Responsible Storytelling

A recent report about Zdenek Miler, a Czech animator caught my attention because Mr. Miler was born the same year as my father of blessed memory, and lives in Prague, where my father spent many summers of his childhood with his grandfather. But it was the description of Mr. Miler’s philosophy that captured my imagination.

Mr. Miler is the creator of Krtek, Little Mole, who has starred in 62 animated films for children. In contrast to the cartoons produced for American children, which feature violence of every sort, from anvils dropping on the heads of characters, to guns blasting through their bodies, the Krtek films are gentle, kind, and poetic. Film critic Michael Medved recently commented, “It’s an alternate universe, like all the best animated stuff is, but it’s an alternate universe that feels astonishingly refreshing and kind.”

Mr. Miler’s films, although seen in 85 countries around the globe, never found a market here in America, where we have developed a ravenous appetite, especially of late, for cinematic brutality and violence. Mr. Miler, himself, commented in an interview, “I always look at American history and it is a very hard one. People came. They conquered a continent. They suffered hardships, and that hardship is reflected in its movies. I look at children there and think what they are watching is a reflection of that hardness. If you look at America, it is epic. Whereas here, it is more poetic. I feel here there is more lyricism.”

Life in America is harder than elsewhere in the world? Is he joking? Life in America is no harder than in the many countries which show their children Krtek rather than the standard fare of violent American cartoons. Indeed, it is probably easier.
What is different is the values we choose to convey and hence the manner of presentation we employ to present the world to our children. Cartoons, like religious narratives, tell a story. The storyteller chooses how to present what is most definitely not the raw data of history, but rather a religious story of meaning.

When I tell my children the story of the Exodus from Egypt, as I do each Passover, I focus on God’s compassion and redemptive power in the universe and in our lives, rather than on the brutality of slavery in Egypt. It is my decision to elaborate on acts of decency and kindness, such as the courage of the midwives, rather than the cruelty of the Egyptian taskmasters wielding their whips. I make these conscious choices because I want my children to emulate the courage and kindness of the midwives, and the compassion of God, so they will grow to be redemptive influences in the lives of others.

My father’s grandfather and the cousins with whom he played on carefree summer days in Prague were brutally murdered by the Nazis, who shrewdly employed elements of the religious stories of others to foment and justify a program of genocide. Do we want our stories to focus on violence and brutality? Or do we want to teach kindness and compassion? The choice, as well as the responsibility, lies with the storyteller, and those who choose to use the story.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.