We’re all familiar with the scene. Our once firm-seated sofa is now permanently dented from accommodating the prone forms of our children, prostrate in front of the flatscreen during the UAE’s hottest months. And (if we’re honest) it’s probably best not to tot up their viewing hours over the past two months – or just how many times the Pixar DVDs have been played on a loop.
As parents, it’s easy to beat ourselves up about just how much our kids watch – but is hiding the remote control really the answer? Kurt Blum, general manager of Swiss Art Gate, is also the man behind Dubai’s latest film club for kids. Called The Magic Lantern, the club was founded 20 years ago in Switzerland, and its format actively encourages children to take a discerning interest in the films that they watch, rather than just gawping mindlessly at the goggle box.
‘Watching films isn’t something that should be avoided,’ says Kurt, ‘The Magic Lantern is quite far removed from most people’s perception of a trip to the movies. It’s an educational experience that teaches children to question what they are seeing. Our maxim is “quality films for quality spectators”. The children learn how to watch films objectively, in the presence of a film scholar and an animator.’
The club holds one film screening a month for its members, who are aged five to 12, and follows strict guidelines. The selected movies are usually non-commercial, international children’s films – the kind, Kurt says, that you’d view at a film festival. This season’s offering include Children of Heaven, by Iranian director Majid Majidi, three short Laurel and Hardy films, and Nick Park’s Chicken Run. ‘We feature films that are cinematically influential,’ he explains. ‘Chicken Run has been chosen because it was the first feature length film to use characters made entirely of plasticine, and Laurel and Hardy movies straddled both the silent and talking eras.’
It’s definitely not a CGI, mega-sized soft-drinks and 3D specs experience. In fact, parents are not allowed to accompany their children to the screenings and popcorn is banned.
This radical approach, Kurt says, is entirely necessary. ‘A Magic Lantern screening is very different to your usual cinema trip. Each session includes a stage show at the beginning, where actors engage with the children and explore the themes of the film they are about to watch. We want each child to concentrate on the film and the actors as much as they can, and having tubs of sticky popcorn on their laps, or their parents nearby, is distracting. If children are among their peers, they are more likely to listen and concentrate – and learn something.’
Once the titles roll, the actors continue to prompt the children by commenting on key areas of the film and pointing out things they should look out for. Once the film ends, there is a brief question and answer session. The club, says Kurt, provides a gradual learning experience for the children, who develop their ability to analyse films as the season progresses.
‘It’s important children attend several screenings so that they benefit from what the club has to offer. Becoming a discerning movie watcher can’t happen after one session, just as becoming a fantastic dancer doesn’t happen after one dance lesson. It takes several classes to develop a skill.’
He believes parents play a vital role in encouraging their children to appreciate film as an art form. ‘All too often, there is no interaction. We stick the DVD into the player because we want some peace and quiet. Discussion and encouraging your child to talk about the films they watch is one way of making them pro-active rather than reactive viewers,’ he says. ‘Even children as young as five can recognise aspects of a film that are used to make them feel a certain way. They can appreciate the use of colour – and where colour can change the mood of the film. The role music plays in guiding their emotions is also important.’
But what about the ‘scary’ film sessions? Aren’t five-year-olds too young to watch movies that might frighten them? ‘Not at all,’ says Kurt, who explains that the session on ‘scary’ films is quite far into the season – and that all those shown are made for children anyway. ‘By that stage, the children will have honed their viewing skills, and rather than letting the film guide their emotions, they can actually recognise how the director is creating and building tension. They look at the film in a much more objective way.’
The Magic Lantern was first founded in Switzerland in 1992. There are now more than 40,000 members worldwide and The Magic Lantern Association is under the patronage of UNESCO.
Members are aged five to 12 years, and the Dhs150 membership fee entitles each child to six sessions per season, on a monthly basis. For additional siblings, the membership fee is Dhs120
Parents are not allowed to attend screenings with their children, and all sessions are fully supervised
A week before each session, parents are sent a PDF booklet on the film their child will be watching, and are encouraged to discuss it with them before the screening
The screening includes a stage show introduction, a running commentary throughout the film and a feedback session afterwards. Each child is presented with a hard copy of the emailed booklet.
The vast majority of films screened are non-commercial international children’s films which are subtitled in English and Arabic.
Dubai’s Magic Lantern season begins September 24. For more details on how to become a member, visit www.magiclantern.ae