San Francisco Art & Film for Teens

Art&Film

Free cultural programs for teens, including Friday night film screenings, Saturdays art walks and free seats to cultural events. Open to all Bay Area students, middle school through college. Established 1993. 

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2019 Tarkovsky Prize Honorable Mention: Nicholas Buckwalter

Nicholas Buckwalter (17, Berkeley High School)

The Subjectivity of the Human Experience in Schnabel’s THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY


Beyond simply offering entertainment, film can open the mind to new ways of thinking and illuminate the subjectivity of humanity in a way unique to the medium. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Julian Schnabel uses the immersive nature of cinema to communicate the interior world of someone who has lost almost all exterior communication. The film centers around Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor of a French fashion magazine, who suffers a stroke which leaves him paralyzed from head to toe, leaving him stripped of everything but his senses and the ability to move his eyes. Over the course of the film, Jean slowly writes a novel through blinking as someone reads aloud the alphabet.

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The film touches on themes like family, love, and loyalty, but primarily deals with the subjectivity of the human experience. Large parts of the film are seen from the subjective point of view of Jean. This not only allows the viewer to better understand the protagonist's position, but also to reflect on the individual nature of their own experience. While as humans we have a basic understanding of each other, we can never escape the subjectivity of our mind and our own personal experience. Similarly, Jean is unable to escape his condition. The extensive continued POV shots reflect what life is: one long experience continually filtered through our own point of view.

The characters Jean interacts with further illustrate how our perspective colors our existence. While at the hospital, Jean is visited by his old friend, Roussin. Years earlier, Jean gave up his seat on a plane for Roussin. The plane was hijacked, resulting in Roussin becoming a hostage for four years. While at first it may seem like Jean was lucky for avoiding the plane, his condition of being “locked-in” (essentially, held hostage in his own body) in the end seems far more unlucky. The friends’ relationship indicates the futility of comparing human existence, as in the end we are all “locked-in” to our own perspectives. Regardless of what we choose, we may get on a plane that is hijacked or suffer a paralyzing stroke. Roussin gives Jean the advice to “hold onto the human inside of you.” Jean achieves this through memory which frees him from the prison of his physical limitations.

Memory is possibly the most subjective experience a human has. Different people can remember the same experience differently. Jean idealizes the past and frequently flashes back to happy memories of relationships from before he was disabled. He also holds onto his humanity through dream or fantasy. Through flashback, Jean sees himself shaving his father, a memory of a time where he had more control of his life and was in a position of being a caretaker. However, Jean also often sees himself in his wheelchair on an isolated plank on the beach. Even though he often tries to use memory to escape his experience, even his own mind draws him back to the limitations of his condition.

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The story of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is personally intriguing to me. When I was four years old I had a seizure on my Mom’s birthday. At first the doctors thought I had hydrocephalus. This meant I would have frequent seizures and fluid would slowly build up in my brain until I lost all muscle control and eventually all brain function. I would have also lost all memory, essentially losing all aspects of humanity. The doctors were wrong and I simply had a febrile seizure. However, I often think about the experience and realize how little control we have over our lives. No one can control even their own body or health. Just as Jean was locked-in his body, we are all “locked-in” in to our destinies. But at the same time, Jean’s story also illustrates how much control we do have. Although he was stripped of almost all bodily function, through the simple act of blinking Jean is able to take control of the humanity he does have.

2018 Tarkovsky Award 2nd Place: Nicholas Buckwalter

Nicholas Buckwalter (16, Berkeley High School)
The Beauty of Sadness in Kieslowski's BLUE

While a good film draws the viewer into the emotions of the characters, a great film helps the viewer explore his or her own emotions in new and deeper ways. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” does exactly this. “Blue” is the first film in Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy” and possibly the most influential. The film centers around a woman’s response when tragedy overtakes her life. The protagonist, Julie, is overcome with sorrow and depression after her husband and daughter die in a car accident. She responds first by attempting suicide, then by erasing her old life, moving to Paris, and selling all the belongings attached to her now-deceased family.  While the plot is straightforward, the characters are complex, the imagery is profound, and the execution is skillful and precise.

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The film, which takes place primarily from the point of view of a sorrow-filled protagonist, struck a chord with me because I personally have struggled with depression. While I drew comfort from relating to Julie’s feelings and perspective (despite our very different circumstances), “Blue” ultimately helped me understand my own emotions in a different and deeper way.

Juliette Binoche’s masterful performance and Kieslowski’s skilled direction work together to pull the viewer into a world of depression and sadness that lingers even after the film closes. Binoche perfectly embodies the depressive state of mind. Her stare penetrates deep into the viewer’s darkest places. Through small details like Julie’s fixation on the sugar cube in her coffee or her obsession with the blue chandelier in her neighbor’s apartment, Kieslowski demonstrates her focus on her inward world and the isolation that engenders.

The visual aspects of the film—cinematography, lighting, setting—are also central to its power. Blue light shines and drips around the protagonist, evoking the haunting past she cannot escape. Many images in the film seem to convey a message in and of themselves. The exquisite composition of the shots and settings reveals that sadness itself can be beautiful.  Images like the blue-lit swimming pool or the glistening chandelier drip from the screen, creating a powerful visual atmosphere. Many of the shots are so perfectly composed that they could stand alone as paintings.

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Music also plays a critical role in “Blue”. Julie’s husband, a composer, leaves her with an unfinished composition which plays throughout the film in revealing ways. In one scene, as Julie stares at her late husband’s piano, the composition plays in the background. When Julie shuts the piano, the music abruptly stops playing. While this is not inherently logical, it perfectly fits the dramatic tone of the scene and demonstrates Kieslowski's directorial genius. This same composition plays throughout the film in different ways, haunting the protagonist and the viewer alike. The music serves as a reminder of the past that Julie cannot erase. In the film’s closing scene, the composition plays in full for the first time, offering an auditory sense of closure even as visual images of the people who have affected Julie throughout her life flash by.

The multiple facets of Julie’s character play out through her various relationships, most powerfully in her interactions with her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In one sense, Julie’s mother represents liberty in its purest form, free from all form of human connection, memory and thought. As Julie sees this, she comes up against the furthest extreme to which isolation can take you, and is forced to question just how far a person can take the quest for freedom and still remain human.

By contrast, when the stubbornly independent Julie calls her neighbor Lucille in tears asking for help, we see Julie’s more vulnerable side—the part of her that is still open to connection.  Julie’s romantic interest, Olivier, initially helps to reveal Julie’s deep sense of isolation after they spend a night together and she promptly makes him leave. Her later acceptance of Olivier and entrance into a relationship with him reveals her newfound hope in life.

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While the various technical aspects of “Blue” contribute to its greatness, the authenticity of the characters, relationships and themes left the deepest impression on me. I have often struggled with depressive thoughts. As I entered adolescence, they have grown more frequent, and I often find myself fixated on the negative aspects of life. Sometimes I feel like the blue light that haunts Julie follows me around in my life as well.

Both visually and thematically, “Blue” reveals the unexpected beauty in sadness. The artistry with which Kieslowski renders this complex emotional state helped me understand my own darker aspects in a new way—not as a failure to be overcome or hidden but as a necessary, if difficult, part of being human.