Tag Archives: death

Corpses and Cows: The Representation of Death in A Perfect Day (León de Aranoa, 2015)

Scanning through Netflix the other day, I happened to discover that A Perfect Day, Fernando León de Aranoa’s latest film, is currently available to stream in the UK. His sixth full-length feature film, A Perfect Day is the critically-acclaimed filmmaker’s first foray into English-language filmmaking. The work blends the director’s acute visual style, combining dynamically composed images (for example through the use of mirrors – a technique deployed throughout his filmography) and an impactful soundtrack, with noteworthy performances from a star-studded cast including Tim Robbins and Benecio del Toro. The film garnered a host of critical nominations at the Goya, Feroz and Cinema Writers Circle Awards in Spain, with León de Aranoa picking up the Goya for Best Adapted Screenplay (the film is based on a novel called Dejarse llover by Paula Farias).

Though I watched the film earlier this week, I haven’t had much of a chance to collect my thoughts on it as yet. But there were a handful of images and tropes connected to representations of death that caught my attention during my viewing of the film. I wanted to record these ideas here as León de Aranoa is one of the filmmakers I work on in my research and I may well analyse this film further in the future.

Netflix categorises A Perfect Day as a comedy and while the streaming site’s cataloging of films is sometimes questionable, this work does indeed deploy León de Aranoa’s now trademark acerbic sense of humour alongside the more dramatic and tragic events of its plot. The action takes place in 1995 during the Balkan conflict and revolves around a group of aid workers attempting to resolve a complex situation within a conflict zone. The problem? A corpse submerged within a well, contaminating the region’s water supply. The film focuses on their attempts to remove the corpse from the well, having to negotiate with both locals and intervening military and peacekeeping factions.

Figure 1: The Silhouetted Corpse

Figure 2: From the Perspective of the Corpse

The corpse is a recurring motif throughout the film. Given that the plot centres on this troublesome dead body, it is perhaps unsurprising that it figures centrally within the cinematography. While the corpse itself is not shown explicitly instead silhouetted and framed from below (Figure 1), the camera frequently adopts the perspective of the corpse. These point-of-view shots form an important visual component of the film’s aesthetics. Indeed such an image adorns the promotional poster for the film (Figure 2).  To adopt the perspective of the corpse is to position death and the subjectivity of the dead at the core of the film in aesthetic terms without sensationalising the image of the dead body.

Figure 3: Cow = Carcass or Corpse?

The corpse in the well that appears in the opening sequence is the first of many dead bodies that feature throughout the film. The carcasses of cattle appear as road blocks on a few occasions, apparently placed in the road in order to divert traffic towards landmines buried by the roadside (Figure 3). Whether these constitute “corpses” or not is a dilemma diegetically addressed by the volunteers, sparking a subtextual debate about the line between humans and animals as well as suggesting that conflict brings out the savage characteristics of the human race. These carcasses additionally symbolise the political role of death in conflict – that is, an obstacle to be negotiated according to political ends rather than an abhorrent phenomenon eliciting compassion and inciting action.

The most striking scene involving dead bodies concerns the parents of a young local boy who winds up accompanying the volunteers. When the group arrives at his home, they discover that the house has been ransacked and the parents of the boy have been brutally murdered, their bodies still hanging in the internal courtyard of the house. This scene is arguably the most powerful of the film. The bodies remain just out of view of the camera, framed in a similar manner to the corpse stuck in the well. Furthermore, a dark and rocky cover version of the Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams are Made of This” accompanies the scene, echoing the impact this harrowing event has on the young French volunteer. We learn that this act was sparked by the cross cultural relationship between the boy’s parents. This once again reinforces the savage nature of war.

In short, death permeates both the narrative and mise-en-scène of A Perfect Day, reflecting upon the centrality of death in war without sensationalising images of the dead victims. While the film deals with dark subject matter, it balances this with a lighthearted tone that serves to render the topic more palatable. Overall, a film that merits further consideration – which I hope to afford the work in due course.

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



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

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.

Still from El laberinto del fauno
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.

Still from El laberinto del fauno
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.

Still from El laberinto del fauno
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.

Discussing Cinematic Representations of Violence in Hispanic Contexts

This discussion between myself and Niamh Thornton took place through Skype instant messages on Friday 7th February.  Our aim with this conversation was to expand on our previous blog posts.

[09:42:41] Niamh: In your blog I was really interested in the shared use of the media as a motif. In Pacific Rim TV news is used as a form of commentary and economical mode of storytelling. In Bordertown and the Virgin of Juarez the female protagonists are both journalists.

[09:45:12] Fiona Noble: It’s really striking that this is a feature shared by the films we are both working on – and I don’t think that this is exclusive to these films.

[09:45:43] Niamh: Do you think that it’s about telling stories about disenfranchised others in the films you are writing about?

[09:46:14] Fiona Noble: I can think of other examples in the Spanish context which include media reporting/representation as a visual motif – Las cartas de Alou springs immediately to mind but there are many others.

[09:47:29] Fiona Noble: Yes, I think on the one hand there is as you say the need to tell the other’s story.

[09:47:38] Niamh: In films and literature about Juarez it is a repeated trope. Frequently, they are journalists from outside (US, Spain, UK…).

[09:48:23] Fiona Noble: So, it is the external other who tells the story, who has the voice?

[09:48:54] Niamh: Yes, and the power to go above the local strictures.

[09:49:42] Fiona Noble: I think this provides a point of contrast then between the films/contexts we are working with – it is usually the Spanish characters who are journalists in the films I’m working on.

[09:49:58] Niamh: There is an important Mexican female journalist character (likely based on a real individual) in Bordertown who provides valuable information. But, the film is still focused on an Other as victim.

[09:50:43] Fiona Noble: Ilegal is the perfect example of this – protagonists Luis and Sofia are a journalist and private inspector, respectively.  The plot places them in a position similar to that of an illegal immigrant, and so seems to expect us to empathise.

[09:51:28] Niamh: Is the assumption that we wouldn’t empathise if we followed the story of one of migrants?

[09:51:55] Fiona Noble: It seems that way – at least that is how the film has been read by others (i.e. Santiago Fouz Hernandez).

[09:52:36] Niamh: There are films that do take that position, though. Is that not the case?

[09:52:57] Fiona Noble: A more empathetic/sympathetic portrait of immigrant experience, you mean?

[09:53:12] Niamh: A more subjective one

[09:53:32] Fiona Noble: Yes, I think that’s what I was trying to map out in my original post.

[09:54:03] Fiona Noble: Ilegal is now ten years old – the more recent Retorno a Hansala seems to gesture towards a more subjective representation of immigrant experience.

[09:54:35] Niamh: Do you think that this trope of outsider experiencing/witnessing these events is successful?

[09:55:01] Fiona Noble: I think it can be.

[09:55:24] Fiona Noble: In the Spanish case, most films about immigrants/immigration are not made by those who have direct experience of this phenomenon (Santiago Zannou is the only director I know of who is a second-generation Spaniard, whose parents were African immigrants). So, I think to have this outsider framework can show a certain degree of respect for the distance between director/production team and topic.

[09:56:39] Niamh: Necessarily?

[09:56:54] Fiona Noble: That said, I think it can also be an extremely risky strategy – as in Ilegal where the immigrants are mere secondary characters, barely glimpsed in the background, while the Spanish protagonists take centre stage. What are your thoughts on this?  How does it play out in the films you are working on?

[10:01:45] Niamh: I agree. That is often the case with Juarez. In the films on Juarez the victims are often multiply marked as others: working class, indigenous, country girls vs urban, cosmopolitan, middle class journalists. Also, the victims are to be read as “good” victims i.e. religious (sometimes to the point of superstition), virginal and innocent. They have none of the messiness of “bad” behaviour of real life. How does that play in terms of the immigrants you consider?

[10:06:32] Fiona Noble: It varies.  In Ilegal we are offered next to no information about the immigrants who are the victims of persecution/ill treatment/death. They are illegal immigrants who are smuggled into the country. This is all we know. Retorno takes a slightly different approach: it begins with an unidentified illegal immigrant drowning. The film then follows legal Moroccan immigrant Leila and her attempt to come to terms with the death of her brother Rachid while attempting to make the crossing to Spain from Morocco.

[10:08:51] Niamh: In both films about Juarez the women survive being left for dead and arise from the grave in ways that are reminiscent of horror films.

[10:09:59] Fiona Noble: And, is it indicated that their “good” characters has something to do with their survival?  Is this a sort of triumph over evil?

[10:11:26] Niamh: It does appear to be. They are deserving of re-birth/second chance. But, their “goodness” and naïveté means that they must be protected by these stronger US women.

[10:12:13] Fiona Noble: So, we’re back into the hegemonic conceptualisations of self/other that we spoke about before.

[10:12:30] Niamh: Yes, no doubt. I suppose, now the question arises whether we are comparing like with like? Is there something unique about the migrant story and its tropes and can we talk about violence and its ethics alongside films about other themes? That being said, the border looms large in the Juarez film and there is some crossing of it by the privileged journalist and the victims. This might take us back to thinking about violence and how we write about its representation on screen. Can we have common strategies when writing about violence?

[10:16:08] Fiona Noble: I think this is an excellent point – one of the things I’ve been thinking about in response to our dialogue has been about the cultural specificity of violence. In your post you talked about having to make ‘multidisciplinary borrowings’, and, I wonder, to what extent we can compare the films/contexts we are working on?

[10:18:33] Niamh: Considerably, it would seem. But, also, it’s necessary to return to context and specifics.

[10:19:43] Fiona Noble: It certainly seems that our films share a similar visual grammar.

[10:20:39] Niamh: Yes. It can be useful to have tools from other contexts to use. Do you think that Spanish filmmakers pay much attention to the Mexican-US border narrative?

[10:21:33] Fiona Noble: That’s a really interesting point.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any specific examples where other border discourses come into play in Spanish films about immigrants/immigration.

[10:22:18] Niamh: I suppose it’s difficult to tell unless a filmmaker expressly lays claims to influences.

[10:22:41] Fiona Noble: I guess.  The example that springs to mind is Inarritu’s Biutiful.

[10:23:15] Fiona Noble: This film does situate contemporary immigration in Spain within a wider, global context. Although the link to Mexico is more historical than current – indexing Republican exile to Mexico in Spanish Civil War through Uxbal’s father.

[10:24:25] Niamh: Yes. There is that film which has 3 stories: one in Mexico-US, the other in Cuba and the third in Morocco. I can’t remember the name.

[10:24:39] Fiona Noble: Babel?

[10:25:27] Niamh: No. But that is an interesting example of the wider context and linked global experiences

[10:26:05] Fiona Noble: I’m not sure of the one you mean.

[10:26:28] Fiona Noble: But, it sounds like it would be an interesting one for both of us.

[10:27:29] Niamh: Just found it online, Al otro lado. Yes, because one of the stories is about a child going from Morocco to Spain. All of the migrants are young children and therefore necessarily sympathetic.

[10:28:05] Fiona Noble: Title sounds familiar – will check it out. I wonder if there’s a distinction to be made when events are based largely/primarily on fictional narratives (Pacific Rim) and when they are based on real events (such as the Juarez films).  How does the treatment of violence differ in these contexts? You did talk about this in your post, but I wondered if we should elaborate on this.

[10:29:16] Niamh: It’s interesting because the distinction is about intention, but not necessarily about visual grammar. For example, Pacific Rim is very deliberately about spectacle in a way that would be tasteless if it were about a real event.

The violence inflicted on the women in Bordertown, for example, is ridiculous, because it seems that the director fails in making it convincing although his intention is to be sensitive. In the key attempted murder scene the woman is being strangled by a man who is raping her. He has his face contorted in ways that are exaggeratedly grotesque, while her face is acting “real” anguish. The problem is that a woman’s body on screen is always already objectified, so in an attempt to avoid this we are shown the violence either in long shot or the camera lingers on her pained and tearful face, and his grotesque expression, but the contrast between their performative styles in this one is jarring. Consequently, for me, it is unsuccessful.

[10:36:07] Fiona Noble: Which brings us back to the points you made at the beginning of your original post – about the difficulty of representing/writing about onscreen violence. That is, in spite of its prevalence.

[10:37:27] Niamh: Yes. Do we have new conclusions from today’s discussion, I wonder?

[10:37:45] Fiona Noble: Or more questions?

[10:38:15] Fiona Noble: I think we have ascertained that the films we are working on, in spite of their distinct production contexts/subject matters, share a certain visual grammar.

[10:38:18] Niamh: Which can be more productive in ways…

[10:38:28] Fiona Noble: Absolutely.

[10:38:57] Niamh: This is true. Also, we are still convinced that multiple tools are required to analyse these. Context can never be forgotten, but should not limit comparisons.

[10:39:41] Fiona Noble: I agree. And, we’ve also talked about the relationship between subjectivity and mass media across the distinct contexts, and the various possibilities/problems that this framework offers.

[10:40:39] Niamh: All worthwhile. It’s been good chatting about this. I certainly find it useful to know the commonalities and differences.

[10:42:51] Fiona Noble: I completely agree. Much definitely remains to be said not only about the complexities of representing violence onscreen, but also about scholarly approaches to the topic. The fodder of future blog posts and Twitter exchanges, I’m sure.

The Death of the Immigrant in Spanish Cinema

As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, one of the chapters of my PhD thesis considers the representation of the immigrant in contemporary Spanish cinema, with particular emphasis on the theme of death.  The prevalence of death in Spanish films that take immigration as their focus of course represents a particular reality: specifically the very real threat of death faced daily by immigrants, whether in transit, due to poor living and working conditions, or because of xenophobic violence.  In the context of Spanish cinema, these issues have been diversely represented in films such as 14 Kilómetros/14 Kilometres (Gerardo Olivares, 2007), Malas temporadas/Hard Times (Manuel Martín Cuenca, 2005), Las cartas de Alou/Alou’s Letters (Montxo Armendáriz, 1990), Bwana (Imanol Uribe, 1996), Taxi (Carlos Saura, 1995), and Salvajes/Savages (Carlos Molinero, 2001).  Beyond this significance, my investigation of the intersection of immigration and death in contemporary Spanish cinema is conceptually motivated, addressing both the aesthetics and ethics of the cinematic representation of the death of the immigrant other.  In this post, inspired by Niamh Thornton’s recent meditation on the ethics of the use of war photography in fiction film, I consider the aesthetic and ethical implications of the representation of the death of the immigrant in two films: Ilegal/Illegal (Ignacio Vilar, 2003) and Retorno a Hansala/Return to Hansala (Chus Gutiérrez, 2008).

At the crux of this constellation of ideas – immigration, death, and cinema – is the notion of visibility, of making visible.  As phenomena that prove problematic at the level of rendering visible, how are immigration and death represented by cinema, a predominantly visual medium?  How do immigration and death intersect on screen?  How are they made (in)visible?  Recent theoretical interventions related to this topic include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of a ‘subjectivity of the dying’ (Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity 173), and Emma Wilson’s exploration of art and culture as a space for the exploration of death and its meanings (Love, Mortality and the Moving Image).  A gap remains, however, in terms of the specificities of these issues in the context of immigration and race.  This post is a mere starting point for thinking about these questions.

The metafilmic credit sequence of Ilegal immediately underscores the question of the visibility of the immigrant and of death.  A black and white image depicts ocean waves washing over various items of clothing, soaked through and strewn haphazardly on the sand, abandoned on an unidentified shoreline.  In a metacinematic gesture, the image is presented as though seen through the lens of a video camera, encased by a circular black frame and edged with textual indicators, such as a battery meter, a flashing red recording light, and the date.  The camera continues recording, encountering an abandoned boat, flooded with seawater and filled with more discarded items, an eerie intimation that something tragic has occurred.  This reading is supported by the scene’s tense, melodramatic soundtrack.  The film’s opening sequence implies, but does not make visible, the death of the immigrant.


Still taken from Ilegal

The camera through which these images are presented belongs to journalist Luis, the film’s central character.  The focalisation of the image through the journalist’s camera establishes a hierarchical paradigm of looking, in which the Spaniard looks and the immigrant is looked at, that will pervade the film.  This paradigm is intensified by the spectator’s alignment with the film’s journalist protagonist.  The metafilmic opening described above not only encourages the spectator’s identification with the Spaniard rather than with the film’s many migrant characters, but also reinforces the immigrant’s positioning as the object of the gaze.  The fact that the immigrant is only an implied presence in this sequence can be read as a critique of journalistic and mass media representations of immigrants and immigration.  Such representations often disregard the individuals involved, and tend to be more concerned with the totalling of casualties or with creating paranoia around the notion of an uncontrollable flood of immigrants.  In this way, Ilegal’s opening sequence immediately foregrounds the visibility of both immigration and death as a challenge to visual media such as film.

In spite of this stimulating credit sequence that draws attention to the aesthetics and ethics of the representation of the death in the context of immigration, Ilegal is at risk of repeating and perpetuating this approach, given its narrative and visual focus on the plight of its two Spanish protagonists, Luis and Sofia.  As Santiago Fouz Hernández and Alfredo Martínez Expósito point out, Luis in particular ‘has no qualms about obtaining and then exploiting images of migrants against their will’ (Live Flesh: The Male Body in Contemporary Spanish Cinema 171).  His dubious motives thus call into question the seemingly cautious, evocative and ethically-driven credit sequence described above.  The film becomes even more problematic at its conclusion, when Luis decides that the images he has captured have provoked too many deaths; because of this, he launches the tapes into the sea.  A tracking shot of the tapes floating in the water before they land on the seabed provides the background image of the film’s closing credits.  Like its opening sequence, Ilegal’s final images replace the immigrant with a visual remainder of his/her existence, erasing not only the body of the immigrant, but also the visual traces of that body.  In sum, the aesthetics and ethics of Ilegal’s representation of the death of the immigrant opens up, even if the film ultimately falls short of addressing, pertinent questions concerning the visibility and visibilisation of this phenomenon.

Like Ilegal, the opening sequence of Retorno a Hansala immediately addresses the visual representation of the death of the immigrant.  The sequence depicts the death of an anonymous, unidentified immigrant, who drowns while in sight of the Spanish coastline.  Accompanied by the choking sounds of the individual in question, the camera takes on the perspective of the drowning immigrant, dramatically circling above and below the water, and eventually becoming submerged below the water level.  The sequence ends with images of the seabed, the ripples of the water dabbled with sunlight.  The film’s title appears in white text, superimposed over this image of the seabed.  The text dissolves, and the image fades to black.



Still taken from Retorno a Hansala

By aligning the camera with the perspective of the dying immigrant, and in so doing opening up a space for the articulation of a ‘subjectivity of the dying’ (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Touching Feeling 173), Retorno a Hansala undermines the aforementioned paradigm of looking established in Ilegal, whereby the immigrant is always situated as the object of the gaze.  The visual prioritisation of the dying immigrant’s point of view prefigures the film’s narrative focus on Leila (Farah Hamed), a Moroccan immigrant who has been living in Spain for five years.  As the title suggests, the film tracks Leila’s return journey to her home town of Hansala, the purpose of which is the repatriation of her younger brother’s body.  Unlike Leila, Rachid was unsuccessful in his attempt to make the crossing from North Africa to Southern Spain.  In comparison with Ilegal, Retorno a Hansala thus approaches a more ethical account of immigrant experience, and particularly of the representation of the death of the immigrant.  That said, the problem of visibility remains insofar as the identity of the dying immigrant remains undisclosed, although it would not be too much of a stretch to surmise that this opening sequence adopts the perspective of Leila’s brother Rachid, whose lifeless body washes ashore in the sequence immediately following the credits.

The closing credits of Retorno a Hansala, which are rendered in white text on a black background, and accompanied by the sound of waves crashing ashore, distance the film from journalistic and mass media representations concerning immigration.  The credits appear on the left-hand side of the frame, while a series of over-exposed photographs, presumably of immigrants although the contents are difficult to establish, fade in and out one by one.  An avalanche of words and numbers follow these images, reminiscent of the vocabulary used in journalistic reporting regarding immigration, and of the incessant tallying of immigrants, whether in terms of the number of foreigners living in the country, or in terms of the number who die trying to make the crossing (examples include: ‘a bordo de una patera’ (‘on board a raft’); ‘83 “sin papeles”’ (83 undocumented’); and ‘Trece inmigrantes ahogados’ (‘Thirteen immigrants drowned’)).  In this way, the end credits of Retorno bleakly parody media discourse on immigration.  In so doing, they indicate a critical self-awareness of the problem of visibility, in terms of both immigration and death, contained within the opening sequence.

As I said above, this post – which has been written in dialogue with this post by Niamh – is merely a starting point for thinking through extremely complex questions concerning the ethics and aesthetics of onscreen violence and death.  In an attempt to continue this thought-provoking and necessary discussion, Niamh and I will follow this post with a conversation about the commonalities and distinctions between the distinct films and contexts we are both working on.  In the meantime, any questions, comments, or thoughts are very welcome.


Fouz-Hernandez, Santiago, and Alfredo Martinez-Exposito. Live Flesh: The Male Body in Contemporary Spanish Cinema. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, N.C.; London: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.

Wilson, Emma., Love, Mortality and the Moving Image. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

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 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 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.


(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.

Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part Two

Back in October, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One’.  I expected to return to the topic in my subsequent post; however, that was not the case.  Finally, I revisit this theme – a mere three months later!  I have no idea as to where the time has gone.  But I do think that the PhD path never turns out quite as one may expect.  And no matter how well or how much you plan things, there are always interruptions, distractions, and unexpected twists in the road that end up leading you down a different route.  The last few months have seen me alter my working methods dramatically (see my previous post ‘On Working Methods’), and this has entailed a shift in focus.  Throughout my PhD, I’ve tended to work on one particular topic/chapter at a time, concentrating on the reading, watching, and thinking associated with that aspect of the thesis before moving on to the next section.  In the last few months, I’ve begun to move between and across the three chapters as I tie up the loose ends of research I have to complete for each chapter.  This is at once a deliberate move to keep my interest alive, as well as part and parcel of approaching the final stages of the project.  The reason I return to my work on cinema and death now is because I have to submit words shortly to one of my supervisors, and so I’ve chosen to rework that particular section of my thesis.

In my last post on cinema and death, I offered a very broad overview of the history of death in theoretical meditations on the medium of photography and cinema, summarising the stances of Walter Benjamin, André Bazin, and Roland Barthes.  I then briefly described the conceptualisation of early cinema as both a storage vessel that protected against death, and as a medium that had the ability to capture the moment of death; this line of argumentation has been extensively explored by film scholar Mary Ann Doane, in her book The Emergence of Cinematic Time.  In this post, I reflect on the status of cinema as a spectral medium, utilising Jacques Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as a framework.  This is still something I’m working through in my thesis so I appreciate any comments, feedback, ideas, and suggestions.

My research on the significance of death in the context of film theory has revealed an interesting trend.  From a chronological perspective, there are two key moments in which death emerges as a theoretical concern: the first is in the late 1970s, evidenced by Barthes and Susan Sontag; and the second is at the turn of the millennium, exemplified by the work of Doane, but also D. N. Rodowick and Laura Mulvey.  Of these two moments, the latter is of the most importance for me, given that the films I analyse in my chapter on the immigrant – of which this section on cinema and death is a part – were all produced in the last ten to fifteen years.  Death thus emerges as a theoretical concern in connection with technological change: the late 1970s brought the shift to video and the inauguration of a new generation of special effects, while the 2000s bore witness to the widespread employment of digital filmmaking.  In each case, these changes specifically concern the materiality of the medium, a topic which is further emphasised by contemporary digital culture and its increasing immateriality.

The question of (im)materiality in relation to cinema invites, for me at least, a reading through the lens of spectrality.  I’ve already detailed my struggles with Jacques Derrida (read my post entitled ‘Digesting Derrida’ here).  However, in reworking my ideas on cinema and death, I’ve begun to see his usefulness in terms of cinema, spectrality, and the immigrant.  To summarise, the concepts of spectrality and hauntology constitute the framework of Derrida’s seminal text Spectres of Marx[1].  In the book’s preface, Derrida outlines four key aspects of his analysis: presence, justice and the other, and time.  With regards presence, Derrida details the curious status of the spectre that is at once both present and absent.  In this way, the spectre defies the framework of ontology, and exposes its limitations.  Because of this problematic, Derrida coins the term ‘hauntology’ as a means of discussing the extraordinary existence of the spectre.  The spectre’s paradoxical state of being chimes with the medium of film – if we reach back beyond the digital culture of our contemporary age – insofar as what it produced were not actual, material bodies, but were rather, images, projections, shadows of human figures on screen.  The shift from film to digital does not, however, alter the medium’s spectral quality.  If anything, it increases the spectrality of the cinematic image, given that images are no longer dependent on an indexical trace, but rather can be created digitally from a string of numbers.  Further enhancing the spectral aspect of the cinematic image is its potential for repetition and reiteration.  The distribution, circulation, and screening of films are even more widespread nowadays due to the global networks within which films are produced.  To relate it to the films I analyse, the immigrant character may die but he or she is immortalised through the film image, and can be brought back to life through rescreening the film.  In this way, the cinematic medium underscores Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as ‘A question of repetition: a specter [sic] is always a revenant.  One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back’ (Spectres of Marx, p.11).

Returning to Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre, and to the themes of justice and the other, he remarks that his meditation on ‘ghosts, inheritance, and generations of ghosts’ is in other words a means of speaking about ‘certain others who are not present, nor presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us’ and that this is conducted ‘in the name of justice’ (Spectres of Marx, xviii).  The idea of the spectre who returns because of unfinished business has become a common trope in popular culture – examples include The Others, El Orfanato, or The Sixth Sense.  However, Derrida’s linking of justice and the other is of particular significance for my work on the immigrant, given that the majority films I consider are by Spanish, rather than migrant, filmmakers.  They thus do not just speak of the immigrant, but inevitably speak for the immigrant.  I am still thinking through what this means in the context of cinema as medium.  Does the alignment of immigrant with spectre in contemporary Spanish immigration cinema evidence a call for justice?  Does this line of argumentation risk falling into the trap, so beautifully outlined by Sara Ahmed in her book Strange Encounters, of universalisation and/or romanticisation of the immigrant other?

Finally, Derrida’s text centres on the question of time, circling around the idea, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of the time being ‘out of joint’.  For Derrida, the spectre’s relationship to time is epitomised by this idea: ‘Furtive and untimely, the apparition of the specter [sic] does not belong to that time, it does not give time’ (Spectres of Marx, xix).  Again, I’m still thinking through the significance of this both for the immigrant, and for the medium of cinema.  However, I have noticed that this idea is indeed dealt with in one of the films I work on: Biutiful.  The film begins and ends with an encounter between protagonist Uxbal and his dead father, who fled Franco’s Spain and went into exile in Mexico only to die two weeks later of pneumonia.  In this encounter between father and son the time is most certainly out of joint, given that the father is in his twenties and the son in his fifties.  In addition, it is spectral, insofar as both characters are dead.

To conclude, and as I said above, I’m very much still working through these ideas concerning the link between cinema and death, and in terms of cinema as a spectral medium.  Derrida’s conceptualisations of spectrality and hauntology should prove useful as a means of interpreting this link with respect to the representation of death in Spanish immigration films.  Any comments, questions, feedback welcome!

[1] DERRIDA, J., 2006. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. New York; Oxon: Routledge Classics.

Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One

Over the past few weeks, my PhD research has been focused on the convergence of cinema and death in Spanish immigration films. At the level of narrative, death is a prominent theme in my corpus of films – which includes Biutiful, Amador, Retorno a Hansala, and Ilegal. However, the significance of death extends beyond narrative, given its prominence in theoretical explorations of cinema, and of visual technologies more generally. Indeed, the spectre of death that haunts cinema does not originate with the medium of cinema, but rather is inherited from cinema’s representational predecessors, in particular photography.

Theoretical explorations of death and photography begin with three B’s: Benjamin, Bazin, and Barthes. In 1939, Walter Benjamin remarked, in his essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, that ‘The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock’. In the mid-twentieth century, in his essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image, André Bazin posited photography and cinema as the latest incarnations of the plastic arts, whose aim is to embalm the dead. And in the 1970s, Roland Barthes conducted a slightly bizarre personal reading of the intersection of photography and death in his book Camera Lucida, firstly through his search for the essence of his dead mother, and secondly through the presence of death within the photographic structure, given that each image contains the potential for ‘the return of the dead’. While Bazin views photographic technologies as a means of preservation against death, Benjamin and Barthes tend towards the photographic image as a prediction of death-to-come.

Like photography, the medium of cinema has been haunted by death since its inception in the late nineteenth century. Early cinema is imbricated with death in two ways: firstly, initial reactions to film are characterised by the Bazinian view of this new technology as a medium capable of combating mortality due to its ability to preserve the image of those no longer present; and secondly, early cinema witnessed the emergence of death as subject matter in the subgenre of the execution film, examples of which are here and here. For more on this, see Mary Ann Doane‘s The Emergence of Cinematic Time.

My interest lies in cinema’s conceptualisation as a spectral medium, an idea which has gained further currency in the last decade with the transition to digital, and which has been explored in detail by D. N. Rodowick in his book The Virtual Life of Film. In my next post, I’ll write more about the connection between cinema and spectrality, and how it relates to my chapter.