As kids grow up, they watch movies in a different way. When Helena was little, she cared mostly about movement and color, though she also liked music. As she grew up a little more, she came to like plot — she would tell and re-tell the stories of the movies she had seen, transforming them in her play with dolls or friends. Next, she seemed to care most about theme, especially the way that The Lorax taught about environmentalism or Frozen’s ideas of sisterly love. I’m not sure if this is a common series of phases for kids and literature/film, but it does seem to track something of the way that Helena “reads” the movies she watches.
At seven years old, character seems the most important issue to Helena. Who are these people on the screen, what do they want, why do they want it, and how are they like and unlike me? This development seems part and parcel of Helena’s new and strong friendships and her wish to understand what the real people in her life think and want.
This new dynamic has played itself out most clearly in the person of Hermione Granger. About three months ago, I began to read the Harry Potter books to Helena, and Hermione jumped out of the pages at her. After we finished the book, I let her watch the movie (I think it is a bit much for a six year old — especially the penultimate scene — but she loved it), and once again, she fell in love with Hermione. In the middle of this, we also went to the movies to watch Beauty and the Beast, starring none other than Emma Watson, a grown-up Hermione Granger. Helena didn’t think much of the movie, but she loved the lead character.
When I was about six, one of my neighbors won the lead part in her high school presentation of the musical Brigadoon. I remember my excitement about “going to the theater” to see her, and then the unexpected feeling of seeing my some-time babysitter on stage. The, an even stranger feeling, as the voice that I heard emerging from her throat was not the voice of my neighbor. Confused, I kept pestering my parents, until finally they explained, in hushed voices, that she had laryngitis; the voice coming through the loudspeakers was the music teacher, singing into a microphone off stage.
Why would I remember this small piece of my childhood? Probably because this complex web of role-playing (my neighbor playing the part of Fiona, her teacher “playing the part” of my neighbor’s voice) brought me into the world of representation, the seemingly simple idea that one person can interpret the role of another, stand in for them. If you try to think like a little boy or girl, representation is suddenly a very complex idea: how is it that one person (and actor) can suddenly “be” another one, speaking with a new voice and playing a new role in the social network? As Helena became fascinated with Emma Watson (playing both Hermione and Belle), I saw that with movies, things are even more complicated. One day, Emma/Hermione is 11 years old; the next, she is a full grown woman. Kids have to learn about representation, but also about how time passes for an actor, but not for the character once she is inscribed onto film.
Helena has a certain advantage on many children as she learns about representation: her parents make movies. Eighteen months ago, when we filmed The Princess in the Alleyway with young actors from the favelas of Recife, we hired a couple of professional actors. One, Walter da Matta, played a spectacular villain, brutal, cold, and crule. In real life, Walter is the complete opposite, and he and Helena struck up a great friendship on and off the set. Any time that she confuses and actor and his part, I just have to remind Helena about Walter. Most kids don’t have that luxury.
All of this reflexion brings me back to the original idea of this blog post: children watch movies differently than adults do. It’s only gradually that they see plot, theme, and (if Helena is a model) character. And then, suddenly, when they decide to identify with a character — or the actor who plays that role — they drive right into the deep end. When I read Harry Potter to Helena now, Hermione need just enter the scene for Helena to perk up her ears or sometimes even cheer.
I really appreciate that JK Rowling wrote that kind of a character for Helena to identify with.