Children are cinema’s simultaneously fetishized commodity and artless liability. You can’t harm them, yet you can have them perpetrate terrible acts of inhumanity. “Ana’s Playground” cuts through the malaise of hypocrisy and transmits a violent, chaotic reality usually relegated to somewhere “out there” right into your brain.
This 18 minute short centers on a ragged, accidental group of misplaced and displaced children playing soccer on a destroyed block in an unidentified war torn country. They have an old radio tuned to a professional match going on somewhere far away, untouched by the whizzing bullets and rubbled buildings. When their ball sails over an opaque wall of graffitied sheet metal, apparently some sort of barrier marking the end of friendly soil, Ana draws the short stick and must literally risk her life to bring back the only semblance of normalcy she and her playmates have left.
Our young hero crawls through a small opening in the fence and is immediately targeted by sniper fire. She presses on. She knows nothing of her assailant, only that he stands in the way of all she has left. If she dies, so be it. A life without some small pleasure isn’t a life at all.
Ana and her playmates, and the sniper we’ve learned, all listen intently to the same football match as she darts from statue to fountain to concrete barrier, none of it ever meant to shield young girls from rifle fire. Amidst the life and death cat and mouse game and the football match, which holds the promise of something better, Ana and her assailant experience a brief moment of kinship. A strange solidarity that only such a bizarre situation could bring. It doesn’t last and the reality of war soon resumes its brutal charade.
Eric D. Howell, the auteur behind “Ana’s Playground,” has crafted a work of extreme maturity in a genre deluged by lugubriousness. The brutality of his film isn’t felt in graphic gore but in the face of a young man, the sniper, not far removed from adolescence in years but corrupted well beyond its innocent grasp — that is, until he encounters Ana. Howell’s film is a modern tragedy. Hamlet, in his madness and rage against a conspiring king, was given the gift and relief of death. Ana is cursed with the perpetual drain of survival. She isn’t especially bright-eyed or hopeful. She has no real fear of death, but lacks the cynicism to truly understand her plight. Ana’s is the story of thousands of children throughout the world — the story of a manageable hell without the promise of relief.