As a filmmaker, focusing a narrative on loss seems almost like a rite-of-passage in a burgeoning career, which is why we see so many short films tackling the subject. For director Martin Smatana he knew he wanted to make a film tackling these themes, but also decided to make sure his short appealed to audiences young and old. A story for children about death is no easy task, but Smatana has excelled with his award-winning film The Kite.
A heartwarming short, told with an equally charming aesthetic, The Kite follows a young boy as he goes to visit his grandfather throughout the seasons. With the boy at the start of his life, he’s represented as a layered character (physically, not metaphorically) and feels very solid, but his elderly relative, towards the end of his life, has lost a lot of his layers and is looking frail. As they both come to realise that the old man won’t be around forever, they both have to come to terms with life’s only inevitability.
With such a personal and emotive storyline, it came as no real surprise to learn that the inspiration for the film came from the director’s own grandfather. “When I was a little kid, I used to ask adults a lot of existential questions, like ‘where do babies come from?’, but also ‘where people go after they die?’. And for a very long time I could not get an answer that would fully satisfy me. And the only one who was willing to discuss my difficult existential questions was my grandfather. He told me that as a man gets older, he also gets thinner, and at the end of his life he is as thin as a sheet of paper, so one day the wind just softly blows him and takes him up to the sky”.
It’s a poetic description of death and although in life we don’t really get the happy ending of The Kite (unless, of course that’s something you believe in), the film feels like the perfect starting point for a conversation with a child about loss and grief – something they’ll all experience at some junction in their life. For as a parent, a time will come when your child develops a curiosity about death and while it’s a perfectly natural thing, for some it can be a difficult subject to broach. Honesty is always the best path, but there’s no harm in adding a little imagination when explaining such grand themes to developing minds and The Kite could certainly help in this respect.
While the narrative wins points for its accessibility and universality, when I first saw The Kite it wasn’t the storyline I instantly fell for, but the charm of its textural visuals. The material selection (sourced from second-hand shops in Prague) for every element of the film, from the patchwork fields to the fluffy clouds, feels carefully considered and together they form such an inviting world. “We came up with the rule that objects which have a solid surface in the real world – like a road, bus or house – would be made out of paper”, Smatana reveals as we discuss his production. Adding that “objects which are soft in the real world – like clouds, smoke, grass or snow – we will make out of soft textile materials”.
Add to this the beautiful character design – the layering works so well – and the progression that the meticulous change of seasons brings and The Kite truly is a magical short. The programmers and juries at festivals worldwide obviously agreed, as the film premiered at the 2019 Berlinale, before winning awards at Annecy, ITFS and Anima Mundi. Smatana is now working on a new short titled Hello Summer, which he says will once again be aimed at both children and adults and will look to tell the story of “a family that expects to have the best summer holiday ever but instead they end up going through a rollercoaster of troubles until they find out what their holiday is really about”.