This is what happens when you let kids write a movie

Cave Small Cave Big, coming soon to the AGO, is the first in director Joële Walinga's series of short films written by children.

Cave Small Cave Big, coming soon to the AGO, is the first in a series of short films written by children

A scene from Cave Small Cave Big, a film written by Madeline Harker and Adelaide Schwartz when they were five years old. (Chet Tilokani)

For her directorial debut Cave Small Cave BigJoële Walinga decided to partner with two unknown Toronto screenwriters, Madeline Harker and Adelaide Schwartz. The duo are long-time friends, and their tastes veer towards throwback Hollywood sci-fi. (Harker's favourite movie is Star Trek; Schwartz's is Splash).

They're also, please note, little kids.

When they wrote the film, they were five. Now seven, they plan to attend the movie's world premiere at the AGO February 16 — and as they tell CBC Arts, they're thrilled with how Walinga brought their story to life.

Says Schwartz: "She followed the script exactly."

The story, by the way, is like nothing you could imagine but also exactly what you'd expect.

It's about a Butterfly Girl (Hannan Younis) who visits a cave, and then makes a cave — only to have said cave snatched by a mad scientist (William Ellis) who transforms it into a bigger cave.

We'll stop there in the interest of avoiding spoilers, confusion, further use of the word "cave," etc. Because while that mini summary might leave you with a few questions, the biggest one is probably this: why did Walinga make a movie written by kids in the first place?

The director, who is 28, says she's pursued projects involving collaborators from outside the art world for a few years now. "I'm interested in bridging this gap between the viewer and the art-maker because I feel there's this huge disparity between who feels like they're even able to come into a gallery and experience art," she tells CBC Arts.

I hope when other kids see the film — or even adults — they feel empowered to trust themselves.- Jo ë le Walinga, director of Cave Small Cave Big

Cave Small Cave Big is just the first in a series of kid-written movies that she has on the go, and should she secure the funding, there are plans to make 12 in total. In March, when the short screens at Halifax's Khyber Centre for the Arts, she'll create a new screenplay with local children, and she'll do the same in Brooklyn this April. A horror movie written by six-year-old Julian AdamskaNightmare Here, is already in the works.

"It's actually quite scary," she says of that flick, and you can see his hand-drawn storyboards online for the zombie-infested proof. "It's scarier than I felt comfortable with when he was writing it, but I was like, 'You can't say no!'"

That's because, she explains, the whole project hinges on one main idea: encouragement. "What does encouragement look like?"

Hannan Younis plays Butterfly Girl in Cave Small Cave Big. (Chet Tilokani)

"It's just telling kids, 'You have full reign to do whatever you want.' You make whatever film is important to you, what you would like to see in the theatre, and I don't say no to any of their ideas, no matter how violent or whatever they are," she says.

"It's to tell them to trust in the value of their ideas and see what effect that might have, both on them and the viewer."

Walinga is a friend of Harker's parents, which is how she met the girls, and over three days — where they'd watch movies and talk about storytelling and draw and (this was one of Schwartz's favourite bits) take breaks for park trips and snacks — the kids came up with the script.

They couldn't write yet, so they'd shout out the plot points while Walinga scribbled everything down. From there, she came back to them with a storyboard grid and asked them to draw pictures of the scenes they'd described.

From storyboard to the screen... Madeline Harker and Adelaide Schwartz's drawing of Butterfly Girl and Hannan Younis in the film. (Chet Tilokani)

"I told them that they were going to be writing whatever movie they wanted," Walinga says. "But it seemed like during the workshop they never got it."

"I think that's really because at that age they really can't [...] think about actually making a film, and that's part of the reason this [project] is interesting to me."

"I like the idea that they can't imagine making films. It doesn't seem like something that people make — it seems like something that just exists. To be able to tell them, 'No, culture is made. You can participate in this.'"

In the workshop with (L-R) Cave Small Cave Big's director Joële Walinga and writers Adelaide Schwartz and Madeline Harker. (Cotey Pope)

The film production got some crowdfunding support via Indiegogo, where it was successfully backed last summer, and its creative team includes Daniel Warth (editor) and Chet Tilokani (director of photography), whose comedy Dim the Fluorescents won the grand jury prize at Slamdance just last week.

"I think the script is such a masterpiece," says Walinga. "I didn't realize it until after the edit, when I actually saw it. Every character — everyone's dealing with a different situation of whether or not they can keep something." For the AGO crowd, it's a thought-provoking exploration of the "transience of ownership," per Walinga. It's also a pretty universal theme for the average five-year-old — who's got a better lock on "sharing" than, say, their two-year-old kid sister, but is still puzzling out why they've got to let them paw around in their Legos in the first place.

Lee Lawson plays Leaf Girl in a scene from Cave Small Cave Big. (Chet Tilokani)

Harker and Schwartz are still working on stories — though Schwartz notes she prefers to draw hers ("like comics") — and both girls were happy with the finished film.

"I don't know if the effect will be right now as much as in the future, but I hope that they feel a great respect for the value of their own ideas," says Walinga. "And I hope other kids can see it too."

"I hope when other kids see the film — or even adults — they feel empowered to trust themselves."

Screenwriters Madeline Harker and Adelaide Schwartz. (Cotey Pope)

Madeline Harker and Adelaide Schwartz on Cave Small Cave Big

What was your favourite thing about writing the movie?

Madeline Harker: "I would maybe say the drawing and designing characters."

Adelaide Schwartz: "Um, I don't know. OK. My favourite thing. Let's see. The books that me and Maddie made. It was probably that when, sometimes, when we did really hard work, Joële would take us to the park or to get some food."

What did you think of the finished movie?

Adelaide: "It was a pretty cool movie!"

Madeline: "I thought it was good and the characters did a good job of acting it out and kind of showing it."

How did you feel when you saw it for the first time?

Madeline: "Joyful. Joyful because I was really happy. And proud of what I did."

Adelaide: "I felt like it was a very short movie and appropriate for toddlers like my little sister Posy. And it was also kind of cool."

Do you think Joële did a good job of turning your story into a movie?

Madeline: "I think she did a really good job. I think she did a good angle of it, a good direction of it."

Adelaide: "Yes, I think she did do a good job. Because she followed the script exactly."

What was your favourite part of the movie?

Madeline"My favourite part of the movie was the part where the ogre and the troll meet because they're nice to each other. The troll asks the ogre if she can come inside and the ogre says yes. So, that makes me happy."

Adelaide: "Well, I liked, um, when the girl was walking in the woods. Because I love nature and that was a very 'nature' scene." 

Are you still writing stories?

Madeline: "Well, I'm trying."

Adelaide: "No, not really no. I like to draw stories, like comics. I also like to watch shows and explore."

What is your newest story about?

Adelaide: "My most recent story was about a dream house. It was a house that I dreamed about. There was a big flower and you could climb stairs to go in it and look around. There was a symbol and an elevator with two ropes, one that you pulled to go up and one that brings you down. And there's an orange door next to the place. It leads into the house. And there's a balcony. And there's a flower symbol. That's pretty much it."

Madeline: "It's kinda like Star Wars except it's a different version because no one dies and Darth Vader is a piglet. It takes place before the movies."

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Madeline: "A photographer."

Adelaide: "Oh, me? An art teacher. Because they really are good artists and they teach kids like a teacher, and I want to inspire kids." 

Cave Small Cave Big. Written by Madeline Harker and Adelaide Schwartz. Directed by Joële Walinga. 11 min. Feb. 16 and 20 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. www.ago.net

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