From the colorful, often Dickensian image of unaccompanied, soot-smudged children (aka urchins, ragamuffins, gamins, guttersnipes, street rats, or lil’ imps) roaming the streets of 19th-century industrial cities to contemporary reports of meninos de rua (street children) in Rio de Janeiro, throwaway kids in American urban centers, and youth displaced by civil war in Sierra Leone, prematurely emancipated children remain a distressing sociological phenomenon—and a compelling cinematic subject. The moving picture also developed as a product of industrial innovation in the late 19th century, and the medium used daily life as inspiration for the earliest actualités and narrative films. Not only did the motion picture capture the derelict sociological status of youth emancipated by choice or fate, the camera also recorded children at play, at school, pursuing physical education, and creating youth-centric cultures. In the cinema, children are often positioned as taciturn witnesses to trauma and domestic events; sometimes they emerge with their psyches intact and sometimes they don’t. The works selected for this exhibition—drawn primarily from MoMA’s collection—trace the image of the emancipated child, as central subject, as witness, and sometimes as catalyst for change.

Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.