In our house, Friday night is movie night. And it’s pizza party too. At the end of a long week, the kids get to choose the movie of their choice.
Now, I’m all for democracy. But I was starting to lament the choice of movies. Perhaps I was harbouring a nostalgia for the likes of The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, all movies that had been part of my own childhood. But it felt to me that we all really needed to be watching sometime more substantial than a Disney cartoon.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Cartoons have their place. But as a creative artist myself, I couldn’t help longing for something a little more artistically enriching and thought-provoking, something that would gently lift us, turn us 90 degrees around, and put us back down in a place we hadn’t been before.
To me, great art is something that both entertains and inspires. It lifts us from the dullness of our everyday perceptions, offering new views and transforming our thinking. It asks us to question our own firmly-held assumptions and, by doing so, enlarges our world.
I had suggested to my husband that we watch the movie ‘Billy Elliot’ on movie night. The story is about a young boy from a depressed part of northern England, who develops a passion for ballet. The movie is set against the background of the miners strikes of the 1980s and, in the movie, both Billy’s father and brother are on strike. Billy’s father is furious when he finds out that he is learning to dance, considering it not the sort of thing that a boy should be doing. When Billy’s dancing teacher alerts his father to the fact that Billy might have what it takes to get into the Royal Ballet School with the potential to be a world-class dancer, it throws the family into turmoil.
The movie is directed by one of the UK’s foremost directors, Stephen Daldry, and not only was it an artistic triumph, but it was also a commercial success. It is profound and moving and beautifully performed and filmed.
When it was suggested to the children that we watch it on movie night, there was an immediate veto in favour of Tin Tin. Tin Tin was fun and the children enjoyed it and perhaps it was indeed the right thing to watch after a long week.
On Saturday, however, we watched Billy Elliott. The children were glued to the television. I’ve never seen them more focused watching a movie. The movie brought up the tension Billy’s father faced in sticking to his principles of striking whilst he needed the money to support his family and pay for Billy’s dream of studying ballet. The children wanted to know more about why there was such a heavy police presence in this small village in northern England at this time. It touched on the death of Billy’s mother and the legacy she had left of music in their family. The scene when Billy’s father is forced to smash his beloved wife’s piano, to use the wood to heat their home over Christmas, brought tears to the eyes of both the children and adults. And, most profoundly, I noticed the entire family becoming ever more intertwined in hugs and love as they rooted for Billy’s success in his audition. Great art can even be a unifying force.
I asked my husband how he felt after the movie. He said he felt complete. I commented that I felt a sense of healing. Even though Billy’s story was far removed from the reality of our own lives, the success of a piece of art lies in it’s ability to move us at a deeper level, as the themes it explores – poverty, injustice, family tension, death, hope - resonate with us all, young and old alike.
The next day, we asked the children what they remembered from the movie, the part that had most affected them. The youngest, aged 9, said he had been most struck by Billy’s father crossing the picket line to go back to work to earn the money for Billy’s ballet school audition. A very adult problem that left a deep impression on a young child.
Perhaps we underestimate our children and what they are capable of understanding. Art can be a powerful medium through which to open up the world of a young person and I think we do them a disservice by assuming they cannot be interested in things, people and ideas outside of their own experience. We owe it to them as parents to stretch their world view and show them something beyond what they already know.
I am a trained actress and founder and director of Hua Dan, one of China’s first and leading social enterprises. Hua Dan uses the power of participation in drama-based workshops to reveal and develop individual and community potential. Hua Dan has a particular focus on working with China’s rural-to-urban migrant workers, particularly women, who work in the manufacturing and service industries, at the heart of China’s economic boom.