“I remember calling the child helpline myself when I was about eight,” filmmaker Astrid Bussink says of the genesis of her short doc (winner of the IDFA Special Jury Award for Children’s Documentary) L I S T E N. “It was about something really futile – I was in a ‘relationship’ with two boys and I couldn’t choose between them. I was really surprised that they actually listened to the problem. And asked questions, they weren’t just telling you what to do, like most adults. I was curious whether these helplines still exist. They do, and they’re now more popular than ever.”
Realising there would be huge privacy issues involved in making a documentary on this subject, Bussink approached the ‘Kindertelefoon’ (the Dutch children’s telephone helpline) to see what was possible. “They were interested in doing something, but of course quite limited in what they could offer us because of the privacy issues. It’s illegal to eavesdrop on these conversations.” The solution she came up with to make the film without compromising the children’s privacy was as ingenious as it is effective.
“We spoke to loads of helpline volunteers, and to many, many children who had contacted the child helpline. Then we created a new narrative using topics that came up a lot in our conversations with them, or that appealed to me, or that were funny – like what I call the ‘pizza phone calls’ [prank calls by children ordering food from the helpline],” Bussink says. “I wanted to have at least one of those in the film.” The children supplying their stories were guaranteed complete anonymity.
Having carried out this research and identified the issues she wanted to cover in the film, Bussink then approached another group of children to ‘act out’ these problems (or ‘stories’) in calls to the helpline (with the helpline’s knowledge and cooperation). “We found other children and gave them a ‘problem’. For instance, in the case of the boy who’s in the asylum-seekers’ centre – he was voiced by another boy who is actually in an asylum-seekers’ centre. We just said, call the line and tell them what you’re feeling. On the other end of the line was an actual child line volunteer. They might know we were recording them, but they treated ‘our’ children just like they would regular calls.”
The child ‘actors’ really warmed to their roles, the director recalls. “Something just happened with these children when they made the phone calls. I had expected them to fall out of their role or giggle or whatever, but they took it so seriously. They really went for it – I think in part because they related to the stories. For instance, one girl actually cried – I didn’t ask her to. I don’t even know why. Something in the ‘story’ resonated with her.”
Children are also responsible for all the visuals in L I S T E N, Bussink reveals. “All of the images – apart from the cats and the guinea-pigs, which we filmed in the studio – are made by children. For example, we asked another girl who is in an asylum-seekers’ centre to shoot what she sees through the window, to reflect how she’s feeling.”
The film’s soundtrack was not made by children, however. Of the original music (by Yvo van Gemert and Bartho Waeyen), Bussink says: “At first, Yvo made something and it didn’t work. Then he sent us some other pieces of his work, saying, ‘it’s a bit out of the box, a bit strange, there’s one song with my vocal on it’ – and it was absolutely perfect. It feels melodramatic, which really suits the puberty thing, then it moves into hip-hop, which is lighter.” This section of the soundtrack perfectly complements sequences of a kid hurtling along on a skateboard. “I think the boy who did that visual for us is like the number one skateboard guy in the Netherlands,” she adds.
Speaking between sessions at the Forum, which she is also attending in her new capacity as head of youth documentary for Dutch broadcaster VPRO, Bussink reveals that she now has plans for a feature-length version of L I S T E N, and is currently looking for funding. “We are thinking of a making a feature-length, international version of L I S T E N,” she says. “There are obviously so many more stories – this short version had to be age-appropriate, for kids aged eight to twelve years. What we miss in this version is issues like sexuality, gender, love, and all of that. We also heard so many deeply horrible stories during the research, which we chose not to use in this version, but I would really love to elaborate on that too. It will be a big job – we already spoke with about 150 children for the first version – we would have to partially start over again, with this different age group – fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds – in mind. It’s a different perspective.”