Boys Running

By Stephanie Hemelryk Donald

Boys Running


Stephi Donald


Earlier this year, I was delighted but surprised to be invited to address the national conference of the Planning Institute of Australia. As a film scholar with a strong interest in children and China (and sometimes both at once), what would they possibly want to hear from me? I presumed it must be the China question (more cities than any planner could possibly need in one planned lifetime), but no - they were being much more adventurous than that – they wanted to hear about film. So, I talked about how films explore cities, and in particular about how children in cities are often depicted as fast-moving, mobile small crowds. I thought aloud about those scenes where children pile on top of one another in a big scrap, arms and legs in all directions - a bit of biffing without consequences. Indeed, I remembered the films that we loved as children – when adults were nowhere to be seen and real adventures were possible – where children ran from one scrape to the next, and then reliably and resourcefully saved the day. And new films, where all that difficult growing-up stuff–happens in pretend places, unplanned and safe. Think of Max in Where the Wild Things Are, and all those riotous monsters. He looks into their terrible eyes, calms them for a moment, and then the rumpus starts. And later, when he’s a bit less riotous himself, he goes home to his Mum, and there’s a cup of milk waiting for him. Is that island of monsters a special imaginary city where things can get out of hand without ‘consequences’?


I explained to the planners that I was interested in the contradiction between the ‘right to the city’ as applied to adults, and the way in which children use the city – both in reality and on film. For adults, the right to the city’ is a term developed by Henri Lefebvre to discuss what happened to slum dwellers after Paris was cleared for its nineteenth century revamp. Where did the slum-dwellers go, and what did the new, modern, undeniably improved, city mean for them? Political geographers now use the term to judge how much and how far a city is ‘useable’ by certain populations. So, in China, does a migrant worker in Beijing have the same access to education, hospital care and clean living spaces as any other urban resident? If not, why not?  In Australia, how do our visa categories determine the level of services that different populations can easily access and use? Or – here’s one for the planners - do the transport systems between the city and outlying suburbs work for everyone?  Or do we really all need that little metal object commonly called car to realise an individual or collective right to the city? What if we don’t have/want/cant afford one, or just live too far away to make the journey worthwhile? What if we are children?


There are also films when children use the city to escape real problems at home, where the city is both an impromptu playground and a refuge, and finally a trap. In the 2008 Irish film Kisses, two young teenagers run away from abusive parents and a depressed suburb to the big city, Dublin. At first it’s a load of fun. It’s ‘mad’, to quote two infamous grrrl-teen rioters from last week. Not that these two fictional kids are making trouble. They shop with some money they nicked from an elder drug-dealing brother. They skate – literally and metaphorically – through a typical, brightly-lit shopping centre. (This is all Ireland pre-GFC). They play in streets, and stadia, and back-alleys, and they meet strange adults who are by turns magical and threatening. They exchange a kiss, and they fall in love. But finally, they give in to the inevitable – the city is not for them, they have no right to the city at night; indeed they have no rights there at all without the protection of someone else. They find a policeman, and get driven home. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s all they’ve got.


And now, I am watching another kind of film, a live feed from Manchester on the BBC world news website. It’s night there, morning here. Boys are running on the roadway by lamplight, darting down side streets, whilst a few policeman in formation move forward and backwards, not willing to commit to the rumpus and the ruckus, not able to catch all those eyes and stare them down. One boy saunters away with his arm round a girl. A riot policeman watches as they move fluidly into the sidestreet and out of range of the camera. Perhaps a car will come round and cut them off, or perhaps they’ll pick up a couple of consumer-riot prizes and go home. What should I tell the planners about this little non-fiction clip? It’s somewhere between the rubble romps of cinema (think Hue and Cry) after the blitzes of the European wars, and the internal combustion of Lord of the Flies. It makes mean 21st century sense of those rough boys in the fifties classic The Red Balloon, raging down cobbled streets and scrambling over walls to vacant ground in post-war Paris.


The clips I showed in the conference were a prompt to planners to remember children in the city, to think about what the ‘right to the city’ means for whom, where, and at what point in their lives. The question now seems both more important than ever, and futile. In films, children rush around as though adults cannot see them, and we don’t see the adults – apart from the few baddies and angels that the narrative uses to push things along. But in the Manchester film, the adults and the children are fighting over the same streets. Anger over the death of Mark Duggan, shot in Tottenham, is eclipsed by something stronger, wilder and more visceral. There is no justice possible when children will go to jail. There are no magic, life-altering kisses to hold onto as the children go home. 

Stephanie Donald

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