It’s 10 pm.  Do you know where your children are?

We’re all familiar with this PSA.  We’ve heard it a million times on TV, and it has been parodied even more.  But when it first circulated on the scene between the 1960s and 1980s, these words were far from a joke.    

In Michael Gil’s quick, but effective 7-minute short film STRANGER DANGER— edited entirely from news broadcast clips throughout the last few decades and with no outside narration— he wastes no time with snatching your attention.  After an innocent-enough opening of a mix between a school presentation video and seemingly benign newscaster conversations about safety tips for children, Gil introduces a jarring, bloody crime scene at the 1-minute mark, and he captured my full attention.  No, Gil is not here to preach to his audience about keeping their children safe— he’s got something a little more on his mind.

Gil’s storytelling takes an intriguing progression.  He floats through the decades: beginning with the ‘60s and ‘70s, with somber news stories about children who walked to school and never came home.  Very few physical details are given. However, as Gil begins to creep into the ‘80s Ronald Reagan era, where he purposely spends much of his time, Gil begins to dump graphic, gut-wrenching broadcasts clips that detail hoards of missing African-American boys in Atlanta and a decapitated young child elsewhere.  But, even more frighteningly, the news clips become increasingly more aggressive and change to fear-mongering tactics. Gil includes an alarming interview with a sheriff or deputy, who claims that the only way he’s going to catch whoever is responsible for one of these bouts of crimes is if he/she “doesn’t stop.”  Excuse me?

STRANGER DANGER is not about debating “free range” parenting (parents who allow their children to explore and roam on their own) versus overprotective parenting.  Instead, Gil points his finger to the media, and how these newscasts throughout the years have framed crime, violence, and “stranger danger” with scare tactics to the masses.  Sure, sometimes the “stranger danger” tips were used innocently enough: TV cartoon characters such as Winnie the Pooh and the Ninja Turtles sang songs to their young audiences about not talking to strangers.  However, Gil shows us the progression of just how problematic this media-driven culture of telling parents how to take care of their children became when certain parents nearly had their children taken from them for trivial reasons, for one example.  He includes broadcasters referring to the good old days when kids could walk around without “supervised play” but now “times have changed considerably” and commercials claiming that “50,000 children went missing last year, many from nice neighborhoods”— both implementing the myth that crimes have only gotten worse, as if nothing bad had ever happened to children before the year 1967.

STRANGER DANGER leaves us with the question: what came first, the stranger or the danger?  With crime decreasing over the last 30 years, have we become more careful/cautious, or was the “stranger danger” fear primarily created by the news media, which exploited it for ratings and attention?  We’ll never know for sure, but Gil wants us to take the media content that we consume into consideration when it comes to how we parent our kids. In reference to the film’s final words, let us all “use our common sense.”

Gil’s STRANGER DANGER screened with Ben Asamoah’s feature Sakawa during this weekend’s Toronto True Film Crime Festival.

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