Speaking the Language of Children

The faces of the children on "The Magic Tree" television series, created by Polish children's-film director Andrzej Maleszka, look tense and sad, until one day magic changes their lives. The source of the magic is an ancient tree with special powers. When one day the tree is cut down, a magic cupboard, sled, wooden clogs and other items are made out of it. Each film in the series - for which Maleszka won a 2007 Emmy award and on whose basis he made a full-length film - tells about a child who gets his hands on an item from the tree with magic powers.

As in "The Magic Tree," Maleszka's other films also sometimes include a cloud hovering over the characters. Maleszka, who visited Tel Aviv last week, is the last person to say childhood is a paradise. He says that when he compares life today to the period of his own childhood, children today suffer from more kinds of distress.

"Life isn't easy for them," he says. "They especially suffer from loneliness because most parents work outside the home and the children spend long hours in settings outside the home." It's clear he's not being judgmental about parents but merely discussing his observations.

"The Wooden Dog," one of the best episodes in the series - parts of which and a film about a fairy are being screened this month at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque - soberly illustrates this distinction. The film is about a boy whose father works as a train conductor and is only home on weekends. The boy gets to see the father once a day, when the train stops at the station.

The dialogue between the boy and father seems to be the essence of an entire relationship: They quarrel and make up at double speed. You can feel the longing that floods the boy when the train chugs away.

"The reality depicted in the film is symbolic," says Maleszka. "Many children I know meet their parents only for a few minutes a day." Even though he prefers to depict children's moments of darkness, his films have an optimistic message. They always have a happy ending and allow a feeling of hope. "Children are always renewing themselves and thinking that in the end it will be good. This is their special quality," Maleszka says.

It's not a kitschy ending but one preceded by a process of maturation and change. Thus, for example, a bully breaks the beautiful red sled that moves on its own power, but the sled revives with the help of a scooter.

It's possible to interpret the title "The Magic Tree" literally as well: The director says he is enchanted by wood. "I love the way it feels, the authenticity of the material," he says, adding that he collects wooden toys.

This declaration is somehow not surprising. It could be said that Maleszka's films are to major American children's films as wooden toys are to plastic toys. They are artistic and poetic, not tainted by the use of computer effects, which make it easier to depict magic. His films are garnering success worldwide: "The Magic Tree" series has been sold in 35 countries.

Kurosawa, Fellini and Korczak

Maleszka, 54, is a productive artist who has written and directed 20 films. The much-awarded director was a guest in Israel at a seminar of the Prix Jeunesse organization that promotes creative work for children and young people. The seminar is a cooperative venture by the Polish Institute, the Goethe Institut, the CoPro Documentary Marketing Foundation (an Israeli organization) and the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

At a workshop in which Maleszka participated alongside poet and children's author Nurit Zarchi, the Israeli writer said that "children today don't read. Books can't compete with television, the computer and the Internet."

Maleszka, however, believes that all the technological developments that have penetrated children's worlds improve their situation. "This narrows the gaps among children and affords equal opportunity to those who live in remote areas," he says.

On a panel, the Polish filmmaker answered, without having been asked, why a talented director like himself insists on making films for children. "'Are you crazy?' people ask me," he said. "You could be making a film for adults. But the truth is that apart from the fact that I love to make films for children, it's very lucrative to make films for children, especially in the United States, where the children's audience accounts for more than 40 percent of viewers. Films for children are universal because a child is a child everywhere. Nationality doesn't matter."

When he was a boy he was certain he would become a writer when he grew up. He grew up in Poznan in a communist-style apartment building that was planned by his father, an engineer.

"I was a short child, and this is a problem for a boy who has to fight with other boys, but I knew how to tell stories and the children were enchanted by this," he relates. "I would read even while I was eating - to this day I have this habit - and you could tell what I had eaten by the stains."

The authors who influenced him most include Astrid Lindgren and Karl May; at the age of 10 he wrote a Western-style book. And most of all, "A Thousand and One Nights."

His love of books was matched only by his love for the cinema. "The ticket seller was a student of my mother's and he let me in for free," he says. "At the age of 10 I saw Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' and I was thrilled. I was even younger when I saw Fellini. I don't think that if my mother had known she would have agreed to that. But at that time children were more independent."

Full partnership

It's not surprising to discover that Polish-Jewish children's author Janusz Korczak, a Holocaust victim, is also among the writers Maleszka admires. It's clear the filmmaker's spiritual world draws on Korczak's when one sees the unique way he works with children. He does not choose the children through regular casting done by actors' agents. Auditions with the parents around put him off. "I don't believe that it's possible to say to a child, 'Now act natural.' How can he be natural with a large crew, camera, lighting and pushy parents in the background?"

The director prefers to visit schools and spend time in children's natural surroundings until he notices a boy or a girl with what he calls 'an inner expressive ability.' After he contacts their parents, potential actors are invited to a workshop where they work for several weeks in preparation for filming.

Before the workshop Maleszka writes the kernel of the story, but not the final screenplay. This will be completed with the children's help during the workshop. He tells them the story and asks their opinions, especially what they think the ending should be. "Every child has his own pace of speaking, of emotional conduct. I suit the screenplay to the particular actor," he explains.

Maleszka divides his time between Warsaw and Poznan, where he sometimes helps in school productions before holidays. "I don't wear masks when I am with children and they sense this," he says. "It isn't good to compliment children all the time, to act cutesy. Nor is it good to act the opposite way, to come to them as a great director. Then the children freeze. So they need to get the feeling that I am an ordinary person, and this takes time. You mustn't pretend with them. We work in a full partnership. I make it clear to every child actor that I chose him because I am relying on his talent. Therefore he can't give me just 50 percent of his talent. And he can tell me straight to my face what he thinks of me, or about the film."

At the end of the workshop there is a simulation on the set with an adult cast of actors who imitate the various roles of cameramen and production people - about 100 people. "This is the children's last opportunity to withdraw from the film," Maleszka says. "But in all my years of working only one child has told me no."

Maleszka's work is unique. It's introspective work and has no connection with the world of celebrity. Nonetheless, "it's hard for the children when they go back home, to their families, to school, to their friends," Maleszka says. "They were with us for several weeks in an intense atmosphere. I understand them because it's hard for me, too."

It might be surprising to some that Maleszka has no children of his own. "This is not from choice," he says. "It simply hasn't worked out."

"People in my field are traveling nonstop. Just during the past year I've been to lots of countries, in each place for between a week and three months," he says. He has just completed work on two feature films and is already thinking about his next projects: a feature for very young children and an animated film.

"This, as always, will be a film about emotions and relationships between children, or between children and adults," he says. "This is the most basic thing, and I feel that I understand this language."