Cities of Lost Children

By: Julie Levinson  

Many of the over 100 million children living on urban streets around the globe are found in the cities of democratic nations. Street children are a stark rebuke to principles of civic order, social advancement, communal well-being, and to a nation’s commitment to protect its citizenry. As embodied contradictions to discourses of progress and prosperity, street kids challenge the democratic state’s ability to ensure the welfare of its people. Although they may remain largely unseen amid the bustle of our cities, street kids have been widely seen onscreen. Their lives have found expression in dozens of recent films from countries including France, Brazil, India, Lebanon and the U.S. In spite of differing national contexts, there are discernible consistencies among these films, and the cultural work that they perform transcends their immediate focus. These urban ethnographies allegorize the status of the nation and address a host of concerns about democratic ideologies and institutions. Cumulatively, they constitute an archive of the structural inequalities and governmental deficiencies of the countries in which they are set. This paper examines the characteristics of street-kid films in relation to democratic principles. It engages film theory and history, as well as cultural geography, to explore how child characters function to convey adult anxieties about the nature of civil society and the upheavals arising from urbanization, globalization, migration, late capitalism and other contributors to the sense of democracy in crisis. The paper considers how film and other narrative art forms can galvanize audiences and contribute to public discourse.

Film history, Cultural theory, Ethnography, Genre, Democratic ideologies, Civic, Urban
2020 Special Focus - Against the Grain: Arts and the Crisis of Democracy
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Julie Levinson

Professor of Film/Chair of Arts and Humanities, Arts and Humanities, Babson College, United States
United States

Julie Levinson is Professor of Film and Chair of the Arts and Humanities division at Babson College. She is the author of  The American Success Myth on Film (Palgrave MacMillan), editor of Alexander Payne Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and co-editor of Acting (Rutgers University Press), part of the ten-volume Behind the Silver Screen series. Her publications in journals and edited collections focus on a wide range of topics including genre and gender, documentary film, metafiction, and narrative theory. She has been a film curator for Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, the Boston Film/Video Foundation, the New England Foundation for the Arts, the Flaherty Film Seminar, and the Celebration of Black Cinema. She has served as an editorial consultant on many documentary films and as a grants panelist for organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She is currently working on a book about global street-kid films.