A little over a year ago, I went to a sneak preview at The New School for a partially completed film called Flying Paper, directed by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill. I wrote about it here and recommended following the film's journey. Last Thursday I returned to The New School for the first New York screening of the completed documentary as a part of the Interaction Design and Children Conference. This is the trailer:
This beautiful film, currently screening at festivals and conferences, follows a group of children from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip as they make kites and then fly them on the beach -- an art that has been passed down through the generations. The kids are attempting to break the Guinness World Record for number of kites in the air. They talk about kite-making and how it makes them feel free in a constrictive environment and soothed amidst strife. They seem so happy flying kites. There's something stunning about watching articulate, funny children candidly and proudly focusing their creativity and then engaging in an activity that inspires them to look up and see beauty.
Flying Paper is focused on these kids and it gathers insight from their perspective on several levels -- the children talk to the cameras while they craft kites and at times the kids film the other kids and the kite-flying. We even get the kite perspective from a child-engineered kite-cam.
This film is so extraordinary, in part, because the filmmakers taught the children the art of filmmaking. The directors made six kid-fueled production units, each with its own responsibilities and narratives to develop as a part of the Voices Beyond Walls program.
Kids at play are natural builders, creative and brilliant, though rarely taken seriously. The Flying Paper kids are constantly saying things like "We can play. We can be free." And the film listens to them. A journalist and graduate of Voices Beyond Walls, a poised and determined 16 year-old young lady named Abeer, living in the refugee camp, conducted interviews with the children and eventually became a producer on the film. Abeer and many of the children are described on the Flying Paper webpage as helping to shape the story by extending the narrative, as "both characters within the story and vital members of the production."
Many handmade animated segments by Daniel Neinhuis are interspersed throughout Flying Paper, simply and elegantly rendered. They're so engaging because they seem to function like unusual maps, directing us emotionally far beyond any borders and into the hearts of the children. The animations show us where we are: on a kite with the kids, flying. The background of the animation looks like a material we could use to make kites and fly away on. If the animated background material tears, we'd surely see the sky.
The suspended animations (reminding me of The Red Balloon) depict a colorful kite floating above the brownish papery hue, forming an extreme contrast and leading us from one place to another, moving only slight distances, back and forth. Most maps show us streets and boundaries, data, and meta-data. They show us where we are and where we're going. The dream map in Flying Paper has few lines, only the sway of a kite over a boundless brown tone, flowing freely to the sound of the ocean. It doesn't move far; it moves up. We look down on the kite and see an unstoppable force, a decorated piece of flying paper dodging fences and soaring below fighter planes. The land we see in these maps is a world of possibility, a sky big enough for hope.
In the discussion that followed the screening, co-director Sawhney mentioned unseen things in the film in reference to the children's fathers, and I thought of unseen places, the hopes of the children reaching into the sky and over the sea, the kids expressing wishes to get at an unseen world. Sawhney also mentioned that the animated sequences could be the "dreams and nightmares of the children, flowing in and out of reality." And in some animations we see a kite escape the teeth of a dragon or a couple of hands remove a kite from barbed wire.
I can't wait to see where Flying Paper takes us. The film touches on something so universal. It reveals a sky full of kites anchored in the hands of smart, inquisitive, ambitious kids who live with fear and still remain children at play, focused on creating things, finding hope in their choice to look up and see beauty.
A side note: Whenever I surf the web, I see maps, maps about maps, and maps about map-making as a form of art and illustration. I'm reminded of our fascination with creative cartography, of understanding where our boundaries are so we can dream beyond them, just as the kids in Flying Paper are enamored with the idea of an outside world and the experience of other cultures. The children instinctively demonstrate what makes us most human as they attempt to fathom their world, to build wings that bridge gaps, to map their way up, to soar.