It started with a playdate. It was the 2019 Berlin Film festival, and five industry professionals — Sarah Calderon of The Film Agency, Berlinale programmer Aurelie Godet, Olimpia Pont Chafer of Torino Film, Alan Seville of the European Works in Progress program, and Rotterdam festival programmer Michelle Carey — all working moms, met up for a break from the Berlin hustle and bustle and to give their kids a chance to interact with other non-adults.
“We started talking about what we were all facing, trying to balance being a parent with this job, and the stresses on our personal life,” Carey recalls. “We all said: this has to change.”
Anyone who has experienced the film festival circuit as the parent of young children can emphatize. With its cycle of international travel, late-night premieres and boozy after-hours events, most international fests are distinctly un-family friendly. It’s fine for celebrities able to pay for private nannies and entertainment. At the 2012 Berlinale for the premiere of her directorial debut In The Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie arranged a private visit to the Legoland Discovery Center in Berlin’s Sony Center for children Maddox, Shiloh and Pax, for example. But for the ground troops, the hundreds of film programmers, critics, sales execs and journalists attending the major festivals, the demands of the job can mean making impossible choices between family and career.
“We all love our jobs and we’re dedicated to them,” says Carey. “But we don’t want to be away from our kids for weeks or months at a time and we knew we couldn’t afford to private childcare.”
At that playdate in Berlin, the five women set out to fix film festival childcare for the 99 percent.
The Red Balloon Association was born. Taking the name from Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 children’s classic (these are film nerds after all), the group set up its first festival Kindergarten in Cannes later that year. It was an instant hit. Red Balloon Kindergartens followed in San Sebastian, and in 2020, in Berlin.
“The response was incredible and so emotional,” says Carey. “People wrote us afterwards, really pouring their hearts out: ‘thank you, thank you. No one had ever helped us before’.”
Initially, the women behind Red Balloon did everything — “raising the money, finding a location, doing the due diligence with the nanny services,” Carey recalls — but soon the festivals took over.
Berlin, which prides itself on being kid-friendly — it is the only major film festival to have a kids-focused sidebar, the Generation section, and organizes special kids-only screenings, including live dubbing for those too young to read subtitles — now handles all the logistics. The 2023 Berlinale kindergarten is being run by Berlin’s European Film Market, which has secured corporate sponsors, including Creativity Media, MUBI, German Films and the Danish Film Institute, to foot the bill.
“We’ve got around 26 families representing around 50 kids in total for the festival,” says EFM director Dennis Ruh. “We see it as part of our overall efforts to address issues of work-life balance and mental health within the industry. Basically, we want parents with children to be able to come to Berlin and do business while knowing their kids are in good hands.”
Open to kids from six months to six years of age, and operating five hours per day Feb. 16-25, the Berlinale kindergarten costs just €50 ($53) for EFM and festival attendees. Childcare is handled by the multi-lingual “ethical nanny agency” Extra Arms in Berlin.
For the past two years, because of COVID restrictions, the Berlinale kindergarten was virtual — Extra Arms nannies entertained industry tots on screens while their parents toiled in Zoom meetings — but everyone is looking forward to the in-person return.
“It really is a great experience for the kids. They get their own festival badges — which are very cute — so they can enter festival areas and even attend things like screenings if appropriate,” says Carey. “It really helped my son, Alex, to understand what his mother does for a living. Now I’ve heard him tell his friends: ‘I have to go to work now, I’m got a screening and then a director Q&A.”
(Alex, 5, reached through his spokesmum, declined to comment for this article.)
Since its humble beginnings with that 2019 playdate, Red Balloon has become a global community of film industry professionals. “We have a WhatsApp group where we share tips, like ‘I found this great playground right by Potsdamer Platz,’ or ‘this restaurant is kid-friendly’,” says Carey. “It’s become what we had always imagined, and made it just about possible to combine raising a family with having a career in this business.”