I often get this conflicted feeling when I watch a documentary about children, like this week’s POV broadcast of Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go: I am immediately concerned that the subjects are being exploited in some way, since they’re not really able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be involved in a film. But at the same time, I am also totally engrossed, for the related reason that these little subjects usually have what I find to be a refreshingly limited sense of self-awareness — this often provides for more of a “pure” representation of reality in a documentary. Of course, most docs about children are usually intent on helping them, so my initial concern usually takes a backseat to engagement.
Still from Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go

My favorite docs about children are Michael Apted‘s Up series, Born into Brothels, Spellbound and My Kid Could Paint That. (I hear Autism: the Musical is also pretty good.) In these films, the kids are such forces of nature, that when the filmmakers capture them on camera, the viewer gets a sense of true reality, like in a great nature doc. Whereas when watching a doc with adult subjects, I find that the experience can often be tainted when their personas and the façades they present are unraveled.

While watching Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, I was struck by how little judgment (which is normally established through the edits, music and other filmmaking decisions) was projected by director Kim Longinotto as she told the story. In fact, there was so little context provided that I began to worry that this was a doc without a point, but then I began to see how the relationship between two worlds was being portrayed: the one of children and that of adults, who can be broken into two categories. There are the adults (family members) who fail the children, confuse them or drive them into painful patterns. And then there are those (the teachers) who try to support them, and try put them on a better path.

I found it compelling to think in these terms as I watched these children stranded in this world. I began to think about the kid in 400 Blows, Truffaut’s fictional depiction of a street urchin. We get to know that kid, empathize with him, but ultimately, he remains separate from us. As parents, teachers and/or filmmakers, we try to bridge the gap. But it’s hardly easy.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen