When Chloé Zhao won the Academy Awards for best director and best picture for “Nomadland” last year, some who felt special pride were neither her relatives nor her film industry collaborators. These delighted fans were the team behind the annual New York International Children’s Film Festival, which in 2011 showed one of Zhao’s earliest projects: “Daughters,” a 10-minute short about a 14-year-old Chinese girl being forced into an arranged marriage.
The festival, whose 25th-anniversary edition begins on Friday evening at the SVA Theater in Manhattan, has long showcased filmmakers who either go on to distinguished careers or have already achieved them. This year’s opening-night titles include “Where Is Anne Frank,” a haunting animated feature about children affected by wars past and present, from the award-winning Israeli director Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”). On March 19, the festival will close with “Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood,” an animated examination of the 1969 moon landing by the acclaimed American filmmaker Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”), who will conduct a livestreamed Q. and A. with the audience.
“We are a film festival first,” Nina Guralnick, the organization’s executive director, said in a video interview. In choosing sophisticated works, she added, “we want the program and the experience to be part of a continuum of film appreciation and film discovery, and not kind of segmented as something for kids.”
This year, Guralnick and Maria-Christina Villaseñor, the festival’s programming director, are confronting the challenges of the pandemic by presenting both in-person screenings — almost all at the SVA Theater — and virtual offerings. Although the 20 features and more than 60 shorts make up a robust and global slate (this year includes the festival’s first film from Kyrgyzstan), the programmers will host fewer screenings, showing some titles in the theater only once, and others only online.
The streaming works, which will be available through April 3 — past the festival’s official end date — will include all those for children under 5, who are still too young to be vaccinated against Covid-19. This year, however, also gives children ages 3 to 5 a broader range of short films than in the past, as well as a feature: the Swedish director Michael Ekblad’s “Best Birthday Ever,” an animated tale about a kindergarten rabbit who must cope with a baby sister.
“We really wanted to get back into the theater this year, if we could safely,” Guralnick said. And while circumstances won’t allow in-person award festivities, the festival will still feature its audience-choice and jury prizes. (It is one of the few Oscar-qualifying children’s festivals, meaning that its prizewinning shorts are eligible for Academy Award consideration.)
This year, one of the programming highlights is animation, which Villaseñor described as a way to give young audiences “a different point of access” to subjects that might otherwise be too harsh.
“Charlotte,” for instance, a feature by the Canadian directors Tahir Rana and Éric Warin, uses painterly animation to illuminate the life and work of Charlotte Salomon, a young German Jewish artist — voiced by Keira Knightley — who died at Auschwitz.
Folman also chose intricate animation for “Where Is Anne Frank” because, he said in a phone interview, it offers “endless opportunity to do crosses between reality and imagination, between conscious and subconscious, between dreams and true stories.” Folman undertakes all of these in the film, which focuses not on Anne but on Kitty, the imaginary friend to whom Anne’s diary was addressed. Kitty emerges from the journal as a girl in contemporary Amsterdam, traveling across time to learn what happened to her friend. During her quest, she encounters refugee children who reflect Anne’s legacy.
“I don’t look at it as a Holocaust movie,” Folman said. “I look at it as a coming-of-age movie.”
The festival, however, does not neglect animation’s affinity for the wildly comic. In Domee Shi’s “Turning Red,” from Disney and Pixar, a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl transforms into a big red panda whenever she’s too excited.
Other boisterous travails occur in “Oink,” the Dutch director Mascha Halberstad’s stop-motion feature about a little girl with an imperiled pet piglet. But this is no “Charlotte’s Web.” Oink, the piglet, makes an indelible mark in not always welcome ways — housebreaking is an issue — and Babs, his owner, has her hands full, especially with a visiting grandfather obsessed with a sausage-making contest. Halberstad, who will attend the festival with the producer Marleen Slot for a Q. and A. on Friday, explained in a video interview that she was aiming for a tone like that of Roald Dahl because “he doesn’t underestimate children.” Though the film ends happily, “it has a bit of an edge,” she said.
The festival also offers titles that capture an interplay between art and science. “I wanted to eliminate the divide between them,” Villaseñor said, “and have people realize how vitally important the creativity in the arts is to innovating in the sciences.”
“Gagarine,” for instance, a poignant, inspiring movie that was selected for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, mingles a teenager’s passion for space exploration with his desire to have a home. The first feature from the young French directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, the film was shot at the real Cité Gagarine, a housing project outside of Paris that was torn down in 2019.
“We were really roommates with the demolition team,” Trouilh said as he sat next to Liatard in a video call from Paris. Their fictional protagonist, Youri (Alséni Bathily), refuses to leave, constructing for himself an elaborate kind of secret space capsule in the shadow of the wrecking ball.
“Because of the empty space left by the absence of his parents,” Liatard said, “we imagine that space is the thing that is a refuge for Youri.”
More technology-fueled dreams appear not only in Linklater’s “Apollo 10½,” in which another boy imagines himself lifting off, but also in the festival’s annual shorts program “Girls P.O.V.,” which this year features young female science pioneers, real and imagined. Still other budding innovators occupy the spotlight in Thomas Verrette’s documentary “Zero Gravity,” about diverse middle school students in a NASA coding competition.
Such films capture the enduring principles of the festival, which was founded by Eric Beckman and Emily Shapiro, parents who in 1997 made a commitment to offering children more independent and less commercial fare.
“We’ve wanted to help kids dream beyond the limitations of their own reality,” Guralnick said. Through the festival’s many iterations, she added, “we’ve been trying to be a gateway for children for 25 years to what they envision the future to be, to what they envision their world to be — should be, can be.”
The New York International Children’s Film Festival
March 4-19; 212-349-0330; nyicff.org.
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‘We Are a Film Festival First.’ A Focus on Children Comes Second.
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