Last year my colleagues Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor invited me to think about organizing a discrete film exhibition in conjunction with their gallery exhibition, Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000. This innovative exhibition—on view July 29–November 5—focuses on 20th-century design for children, and the preoccupation with children and childhood as a catalyst for enlightened design practices.
From the earliest days of the motion picture, cinema has been engaged in the recording of children. Repas de bébé (Feeding the Baby) (1895), one of the very first films made by Louis Lumière, captures a leisurely outdoor meal his brother Auguste shares with his wife and child; the baby sits in a highchair wearing a lovely summer outfit, nibbling on a cracker. Cinema is so saturated with images of cute children, cranky children, children in school, children at the playground, children acting like adults, etc., that I genuinely needed to find a unique curatorial rubric by which to organize the exhibition.
I always welcome the challenge of working within the parameters of films that are contained in MoMA’s collection, so I decided on a collection-based series; with more than 27,000 titles, I have an abundance of material from which to select my subjects. But what point of view, perspective, or thesis would connect to the Century of the Child exhibition, but remain unique enough to stand on its own? I began to do research on the sociological history of street children in the industrial revolution and the taxonomy of such monikers as “gutter-snipe,” “street urchin,” and “lil’ imp.” It all sounded so Dickensian to me! What began to coalesce was the fact that these youths were separated from their homes, families, and schools by fate, not choice. These children found themselves unaccompanied mainly as a result of economic impoverishment and the rapid rise of industrialization, which brought country folks to the city for work, but did not provide for essential child care. Often, the result of these communities of rootless youth was the creation of child-centric families wherein older children cared for the younger ones. Responsible adult leadership was foreign to these children, and their loyalties lay with their peers. Indeed, this model could have been torn right out of Oliver Twist!
My organizing principle was now developing: Industrial innovation in the late 19th century was very much a catalyst for the displaced youth that lurked in urban shadows. The motion picture was also a product of industrialization, and used daily life as an inspiration for the earliest actualités and narrative films. How do these two ideas connect and how do I illustrate the thesis via the treasures in MoMA’s film collection? Unaccompanied Minors: Views of Youth in Films from the Collection explores the ways in which motion pictures capture the derelict sociological status of youth emancipated by choice or fate, and how these minors are often taciturn witnesses to trauma and domestic events; sometimes they emerge with their psyches intact and sometimes they don’t.
Unaccompanied Minors, which includes 31 short and feature films, screens July 22–August 14. Some of the films on view include The Night of the Hunter (1955), Stolen Child (1972), Days of Heaven (1978), A Perfect World (1993), and Kinder, Mütter un Ein General (Sons, Mothers, and a General) (1955).
Assessing my selection of films, it seems to me that Maria João Ganga’s Hollow City (2004) best conflates the narrative themes that comprise the organizing principles. Given that this film reflects contemporary geopolitical activities that are often splashed across multiple news outlets, the narrative combines reality and fiction in ways that blur boundaries of what is and is not “authentic.” The use of unfamiliar actors and a production style akin to news reportage helps Hollow City get under the viewer’s skin and extract genuine emotions—as if young Ndala were your own son’s missing friend.
The main character, an 11-year-old orphan boy named Ndala, alone in a strange city, begins a journey of discovery and survival. Orphaned by a tragedy catalyzed by adults, he must survive with no money, no home, no agency, no friends, and only a small tin toy that links him to his shattered childhood. Like Oliver Twist, Ndala falls in with a group of displaced youths surviving on the edge of society. Nearly invisible in the modern city, he is drawn to the traditional folk stories and epic tales of his ancestors that are enacted by the school children he observes from afar. Ndala, and the other unaccompanied minors in these films, are part of a disenfranchised commune, emancipated by social, political, and economic strife without their agreement or consent.
Set in the days after the Angolan revolution, Hollow City follows a military transport plane filled with orphans left by this national tragedy. Brought to Luanda by a religious mission, Ndala manages to escape from his group and wanders into the confusion of the unfamiliar and unruly city. At first Ndala is fascinated by the novelty of his surroundings, but he is still a child and fears the dark and loneliness. When he meets an older boy named Ze, Ndala soon learns about N’gunga, a boy-warrior, a character in an epic folk tale some kids at the local school are rehearsing. N’gunga is subject to many hardships, but believes that a warrior never fears challenge. Ndala soon takes this on as his mantra and bravely settles into his new, rough city life. When Ze is too busy with his own friends to pay attention to Ndala, the boy returns to the seaside, where he had met a friendly fisherman. The fisherman tells Ndala the folk story of Kiandra, a mermaid who protects the sea. Feeling stronger and braver, Ndala returns to the city and is unwittingly recruited into a home robbery by Ze’s disreputable Uncle Joka. When the robbery goes horribly wrong, Ndala, at Joka’s insistence, shoots the homeowner. As he turns to run, Ndala is distracted by a painting on the wall that reminds him of the night his family was massacred. The wounded homeowner manages to regain possession of the gun, and shoots Ndala. Is 11-year-old Ndala an innocent, a murderer, or the distressing product of the trauma and violence that enveloped him and his ruined village?
The production of Hollow City was supported by the Global Film Initiative, founded by Susan Weeks Coulter in 2002 in order to promote cross-cultural understanding through film. Hollow City screens on July 23 and August 12, preceded by the short film A Scary Time (1960), by American filmmaker Shirley Clarke.