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Empathy Lies At The Core of Good Film Storytelling for Children

Filmmaker/Curator Katy Kavanaugh Cites Kids' Participation in International Film Festivals as a Boon for Child Development

Filmmaker/curator Katy Kavanaugh, shown here, leading a "Design Thinking" workshop. On her website, she cites inventor R. Buckminster Fuller's quote: "And then you will go out and do what no one has told you to do."

Empathy remains at the heart of good storytelling, especially as it correlates to films designed for kids. In a “post truth” age of obfuscating facts and deceitful falsehoods seeping their way into public discourse, an idealist may often be discouraged that morality and compassion for “the other” do not reap tangible rewards. But one can find solace that there remain individual artists whom – idealistic as they may be – have proven that kids who watch international films and attend international film festivals will enable their capacity for empathy. This basis of understanding will surely lead to a more informed and culturally literate citizenry.

Katy Kavanaugh, a filmmaker, curator, educator and international culturist, has spent decades dealing with such themes in her work. Her research shows empathy is nurtured through the power of international films and by children attending international film festivals. Such experience provides the basis of a child’s maturation, and can serve as a boon for the rest of a young person’s life.

“Cinema presents an immersive opportunity to engage empathetically with international peers in multiple ways,” Kavanaugh tells me. “Research shows that children have the capacity for empathy from infancy.”

Kavanaugh is one of six children, and was raised by parents who were educators in Haight Ashbury, the district in northern California known as the epicenter of the hippie counterculture. “I was in the center of the change as it was happening, and touched it. It recognized my capacity to create change where there’s need. My father and mother were quite active in neighborhood politics and reacted to it with kindness,” she says. Kavanaugh continues to “read a lot of non-fiction, and dig and refer to [journalist and author] Malcolm Gladwell a lot.” 

And as for music, she “adores” the Estonian classical music composer Arvo Pärt. When asked to mention at least one rock star from her hometown synonymous with arguably the best music of the second half of the 20th century, Kavanaugh concedes, “[Carlos] Santana rocks.” She also cites Pink Floyd and Linda Perry as favorites.

Kavanaugh officially began her involvement with the international film market as a film programmer in 1993. Producing her first program, “Films for People 4 and Up” at the Mill Valley Film Festival, she went on to coordinate at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. Two years later, she co-founded the Children’s Film Fest section at the same festival, along with preliminary programs under director Mark Fishkin. This included curation of film programs from international and national sources as well as developing events. 

Kavanaugh is a frequent participant at The Berlin Film Festival, her primary professional conference, and frequents various film arts workshops, and panel discussions worldwide. She founded Catapult Productions, which is devoted to increasing awareness of diversifying children’s programming with international cinema, as well as to “challenge the aesthetic of the genre with [her] own filmmaking.” While living in Portland, Oregon, Kavanaugh says she “hovers” between ‘Rip City,’ San Francisco and Berlin.

“Autobiographical memory” is a constant motif, and subject of inquiry, within Kavanaugh’s research.  This involves a memory system consisting of episodes recollected from an individual’s life, which is based on the combination of various experiences and objects. 

“My intention was to collect qualitative research through video, yet I also coded and quantified those codes. I collected evidence of the impact of international film on childhood autobiographical memory – from over 100 interviews in Berlin,” she says. 

Kavanaugh received a Stanford-Freie Universität Berlin fellowship in coordination with the Berlin Film Festival’s Generation section to examine the impact of foreign films on childhood memory, resulting in her work-in-progress documentary, “Finding Felix.”

“We have to trust that children have the capacity for empathy and discernment, so they can form their own opinions earlier on. Then when they’re hearing something negative in the news, or from someone else, they would be able to say, ‘that doesn’t seem right to me,” reminds Kavanaugh. She studied the layers of cognitive development extensively, and tells me that this esoteric topic should not be lost on the layman. Kavanaugh’s research has shown that “nurturing education can be done by informative filmmaking.“ 

She has witnessed this phenomenon annually at the Berlin Film Festival’s Generation section. “When [parents] bring their child to an international film, they are allowing their child to make distinctive and vivid memories [etched in], and that vividness makes more of a sensory impact,” Kavanaugh adds.

Samantha Younes, who heads the Portland Kids Film Festival spoke to Kavanaugh in a lively discussion about cognitive development through international films. This conversation was captured on Kavanaugh’s YouTube channel.

Photo captured via YouTube of Kavanaugh with Samantha Younes, program director of Portland Kids Film Festival.

“There was a film from Syria about what it means to be a refugee,” Younes explained. “At the [Children’s Film Festival Seattle], they had a whole program on the refugee crisis. [It’s through] the perspective of what it would be like to ‘leave your home, being forced out of your home – and the things you’ll miss.’ [It’s] kind of a transient feeling.

“To learn that feeling as a kid, and [to carry] it with you your entire life in understanding people better [is necessary] There’s something about learning as a child that is so different than learning it as an adult,” said Younes.

In response, Kavanaugh likened this issue to her research of childhood autobiographical memory. 

“There are a lot of people who have international films as their first memory, and what happens is [that] it’s so distinctive. An international film is so distinctive from what can be seen in media, on television, in books. It’s a different style of storytelling – the pacing is different – the language, of course, is different. It is such a distinctive experience: the lights are down, it’s completely quiet, and best of all, it’s like traveling,” she said.

The subject for the need of empathy pertains to the plight of refugees these days, in light of Donald Trump’s shifting “zero tolerance” policy of illegal border crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border. The administration’s latest policy seeks to “maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.” But, it appears common humanity has been shelved by Trump, opting instead for political theatrics. Members of both political parties have excoriated Trump’s lack of empathy and compassion for his shifting, and at times, cruel policy that has masqueraded itself as simply being a border protection policy.

During her frequent trips to film festivals worldwide, Kavanaugh has met with programmers of children-based networks.“The old and new US gatekeepers were present, like Sesame Street, PBSKids and Nickelodeon. Amazon, Disney, and now Apple is joining the admirable pursuit to produce valuable programming for young audiences,” she says.

One such organization dedicated to promoting quality in children’s television worldwide is The Prix Jeunesse Foundation, which is based in Munich. “I went to Prix Jeunesse in search of solidarity with my compatriots, as I was often the sole curator from the U.S. at the Berlinale’s Generation section,” says Kavanaugh. “Because I’m interested in peer-to-peer learning to foster empathy and global stewardship, I focused on non-fiction. Many [of the films] in the 7-10 [demographic] nonfiction category thrilled me.”

On location for Katy Kavanaugh’s feature film “Finding Felix.” Photo by Tina Toepfel who was one of the assistants on the film.

Kristen Schneid, the Prix Jeunesse Foundation’s program director said at a recent showcase that tough film subjects are needed, since they provide the basis for empathy for kids. 

“We start with a block of programs that have set challenging subjects, tough subjects for society and also for finding the right way to discuss these issues with your children’s audiences,” said Schneid. “We are all clear that they need to be presented to young audiences but the big question is how to present it – in a sensitive way, in a challenging way, in a way that really answers the question [for] the kids, but knowing that society might have a problem in showing things very bluntly.”

For parents, teaching children at a young age the value of an international film clearly has harvested multilayered benefits. 

“I help my daughter build empathy for other cultures and other kinds of people by having her experience international fiction and non-fiction programs and films,” Gabrielle Harradine, an educator and screenwriter in Malibu, California, tells me. “Doing this, grows her familiarity and comfort with people different than herself. It develops her international intelligence to help her function more successfully in the global community we all live in now. “

Harradine’s 8-year-old daughter, Lilie, already speaks French and English since her father is a France native. “[Lilie’s] bilingual-ness helps her because it makes her feel connected to more than one culture, therefore she has a sense that she belongs to more than one group.”  As for Lilie’s favorite film: “it’s Kedi – the cat documentary shot in Istanbul,” Harradine says.

Kavanaugh’s research will continue working with likeminded cognitive development scholars.  “Dafna Lemish, at Rutgers University, is whom I’m turning to next. I met her at Prix Jeunesse. She is a professor of children’s media, and could possibly support my research,” she tells me.

“Empathy is the key to opening the door to further engagement and potential collaboration,” concludes Kavanaugh. 

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