My nine-year-old daughter used to watch noisy cartoons, progressing from Dora the Explorer to Pokemon and Ben 10, and watching all the Disney and Pixar hits on the way. But about a year ago there was a sea change in her viewing. She discovered serialised Dutch children’s book adaptations such as Koen Kampioen (about a young footballer), De Leeuwenkuil (about a family running a zoo) and Hoe overleef ik (about an adolescent girl). Then she moved on to the wealth of Dutch children’s films shown during the ‘Zappbios’ slot on national tv. For the first time, I started eagerly joining her in front of the telly.
Dutch cinema tends to be realist and naturalistic; films frequently deal with family and friendship issues, tackling loyalty, betrayal, failed ambitions. While this can make for dull and rather monotonous adult films with a lack of dramatic action, Dutch children’s cinema is often outstanding. The young leads act well (by this I mean subtly) and the issues treated work well within the context of childhood, growing up and learning about how the world works. For example, we recently watched the Emmy-award winning lightly comic Rhubarb about a step-brother and sister who try to fix their parents’ failing second marriage. Interestingly, relatively few of the films contain fantasy elements – examples are Dolfje (‘Alfie the Werewolf’ about a boy who becomes a werewolf on his 7th birthday) and Dummie the Mummy (about an Egyptian child mummy that turns up in a Dutch village), but even these also feature regular children in a realist setting.
I have a hunch that Dutch films are easy to relate to because they feature actual children as opposed to fantasy adults or animals. I’m hard-pushed to think of many Hollywood films with human kids in: Home Alone, ET, Back to the Future all hark back to the 80s, and then there are the more recent Roald Dahl adaptations, of course, but still. It’s almost as if superheroes, princesses and animals have to stand in for children most of the time. The sad reason might have something to do with the lack of freedom American children have while growing up. What makes the plots and premises of the Dutch films possible is the fact that Dutch children are free to play outdoors for hours on end in real life. The young characters portrayed in the films move around without parental supervision. They play outdoors, going off on little adventures in the way the Famous Five and Secret Seven did in the Enid Blyton books I read as a child. They have their own (head)space in which the dramatic action can take place. They aren’t followed about by hovering parents.
The other difference is that Dutch parents don’t protect their children from learning about the more challenging aspects of life. They don’t grow up in a rose-coloured bubble, shielded from knowledge of illness, death or sex. Life is not censored. The last Zappbios we watched was actually a German film called Köpfuber (Upside Down). It is about a ten year-old boy losing his joie de vivre as a side effect of ADHD medication. It was hard-hitting rather than a feel-good movie but definitely food for thought. Allowing children to watch Dutch and other European arthouse-style movies prepares them for the real world in a way that no Disney film can.
Here are my daughter’s favourite Dutch films:
- Achtste-Groepers Huilen Niet / Cool Kids Don’t Cry
A 12-year-old gets leukemia in the last year of primary school. I think this struck a particular chord because one of my daughter’s close friends was suffering from cancer at the time.
- Kauwboy / Crow-boy
A boy and a crow and a violent father, it reminds me of the Ken Loach’s Kes.
- De Boskampis / The Boskampis
A comedy about a boy who pretends his dorky father is a Mafia boss.
- Mees Kees / Class of Fun
A trainee teacher gets put in front of the class. Comedy.
- Het Paard van Sinterklaas / St Nicholas’s Horse
Perennial classic about a young Chinese girl hoping for a gift in her shoe.
Trailer (no subtitles): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MTdLL08Yds
- In Oranje / In Orange
Film about a boy who dreams of playing for the Dutch football team and loses his father to a heart attack.
Trailer (no subtitles): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXUXi9IkwPo
- Het Zakmes / The Pen Knife
Cute 1992 film about a six year-old trying to return a penknife to a friend who has moved away.
No trailer but here is an except: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPz8cvTYjCw
- De Sterkste Man van Nederland / The Strongest Man in Holland
A single mum tells her son that his father was the strongest man in the Netherlands. He goes off in search.
Trailer (no subtitles): https://www.filmtotaal.nl/film/19940
- Minoes / The Cat That Came In From The Roof
Film of Annie MG Schmidt’s classic children’s book about a young woman who can turn into a cat
- Kruistocht in Spijkerbroek / Crusade in Jeans
Another film of a classic children’s book, a boy goes back to 13th century to set a few things right.