Kid gloves are off at the Sydney Film Festival family program

Films such as M Manikandan’s The Crow Egg (2014) have plenty to offer younger viewers. © Transmission Films

Kid gloves are off at the Sydney Film Festival family program

It is encouraging to see that one of the world’s longest running film festivals, the Sydney Film Festival (SFF), has this year introduced films for children. The program includes two feature films, the South Indian production M Manikandan’s The Crow’s Egg (2014) (for children 8+) and Tomm Moore’s The Song of the Sea (2014) (an animated Irish-led international co-production, for children aged six and over).

Children and young people growing up today are immersed in digital culture and seem to have a plethora of choice about the screen entertainment they consume.

It is a paradox, then, that they do not necessarily experience a diversity of media content across the multiple screens with which they engage.

The SFF program also includes two Australian documentaries. One is Maya Newel’s Gayby Baby (2015) (for children aged six and over), about four children from different families with same-sex parents. The other is Lisa Nicol’s Wide Open Sky (2014) (for children aged six and over), about an Australian outback children’s choir.

The program is rounded out with an animation showcase for children aged three to eight, featuring a range of stories children are unlikely to encounter elsewhere.

The most popular television programs, YouTube channels and movie experiences remain Hollywood-centric. A casual perusal of children’s television programming in Australia, for instance, reveals relatively little cultural or narrative diversity on the screen.

Despite laudable efforts by the programmers of ABC children’s television to provide a greater diversity of content, we see fewer examples than desirable of stories about children, for children, that are genuinely thought provoking and non-formulaic.

Of course, long-form feature films in this vein are almost entirely absent from our screens.

Media literacy matters

Complex screen stories enrich childrens’ lives because they provide those children opportunities to think and feel in ways that may otherwise be unavailable to them. This is one of the central tenets of media literacy.

In a recent article for the Journal of Curriculum Studies I reported on a study that showed how primary school children learn to use media technologies with relative ease, particularly when they have opportunities to practice using media production technologies.

Kids learn technical skills quickly, but still need to be exposed to story-telling to widen their horizons. Kevin Jarrett/Flickr, CC BY

Tablet devices allow children to record images and sounds and they can edit these together with readily available software. Crucially, however, this doesn’t mean they can tell stories.

The same children had difficulty engaging with and talking about complex screen-based stories or with imagining the kinds of stories they might tell about themselves. It is difficult to tell your own screen story as a young person if you have not seen and discussed a diversity of other children’s screen stories.

There has been a lot of focus on digital literacy in recent times from organisations such as the Australian Media and Communication Authority (ACMA), which is concerned that children and young people remain safe and responsible in our “always connected” society.

This is important work, but quite narrowly focused. Media literacy education predates the digital era by several decades and its broad aims and objectives remain as relevant as ever.

The Media Arts subject within the Australian Curriculum is the most recent iteration of media literacy education in this country.

At the core of the Media Arts curriculum is a conceptual framework that recognises representation through storytelling as a fundamental component of media literacy.

Media literacy education recognises that the materials of digital media culture – the images, sounds and digital text we increasingly and daily interact with and curate for each other – are potentially meaningless if they do not promote conceptual and emotional engagement.

This is where complex screen stories for children like those included in this year’s Sydney Film Festival play such an important role in the development of media literacy. They provide children with examples of screen-based storytelling that invite discussion because they differ from the cultural norms so readily repeated within mainstream media.

I do not want to dismiss children’s mainstream media experiences as somehow unimportant or inherently harmful. Popular media provide immense pleasure, and there is a significant amount of scholarship that suggests popular media can be the site of meaningful negotiation of cultural norms.

There is a danger, though, that mainstream media and digital culture become a kind of echo chamber in which dominant ideas and stories are continuously repeated. Indeed, the concept of film and television genres relies on predictability and story repetition.

Children deserve the opportunity to gain access to media experiences that may help them to understand something of the diversity of storytelling forms and of human experience in the world.

The Sydney Film Festival has a taken an important step in providing this opportunity to children and it would be encouraging to see this initiative continue in future years and at other festivals around the country.

The Sydney Film Festival runs until June 14.