Tag Archives: child

Transnational Cinematic Childhoods

LMS I
Figure 1: The Child and the Screen (Little Miss Sunshine)
In Spring 2018, I taught an Honours course entitled Transnational Cinematic Childhoods at the University of Aberdeen. It’s been on my to-do list since then to write a blog about the course as there was a lot of interest in the course when I tweeted about it at the time. Finally getting round to writing that post now! Life has been somewhat busy in the interim, what with retraining, finishing my book & having a baby! I’m sharing some insights here but I’m happy to share more in the way of course documentation if folks are interested. Just drop me a line either in the comments below or on Twitter (@FionaFNoble).
LMS II
Figure 2: The Child before the Screen (Little Miss Sunshine)
The aims of the course were to explore the ways in which cinema constructs children and to interrogate the significance of cinematic constructions of childhood (Figures 1 and 2). The word construction is key here. Children on/in film are just that. Constructions, representations, figures. Furthermore, cinematic depictions of children and childhood are typically shaped not by children but by adults. Adults write, edit, frame and direct children onscreen (Figure 3). That said, one cannot deny the agency and presence of the child actors who perform the roles of cinematic children. Indeed, child actors are often lauded for the power of their performances and praised for their authenticity and natural presence. Caught between these tensions, cinematic children are rich sites with regard to the human race and the big questions that inform our existence.
TVS I
Figure 3: Framing Children (The Virgin Suicides)
As cinematic figures, children onscreen carry significant symbolic weight. I proposed a flexibly broad definition of the child and childhood, encompassing adolescence and even adults grappling with difficult pasts (Figures 4 and 5). The child is a figure for what we once were and what we will never be again. The child carries connotations of innocence, of hope and of regeneration. But that which is innocent is subject to corruption. The child is also a site of cultural anxiety around which preoccupations concerning gender, sexuality, life and death cluster. And it is precisely these anxieties that my course sought to explore.
The corpus of the course was, as suggested by the course title, transnational in scope. It included films from the UK, US, Spain, France and Mexico. The corpus was as follows:
  • A Story of Children and Film (Cousins, 2013)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton/Faris, 2006)
  • The Virgin Suicides (Coppola, 1999)
  • Waterlilies (Sciamma, 2007)
  • The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1973)
  • Raise Ravens (Saura, 1976)
  • The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, 2001)
  • Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006)
  • Who Can Kill A Child? (Serrador, 1976)
  • The Others (Amenábar, 2001).
The Others
Figure 6: Locating the Child (The Others)
There was an emphasis on Hispanic cinemas due to my expertise in that field. But the course was taught to students undertaking the Film and Visual Culture MA at Aberdeen so actively sought to make transnational links across the films studied. The categorisation of films along national lines is problematic in any case given the increasingly transnational character of funding streams and channels of exhibition and distribution. Many of the films chosen reflect this complexity. For example, The Others (Figure 6) is directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar but filmed in English and stars Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman who hails from Australia. Is the film Spanish? Anglophone? A Hollywood production? All of the above? With these dynamics of transnationalism in mind, my students and I sought to trace a cinematic map of children and childhoods across national borders, while remaining sensitive to local and national specificities influencing childhood and its cinematic depictions.
Waterlilies I
Figure 7: Orienting the Child (Waterlilies)
Course readings were similarly diverse in scope, ranging from nationally specific readings of the films that pay particular attention to their sociohistorical production contexts to theoretical takes on the significance of cinematic children and childhoods. They included, as examples, Karen Lury’s The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairytales, Emma Wilson’s Cinema’s Missing Children and Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child; Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. I chose readings that complemented the films in question and that encouraged the students to think through the significance of cinematic children and childhoods in diverse ways (Figure 7).
The course was organised around five key themes with each theme spanning two weeks and encompassing two films as case studies:
  1. Framing Childhood (A Story of Children and Film / Little Miss Sunshine)
  2. Boundaries and Borders (The Virgin Suicides / Waterlilies)
  3. Childhood as Transition (The Spirit of the Beehive / Raise Ravens)
  4. Transnational Childhood (The Devil’s Backbone / Pan’s Labyrinth)
  5. Death and the Child (Who Can Kill A Child? / The Others).
Figure 8: Dead, Violent, Ghostly and Killer Kids (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Who Can Kill A Child?)
Across these themes, we asked questions of cinematic illustrations of children and childhood. We analysed child sexuality, the applications and implications of gender norms in relation to the child and childhood, violent children and child ghosts (Figure 8). We considered children as liminal, in transition, queer.
Because I was on an hourly paid fixed term contract while teaching this module and live a considerable distance from campus, I requested that my lecture and two hour seminar for the course be scheduled back-to-back. The only timeslot they could give me for this was 1-4pm on a Friday afternoon. I was convinced my students would be completely unimpressed at this but I was pleasantly surprised. The group of students who opted to take my course were the most dynamic, engaged and enthusiastic bunch of individuals I’ve had the pleasure of teaching in the 10 years I taught at university level. I always had to call the discussions to a close at 3:55pm as they had so much to say!! I think I was fortunate to have such a great group of students but I’ll also take some of the credit for compiling a course that inspired interest, debate and even controversy (we’ll skip over the one student who complained about the overtly feminist course content and that I was gender biased against him …).
Overall, this is undoubtedly the most successful course I’ve designed and taught. The students raved about it (for the most part) and wanted to know if I’d be back teaching them again the following year. It’s just a shame those in charge of hiring at the university have (thus far) not seen recruiting myself to the department as an option. I’ve not taught at university level since I delivered this course and it’s unlikely I’ll have the opportunity in the near future. But I want to share the details of this module in the meantime as its work I’m particularly proud of and would love to see it engaged with by others.
Advertisements

Childhood and Nation in World Cinemas Conference (Royal Holloway, University of London, April 2016)

 

RHUL-CNWC-Logo

I’m currently sitting in departures at Heathrow Terminal 5 having spent the last few days at Royal Holloway, University of London attending the Childhood and Nation in World Cinemas: Borders and Encounters since 1980 conference. With plenty time to kill before my flight, now seems as good a time as any to write up my experience of the conference – which, in short, was one of, if not the best conference I’ve been to in my academic career so far.

Continue reading Childhood and Nation in World Cinemas Conference (Royal Holloway, University of London, April 2016)

The Politics of (the Image of) the Dead Child

Last week, one image dominated most media outlets: that of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi.  The image first appeared on my Twitter timeline on Wednesday night.  On Thursday morning, I went to work (I work in a supermarket) to see that the image had been printed on the majority of that day’s newspapers including The Guardian and The Daily Mail.  It was Friday before I saw any mention of the young boy’s name on Twitter.  Subsequent images have appeared reappropriating the original photograph, including a cartoon and a sand sculpture (neither of which I am prepared to upload or link to here).

This image has provoked awareness of the gravity of the situation in Syria and what now seems to be being referred to as the ‘global migration crisis’, as well as outrage in the form of demands for political accountability and for the provision of aid and assistance for those caught up in the crisis.  This is of course a welcome change given the prominence of narrow-minded and xenophobic attitudes towards migrants and migration often championed in some media outlets (Daily Mail, I’m looking at you).  However, I am struggling with the politics and ethics of printing and/or sharing this image.  I will try to articulate my reasons here, hopefully with some degree of success.  I appreciate that this is an emotive topic and that not everyone will agree with my position.  But my contention is that the image of the dead child is not only unethical, but also politically-charged and highly manipulative.

Continue reading The Politics of (the Image of) the Dead Child

GUEST BLOG: Curiouser and Curiouser: The Queerness of Childhood Temporalities

I’m currently writing an article on childhood temporalities in post-Franco Spanish cinema, which is based in part on one of the chapters of my thesis.  I’ve written a guest blog post on this topic for the Childhood and Nation in World Cinema website, which you can read here.

Childhood and Nation in World Cinema is a Leverhulme funded research project, headed up by Sarah Wright (Royal Holloway).  If interested in the representation of the child in Spanish cinema, you should check out Sarah’s monograph The Child in Spanish Cinema.

Any thoughts on my blog entry, please feel free to post comments on the Childhood and Nation website or on here.

Childhood in Post-Franco Spanish Cinema

As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, one of the chapters of my PhD thesis explores the figure of the child in post-Franco Spanish cinema.  Given the diffuseness of this subject matter, and the relative gap in terms of scholarship on the child in Spanish cinema (Sarah Wright’s recently-published monograph The Child in Spanish Cinema is the first book-length study of this topic), I narrowed the focus of my chapter to the intersection of childhood and history in four key films: El espíritu de la colmena/The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973); Cría cuervos/Raise Ravens (Carlos Saura, 1976); El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001); and El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006).  This term I’ve suspended my PhD studies to take up a temporary Teaching Fellowship in the department of Film & Visual Culture at my institution, and have had the opportunity to teach an Honours module based on my PhD research.  As a result, I’ve recently rewatched three of the above films (Espíritu; Cría; Laberinto) with my Honours students, and in so doing, my curiosity in the visual rhetoric that circulates amongst these films was renewed.

The most recent of the three films – El laberinto del fauno – repeatedly and explicitly engages the previous two films through visual citations.  Clearly, the films are narratively and thematically comparable in that they all deal with the child’s escape into fantasy, imagination, and fairytale, with death, and with the politics of the Civil War and Francoist Spain.  However, this post focuses on the implicit visual connections between the films.  I’m certainly not the first scholar to point out that the later film references the earlier two films – see, for example, this piece by Paul Julian Smith.  That said, I think the parallels are worth restating because they reveal the extent to which Mexican director del Toro inserts his film within a specifically Spanish history of cinematic childhood.

Indeed, within the first few minutes of the film, El laberinto del fauno visually cites both Cría cuervos and El espíritu de la colmena.  The car in which protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) stops so that the latter can get some fresh air.  As Carmen composes herself, Ofelia wanders off into the woods, looking up at the trees above her.  The point-of-view shot recalls a moment in Cría cuervos when Ana (Ana Torrent) looks up at the trees in her garden, before she sees/imagines herself leaping off the roof of a nearby building.

PL_trees
Still from El laberinto del fauno
CC_trees
Still from Cría cuervos

This is followed by a reference to the Don José sequence in El espíritu de la colmena, when the young Ana (Ana Torrent) grants the class mannequin the ability to see by attaching his eyes.  In place of a mannequin, Ofelia encounters a stone statue, and inserts a round stone, which she finds on the ground nearby, into the open eye socket.

PL_stone_statue
Still from El laberinto del fauno
EC_Don_Jose
Still from El espíritu de la colmena

Moreover, the Falangist symbol of the yoke and arrows, which adorns the cars in which Ofelia and her mother travel, constitutes a further visual reference to Erice’s film, in which the same symbol appears on a building of the village Hoyuelos in the opening sequence.

These visual citations appear throughout El laberinto del fauno.  For instance, the Captain is repeatedly pictured shaving in his quarters – an act which reminds us of the playful moment in El espíritu de la colmena when, in the absence of their father, Isabel (Isabel Tellería) instructs her younger sister Ana how to shave.  Similarly, the mud-encrusted Ofelia’s emergence from the tree, having completed her first task, recalls the mournful Ana and her mud beard in Cría cuervos.

PL_muddy_Ofelia
Still from El laberinto del fauno
CC_Ana_mud_beard
Still from Cría cuervos

Furthermore, the bearded doctor of El laberinto del fauno recalls the bearded doctor, who, at the end of El espíritu de la colmena, insists that Ana will recover from her traumatic experiences.  In addition, the monstrousness of maternity embodied by Ofelia’s mother Carmen in El laberinto del fauno resonates with María’s cancerous womb in Cría cuervos.  This link is underscored by the visual echoes between the scene in which Carmen gives birth to Ofelia’s baby brother in El laberinto del fauno, with women bustling around with bloodied sheets, and the scene in which María is dying in Cría cuervos, where the maid Rosa acts as a nurse, removing bloodied sheets from the bed.  The significances of these visual citations are tied up with gender, a theme which has, for the most part, not yet been analysed in detail, and this is precisely one of the themes I investigate in my thesis.

A handful of visual citations concerned with death, devastation, and destruction also link the three films in question.  Vidal’s broken pocket watch recalls Fernando’s pocket watch in El espíritu de la colmena.  Its unreliability, combined with the careful attention the Captain affords to its cleaning, demonstrates an obsessive concern with order and precision that is destined to fail.  The train wreck caused by the maquis in El laberinto del fauno reminds the viewer of the symbolic importance of the train in El espíritu de la colmena.  The train’s derailment in the later film constitutes a symbol of how progress was brought to a halt under Franco.  The burial of Ofelia’s mother, who dies during childbirth, recalls the proliferation of death in general across these films, but also more specifically Ana’s isolated ceremony of mourning for her guinea pig Roni in Cría cuervos.  Finally, Ofelia drugs the Captain by spiking his drink, implicitly referencing Ana’s attempts to poison her father and aunt by lacing their drinks with what she believes to be poisonous powder in Cría cuervos.

Clearly, the resonances between these films extend beyond what I’ve pointed out in this short post.  However, what I hope to have demonstrated here is that El laberinto del fauno, in spite of its transnational production history (directed by a Mexican filmmaker, starring both Spanish and Latin American actors and actresses, financed by both Spanish and Mexican production companies), is positioned within a lineage of Spanish films centred on the intersection of childhood and history.  In my thesis, as mentioned above, I dedicate a chapter to the exploration of these three films in conjunction with El espinazo del diablo.  As I’m still working towards the completion of my thesis, any thoughts, pointers, comments are most welcome on what I’ve presented here.

Guest Post on Nobody Knows Anybody

I recently wrote a guest post on Rebecca Naughten’s ‘Nobody Knows Anybody: A Spanish Cinema Blog’.  Rebecca is currently undertaking a really exciting project she’s called The Carlos Saura Challenge, in which she will watch as many of Saura’s films that are commercially available.  In this post, I give a brief analysis of Saura’s 1976 film Cría cuervos/Raise Ravens.  If you’re interested, you can read it here.

The Queer Child: Kike Maíllov’s Eva

The blog has been rather quiet in the last month, as I’ve been writing like mad for thesis deadlines, and I’ve been unable to channel my writing energies in any other direction!  With a brief pause before my next deadline, I thought I’d write a short commentary on the film Eva.  The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, I recently saw the film thanks to my lovely friend Fran, who bought the DVD when she was in Spain over the festive period (the film has not been released in the UK); and secondly, I’ve spent the last couple of months working on my immigrant chapter and will shortly be returning to the child chapter – I therefore thought that writing on Eva would ease me back into thinking about the child.  As a warning, this commentary contains spoilers, so do not read any further if you’ve yet to see Eva, and do not wish to know any more about the plot!

Image

(Image taken from http://www.esodecimostodos.com/2011/10/22/eva-pelicula-de-ciencia-ficcion-espanola/)

Eva is the debut feature-length film from Catalan director Kike Maíllov.  Maíllov’s other directorial credits include the animated Catalan TV series Arròs covat (2009-present) and two short films: Los perros de Pavlov (2003) and Las cabras de Freud (1999) (available on youtube in two parts, here and here).  It was released in Spain in October 2011, premiering at the Sitges Film Festival.  In terms of genre, the film is classified as drama, fantasy, and sci-fi on IMDB.  The film centres on a reserved robot programmer, Alex (Daniel Brühl), who returns to his hometown to work on a secret project.  The project is to create a robot-child, a task he started then abandoned years ago with Lana (Marta Etura), a fellow robot-programmer, and an ex-girlfriend of Alex’s.  His return to his hometown brings him back into contact with Lana, who is now romantically involved with Alex’s brother, David (Alberto Ammann).  Lana and David have a young daughter, named Eva (Claudia Vega), whom Alex meets by chance, before he is even aware of the fact that he has a niece.  Alex quickly becomes fascinated by the girl, and is keen to base his child robot on her.  As the two spend more and more time together, Alex’s feelings for Lana are rekindled.  It soon becomes apparent that Eva is the product of Alex and Lana’s relationship – not in the biological sense.  Rather, she is a robot, the creative outcome of their working relationship.  The film reaches a dramatic conclusion when Eva inadvertently causes Lana’s death, and Alex is entrusted with the task of ending Eva’s life – with the poetic command ‘What do you see when you close your eyes?’.

Image

(Image taken from http://sca.as.nyu.edu/object/stocktonmorton_sca_fall09)

The film is of interest to me primarily because of its child protagonist.  As I have previously indicated on this blog, one of my PhD thesis chapters is dedicated to the representation of the child in contemporary Spanish cinema.  I am particular interested in the queer child, a figure that has been theorised by Kathryn Bond Stockton in her excellent book, The Queer Child, Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century.  In this insightful study, Bond Stockton analyses fictional accounts of the ghostly gay child, which she defines as an ‘emblem and icon of children’s queerness’ (p.3), as a means of making visible the previously-neglected queer child.  Bond Stockton’s key claim is that ‘every child is queer’ (p.3), that the child as a general idea is a problem, representative of ‘who we are not and, in fact, never were.  It is the act of adults looking back.  It is a ghostly, unreachable fancy’ (p.5).  She argues that ‘the child from the standpoint of “normal” adults is always queer’, and that ‘despite our culture’s assuming every child’s straightness, the child can only be “not-yet-straight,” since it, too, is not allowed to be sexual’ (p.7).  In my thesis, I utilise Bond Stockton’s concept of the queer child in my analyses of El laberinto del fauno (Guillermo del Toro, 2006) and El espinazo del diablo (Guillermo del Toro, 2001).  Such films are complicated cultural objects.  On the one hand, they have been critiqued for their commercialisation of the past, and their capitalisation of the current trend for nostalgically revisiting the past through film (a trend not limited to Spain).  On the other, their representation of the child, particularly because of the association with death and with a lack of futurity, render them works worthy of further study.  While del Toro’s films specifically engage with the historical import of the Spanish Civil War, there are several other films which fit this framework, some of which evoke a return to the past in general rather than to a particular historical moment: Dictado (Antonio Chavarrías, 2012); Pa negre (Agustí Villaronga, 2010); Hierro (Gabe Ibáñez, 2009); El orfanato (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007); The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) – to name but a few.  Indeed, the roots of the queer child, associated with the past and with death, are traceable to the 1970s, and especially to the films which launched the career of the ultimate Spanish child star, Ana Torrent: Cría cuervos (Carlos Saura, 1976) and El espíritu de la colmena (Víctor Erice, 1973).  My chapter reconsiders these two works, which have typically been analysed in terms of their political content, and repositions them in relation to contemporary Spanish cinema’s investment in the queer child.

Image

(Still from Cría cuervos)

To return to Eva, the child’s queerness is not only bound up with death, but also with her status as a robot.  Bond Stockton considers the robot child through the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001).  For Bond Stockton, the child in this film constitutes ‘the quintessential innocent child […], because he is wired for unconditional, undying love and supreme obedience, which later make him fragile’ (p.34).  While both films reflect on child-parent relations, designating parenthood (whether biological or mechanical) as a creative act, Eva’s robot child deviates from Spielberg’s model.  She is precocious (albeit in an endearing way), labelling Alex a pervert in their first encounter, poking fun at Alex’s house robot Max, and deliberately lying to Alex about the relationship between Lana and David.  Her culpability over Lana’s death by the end of the film places her in direct contrast with the aforementioned innocent child of A.I..  While A.I.’s David (Hayley Joel Osmett) is, as far as Bond Stockton is concerned, queered precisely by his innocence, Eva’s Eva is queered by her attraction towards Alex, and her desire to forge a relationship between him and her mother, Lana.  In this way, she corresponds, in part, to the child queered by Freud, a concept elaborated by Bond Stockton, and defined as follows: ‘the not-yet-straight-child who is, nonetheless, a sexual child with aggressive wishes […] threateningly precocious: sexual and aggressive’ (p.27).  The problem of the queer (robot) child is solved through death, and it is in this way that Eva is linked to her cinematic child predecessors, such as Ofelia in El laberinto del fauno and Santí in El espinazo del diablo.

The trajectory of the child in Spanish cinema is thus marked by death.  While the film Eva is somewhat of an anomaly in contemporary Spanish cinema – I have not yet come across any other robot children in my doctoral research –, what is striking is the commonalities that can be traced between Eva and her fellow child protagonists.  Whether the film in question is a science-fiction film set in the future, or a historical drama set in the past, both are equally concerned with the death of the child and the child’s futurity.  In other words, both are concerned with the queer child, the child queered by death, and by an absent future.