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Ten years ago, I curated a film series at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, after having done a previous series called "Teachers in Cinema". Originally, the videos on the series' website were my extended excerpts from the films, but since then youTube has blocked many of them. These have been replaced by trailers.  Note that there may be spoilers in the text, trailers or excerpts.




In both children’s literature and film, the theme of a distressed child facing a crisis, and taking refuge in her imagination is a common one. From the classic Wizard of Oz to the recent film The Fall, these films explore the ways in which a psychological crisis or trauma can induce the child to create a reality that both expresses and transforms her experience of herself and the world.


Director: Dave Kean  Writer: Neal Gaiman






In a surreal inversion of a common story in children's literature and film, fifteen-year old Helena works at the family circus with her father and mother, but wants to run away from the circus and join 'real life’. She spends much of her time drawing an elaborate imaginary world on the walls of her room. After a fight with her parents about her future plans, her mother falls ill and Helena is afraid that it might be her fault. On the eve of her mother's critical surgery, she slips into a dream inside her own created world, complete with an evil queen, extraordinary architecture, bizarre creatures, and strange inhabitants. But Helena finds that there is a also a crisis in this new world - the white queen has fallen ill and can only be restored by the lost Mirrormask - and finding it is her only way out.  But as her adventures continue, she catches glimpses of a dark version of Helena on the other side of her drawings, who has taken her place back in the real world.

Available on these services.

The Fall

Director: Tarsem Singh     Writer: Tarsem Singh, Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis

While young Alexandria is recuperating from a fractured arm in a Los Angeles Hospital, she befriends Roy Walker, a dejected silent-film stunt man who has been paralized by a fall from a bridge. He begins to tell her a story: a group of men are on a quest to seek revenge against the oppressive and powerful Governor Odious, who has committed an offense against each of the six: an Italian explosions expert; a Native American; a runaway slave; an East Indian swordsman; Charles Darwin accompanied by a monkey sidekick; and their leader, the masked Black Bandit. With the telling of each episode, Roy incorporates elements from his own life, and then Alexandria's into the story,  which becomes transformed through her imagination into something much different, and much richer, than Roy's simple cowboy story. Is the story then Roy's or Alexandria's? 

The Fall is available on DVD.

Forbidden Games

Director: Rene Clement













The film begins with the death of five-year-old Paulette's parents and of her pet dog in a Nazi air attack on a column of refugees fleeing Paris. In the chaos, the traumatized child meets ten-year-old Michel, whose peasant family will take her in. She quickly becomes attached to Michel and the two attempt to cope with the death and destruction that surrounds them by secretly building a small cemetery where they bury her dog and then start to bury other animals, mimicking  the burial rituals that they’ve seen the adults conduct. When they begin stealing crosses from the local graveyard, the village becomes disrupted. 

Forbidden Games is available on DVD from Criterion and others.

Ma Vie En Rose

Director: Alain Berliner


"My Life in Pink" is a serious comedy about the difficulties facing Ludovic, a young boy convinced that he's really a girl. His parents move from denial to perplexity in trying to understand the situation - when they attempt to explain the biology of gender to him, he tells them that, when he was born, a simple error was made - his extra X chromosome was lost and he got a Y instead! He imagines a fabulous world centered around his sister's Barbie doll, attends his parents’ party dressed as a girl, and remains steadfastly convinced that his parents and teachers have been mistaken in thinking that he's a boy.


This film reveals how Ludovic's identity challenges the decorum of the parent's middle-class life, and creates a repressed anxiety that affects the relationships among the adults in the neighborhood.


See an extended excerpt with English subtitles here.

Available on these streaming services.

Baron Munchhausen

Director: Terry Gilliam




In this re-working of the classic tale of the  extraordinarily ingenious 17th century aristocrat, Baron Munchausen comes to Vienna as it’s being besieged by the Turks. A little girl, Sarah, the only one who believes Munchausen's fantastic tales, persuades the old man to come out of retirement to save her town from destruction. Card playing inside a giant sea-monster, a trip to the moon, a dance with the goddess Venus, and confrontations with the Angel of Death are only some of the improbable adventures that ensue. Gilliam uses the story to explore ideas about youth, love, resignation, death, and imagination.

Available on these streaming services.


Director: Terry Gilliam




My edited excerpt from this film has been blocked from youTube by the owners. I offer instead Gilliam's own introduction.

I've included a second Gilliam film, the overlooked and controversial Tideland, a tragicomic, surreal film about Jeliza-Rose, and the dark fantasy life she creates with the aid of Barbie doll heads that she often wears on her fingertips. With names such as Mustique, Sateen Lips, and Glitter Gal, the doll heads engage in long conversations with Jeliza-Rose, reflecting different aspects of her psyche. They are her companions as she explores the Texas prairie.


After her mother dies from a heroin overdose, Jeliza-Rose and her rock musician father, Noah, flee to her grandmother’s home, a derelict Texas farmhouse. During their first night there, Noah dies from a heroin overdose. For much of the rest of the film, Noah's corpse remains seated upright in a living room chair with sunglasses covering his eyes. Jeliza-Rose doesn't acknowledge his death because she has grown accustomed to him being unconscious for long periods at a time. After a while, she retreats deeper and deeper into a world of her own creation, exploring the tall grass around the farmhouse.


She eventually encounters and befriends her odd neighbors, a mentally impaired young man called Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) who's determined to confront an imaginary monster, and his older sister Dell, who has a morbid fear of bees.

Available on these streaming services.


Pan's Labyrinth

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
















Pan's Labyrinth takes place in Spain in May and June, 1944, after the Spanish Civil War, during the Franco government's repression of the Republicans. When twelve-year-old Ofelia’s mother marries the cruel Captain Vidal and moves from her home, she begins to inhabit a fantasy world that incorporates a nearby abandoned labyrinth. Ofelia's stepfather hunts anti-Franco guerrillas and sympathizers who fight against the Franco regime in the region, while Ofelia's pregnant mother grows ill. Ofelia meets several strange, magical, and sometimes terrifying creatures while subjected to an increasingly violent reality.

Available on these streaming services.


Director: Jacques Doillon 















Ponette's mother is killed in a car crash, which Ponette herself survives with a broken arm. Her dejected father leaves Ponette with her Aunt Claire, and her cousins Matiaz and Delphine.  Ponette becomes increasingly withdrawn, stubbornly refuses to accept that her mother will not return, and struggles to understand the meaning of death. When her efforts to dream her mother back into existence fail, Ponette enlists the help of her religious school friend Ada to help her become a "child of God" in order to convince God to bring back her mother. 

My friend Nora Gaines suggested this heartbreaking film to me for this series.

Available on these streaming services.


Spirit of the Beehive

Director: Victor Erice







Like Pan's Labyrinth, Spirit of the Beehive also takes place during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Ana, a sensitive seven-year-old girl in a rural Spanish hamlet is traumatized after seeing Frankenstein in the village theater. The youngster is profoundly disturbed by the scenes in which the monster murders the little girl and is later destroyed by the villagers.  She asks her sister questions about the nature of life and death, and believes her older sibling when she tells her that the monster is not dead, but exists as a spirit inhabiting a nearby barn. When a Loyalist soldier, a fugitive from Franco's victorious army, hides out in the barn, Ana crosses from reality into a fantasy world of her own making.

Available on these streaming services.


Crisis and the Imagination of the Child

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