“For young adults and children to go into a theater and see narrative in this huge cathedral where … there’s no distractions, the sound is all around you, the picture is so big and so immersive, it can be so special and unique,” Sheehan said. “It really shows us what cinema tastes like … that big thing that’s waiting for us out there. Getting to see a movie in a movie theater is a real gift in my opinion.”

(Courtesy of Matthew B.W. Sheehan)
Matthew B.W. Sheehan smiles in his headshot. The alumnus and animator created the film “Sally Chooses Adventure" featuring his daughter. (Courtesy of Matthew B.W. Sheehan)

[Related: Leslie Tai’s ‘How to Have an American Baby’ sheds light on Chinese birth tourism]

Sheehan said telling stories has always been something he cared about, but being dyslexic and neurodiverse made this love of his always seem out of reach. It was not until his discovery of cinema, specifically animation, that Sheehan said he gained the confidence and ability to take his stories off the sidelines. Now, making his own films, Sheehan said he feels fortunate to be able to inspire kids by contributing to the safe space that allowed him to flourish when he was a child.

While the subject matter of these three stories differs, the three alumni believe in the same message. Showing kids movies at these pivotal moments of their development, when they are starting to learn the ways of the world, is an important learning opportunity, Plewa said. That is why the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival is so important, Wallace added, as it spotlights the crucial role films for young audiences have. Sheehan said by showcasing these kinds of movies, the festival is giving filmmakers the chance to contribute to this intellectual playground where a child’s imagination can run wild.

“It’s both a gift as a filmmaker to be able to share this experience but it’s also a huge opportunity for children to be left alone, to have magical space where they’re free to explore their imaginations and have fun,” Sheehan said.

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