262: A God-and-Dog Movie Shows a Festival’s Power to Shape Young Lives

t first glance, the news today may seem as simple as a preview of a new Disney-style animated feature about some dogs who hung around Jesus 2,000 years ago.
    But there’s a far bigger picture on this screen! “At Jesus’ Side,” which will have its world premiere on a big screen at 3 p.m. on October 26 in Chicago, is a perfect illustration of the power of the venerable Chicago International Children’s Film Festival to shape young lives.
    A quarter of a century of hard work has gone into fine tuning this innovative festival—which is now the only accredited children’s film festival to qualify winners for Oscar nomination. Each year now, the professionals behind this festival are teaching thousands of students—and their parents and teachers—new strategies for using films in classrooms and in homes.
    This year’s festival drew 1,000 film submissions. After selections by both adult and child jurors, 250 films will be screened in Chicago during the festival. More than 20,000 children, parents and teachers are expected to attend along with 100 of the filmmakers. And, the printed film-festival curriculum this year is a 150-page book that festival organizers provide to help shape the experience in classrooms and families.
    (NOTE: If you want to learn more about attending this festival, don’t miss the festival director’s tips below and the “Care-to-Read-More” links at the end of today’s story.)


    “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens … you save humans and animals alike.”
    That excerpt from Psalm 36 opens “At Jesus’ Side,” a new feature-length animated film about Jesus’ concern for animals during his life—and, on an even larger scale, God’s timeless compassion for the natural world.
    This is a very personal project for veteran filmmaker Patrick Wells, who now is 65 and has labored for decades as a producer of feature films.
    His first full-length movie was the 1982 comedy “The Personals” about a
divorced man searching for a new life through an advertisement in a Personals column. Wells’ best-known films are “Youngblood,”
starring Rob Lowe in a drama about a promising young hockey player, and
“I Love You to Death,” a comedy directed by Lawrence Kasdan starring
Kevin Kline as a womanizing owner of a pizza parlor and Tracey Ullman
as his not-so-long-suffering wife.

    “I’ve devoted a lot of years to making movies. I was going to Sundance back in the days when only 600 people showed up and we were in tents,” Wells told me via telephone. “I feel like an old man in the industry who has earned the right to make a film at this point that’s really helpful and relevant and is especially good for children.”
    Wells’ own spiritual insights sprang from his Christian faith and from his love of the natural world, especially dogs. In deciding to prophetically produce a children’s film that shows Jesus’ loving relationship with animals, Wells is tapping into the groundswell of “greening” theology that’s running through thousands of houses of worship. This grassroots movement ranges from recycling trash and restoring local rivers to new kinds of Bible-study groups that reflect both on faith and on humans’ responsibility to the natural world.
    For Wells, though, the story was as simple and as sincere as this: “I’ve always been a huge dog person. In my 60s, I’m on my ninth dog and I’ve loved every one of them—and they’ve loved me unconditionally. And, as a Christian, I began to think: What’s the other experience I’ve had in my life with unconditional love?”
    The idea was so powerful that Wells began raising the considerable budget to produce a feature-length animated film. He hired writers and all the other professionals needed to realize his dream.

    “Now, you know, even evangelicals are getting interested in environmentalism,” Wells said. “Everyone is beginning to understand that we’re stewards of God’s creation. In this film I’m starting with dogs and Jesus. I think people will understand the larger message. In this country, we do well with our pets already, but sometimes we need to be reminded it’s an even bigger picture. We have this responsibility to protect all of God’s world.”
    Wells sent ReadTheSpirit a review copy of the film. The movie opens very much like a Disney-style animated feature with a group of animal friends making their way across a dry and stony road south of Jerusalem. They’re wary of humans and their fears are realized when a group of mean children begin throwing stones at Jericho (the dog shown in the picture above with Jesus). When one tall boy is just about to throw the fatal stone at Jericho, a rabbi walking through the streets of Jerusalem—Jesus—catches the boy’s arm and explains why people should show compassion toward animals.
    Jericho and his animal friends have their own separate adventures in the ancient streets of Jerusalem. These are the final days of Jesus’ life as described in biblical accounts. For the animals, their adventure involves trying to outfox Roman agents who want to toss stray animals into a fighting arena. But the stories of Jesus and the animals wind up interwoven by the end of the film.


    If kids leave Wells’ film on October 26th with a new image in their minds of heavenly concern for the natural world, then festival co-founder Nicole Dreiske has done her job for another year. She’s hoping kids will leave with some sort of helpful impression from each of the 250 films packed into this year’s nearly two-week-long schedule from October 23 to November 2.
    Drieske started scheduling special films for kids on Saturdays in Chicago way back in the mid 1970s as an alternative to what she still describes as “the garbage that’s on television for kids on Saturday mornings.”
    Then, the festival grew from this grassroots idea into an enormous program that draws films from around the world, commissions professionals to write lesson plans for each film, trains teachers in new strategies for using films with children — and even introduces families to “first movies” for children as young as 2 years old.

    The sophistication of the festival includes carefully designed methods for organizing children into pre-festival juries, so kids are involved in evaluating their own media. “That was revolutionary when we started that back in 1983, giving children their own voice in what they would see,” Dreiske told me.
    The festival also sends movie directors into public-school classrooms to meet students and encourage their critical understanding of the media they’re consuming. Dreiske said, “When a 6 year old sees a movie and then meets the person who made that movie, something extraordinary happens. And, it doesn’t need for the director to be Steven Spielberg for this to be a magical experience for young people.”
    The festival staff also has developed strategies for programming blocks of short films to maintain the highest level of attention from young viewers.
    In short: These are very creative people and the Chicago festival is a Mecca for educators who want to learn the latest techniques and see the latest trends in films for young for viewers.

    I asked Dreiske to advise any readers of this story who may want to schedule a quick trip to Chicago to catch some of the festival. First, she said, visit the festival’s Web site (through the links below). However, Dreiske said that some blocks of time already are sold out for field trips from various schools.
    “If you want to come, book right now because we’re booking everyday and things are filling up rapidly,” she said. “I know that on the 24th of October, the Chicago public schools aren’t in session so there are seats in almost all festival programs that day. Also on the 25th and 26th, I know we still have seats, which is nice because Patrick Wells’ film is on the afternoon of the 26th. So, if people want to come see that, they still can get a ticket.”

    The Chicago International Children’s Film Festival is recognized around the world as an innovator in helping children, parents and teachers understand how to view, understand and evaluate movies. There’s a helpful Wikipedia overview of the Festival. The Festival’s own Web site also is helpful, and the schedule of screenings was just added to the site recently.
    Patrick Wells’ Web site for his movie has a “DVD Signup,” a waiting list for purchasing the movie sometime in 2009.
    At ReadTheSpirit, we’ve published many stories on faith and film. Here’s a good introduction to the spirituality of cinema, which includes links to some helpful books and DVDs. We also have a section of our ReadTheSpirit bookstore devoted to great movies. AND, we have a section of our bookstore devoted to great books about movies (and other media), most of which are great for small-group study.

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   (Originally published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)

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