New Kids on the Doc
How to be teenagers who make a short that screens at Cannes
Kids make videos every damn day. Thousands of them – millions, probably – show up on YouTube and Vimeo and the like, shot with phones and flip cams and video contraptions of all sorts. A small number aspire to be real films – a subjectively determined category, to be sure, but one generally conscious (even if deliberately dismissive) of artfulness, structure, character, and making an impression on the viewer that lasts longer than a minute or two.
A significantly smaller percentage of those films escape the Internet, to be seen at festivals or coffeehouses or live venues of any sort.
Hardly any make it to Cannes.
"How To Be Kids" – a short documentary directed by 15-year-old McCallum High School freshman Sofia Smith Hale and featuring 16-year-old Khabele School sophomore Nadia Esseghaiar – lives in that third, exceptional category. Conceived, shot, and edited by Hale for her media studies class, the movie will screen at the Cannes International Film Festival's Short Film Corner, which provides emerging filmmakers opportunities to network, learn, find distributors, and give their work international exposure. In this case, it's a prestigious debut for a work with fairly pedestrian beginnings.
"The assignment was to make an instructional video – how to bake a cake or something like that – and I knew that wouldn't turn out very interesting," says Hale. "So I chose to do a documentary about [Esseghaiar]. She's always stood out just because of her different philosophies about life. I think she's an existentialist in that she lives in the moment and doesn't really care about other people's views about her, she's really independent of any control, and I always have a great time with her. It wasn't going to be 'How To Be Nadia.' So I just called it 'How To Be Kids,' because I think that what we do is good and something that kids should do more often, rather than sit on the Internet for seven hours."
The film, which follows Esseghaiar over an aimless long weekend of hanging around some awfully cinematic train tracks ("an endless symbol," she jokes), kicking around South Austin, and dancing with her small mutt, Bouncer, in her room full of art projects, has the gritty look and twitchy feel of angsty adolescent classics from Kids to The 400 Blows.
That might be because both girls hold Harmony Korine (Gummo), the narrative director who wrote the screenplay for Kids, in highest esteem – "he's our favorite director," says Hale – but in general both are well-versed in, and passionate about, the documentary genre. They rattle off examples like Streetwise, Martin Bell's 1984 street-kid doc, and "Sean" (1970), a Web-resurrected short in which the interlocutor's subject is a 4-year-old hippie kid, as influences.
"We watch random documentaries a lot," says Esseghaiar of herself and mutual pal Aaron Duran, who is in a few scenes of Hale's movie, "random documentaries on obscure things, like from the Nineties and Eighties, and find weird videos on the Internet. The Internet is such a – it's vast. It's huge."
"I think when I was editing I had ["Sean"] in the back of my mind," says Hale. "It was just this little boy and this guy just asked him questions, and while he was talking, it would show him running through the streets and watering the garden and stuff. It was really random but it was awesome. Documentaries are so truthful, I guess. They just show life as it is."
As for their impending trip to Cannes, says Hale, "I just want to meet people who are interested in documentary filmmaking and talk to them. I think it's pretty crazy that we're going at all. So I have no idea what to expect. Anything else is just extra."
Esseghaiar, in her way, concurs: "I expect to meet some interesting people and make connections with people and that it will be really cool. And maybe make some sort of reputation for ourselves so we can continue in the art world. I'm going to the Cannes Film Festival as a 16-year-old. So obviously that is going to come with some perks."
"How To Be Kids" will screen at a fundraiser Friday, May 13, 6-8pm, at El Naranjo (85 Rainey). The event will feature food and drink by El Naranjo Mobile and a sale of artwork by young local artists; proceeds and donations will go toward the festival trip. Donations can also be made at howtobekids.chipin.com/sofia-and-nadiatrip-to-cannes-film-festival. For more information call 968-8815 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.