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).
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.
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.
Figure 4: Trapped by a Traumatic Childhood (The Devil’s Backbone)
Figure 5: The Adolescent as Child (The Virgin Suicides)
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).
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.
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:
Framing Childhood (A Story of Children and Film / Little Miss Sunshine)
Boundaries and Borders (The Virgin Suicides / Waterlilies)
Childhood as Transition (The Spirit of the Beehive / Raise Ravens)
Transnational Childhood (The Devil’s Backbone / Pan’s Labyrinth)
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.
My main research project at present is the production of a monograph entitled Subversive Spanish Cinema: The Politics of Performance. The book takes inspiration from one of the chapters of my PhD thesis, but significantly reworks this material alongside new research.Inspired by a recent post by Ellie Mackin, I have decided to share the book proposal I submitted to I. B. Tauris last year to give an overview of the project and in the case that it should be useful for others currently working on a book proposal. I was offered a book contract and I am currently preparing the manuscript for submission in April 2018.
One of my recent projects has been the production of an article on the 2014 box-office smash Ocho apellidos vascos (Figure 1). The article is to be included in a special journal issue on the film. The title of my piece is ‘”marriage itself as theater”: The Performative Politics of Marriage in Ocho apellidos vascos. My contribution focuses on the pivotal role of marriage in the film specifically in terms of its interlocking with performance and performativity. I propose that within the film marriage functions as a form of utopian unificatory politics that works at both personal and political levels.
I completed the article in the summer of 2016 and have recently been asked to make some changes following peer review. As a result, I’ve rewatched and been thinking and reading about the film again. I thought I’d write a post to facilitate some of the ideas I’ve had as a consequence of the extremely thought-provoking questions raised by the reviewers. I’m aware that this a rather messy and untidy piece and what the writing of it has revealed is that I still need to spend some more time mulling over what I think about this film.
In the original version of the article, my argument followed two main strands: the first concerned the performativity of the marriage ceremony and of regional identity in the film while the second linked this to what I termed utopian unificatory politics. By this I mean that the film proposes marriage as a tool for the union of the distinct autonomous regions – specifically Andalusia and the Basque Country – in Spain. One of the reviewers’ suggestions is that I link these two strands more cohesively and consider the extent to which the paradigm of performativity and the utopian unificatory politics are connected in film.
My article details how marriage in Ocho apellidos vascos is a romantic ideal that, while sustained as the primary objective throughout the film, is ultimately unattainable and perhaps even unnecessary. The plot of the film, and indeed that of its sequel Ocho apellidos catalanes, hinge upon the prospective nuptials of protagonist Amaia (Figure 2). We quickly learn that Amaia has been ditched by her Basque fiancé Antxon. Reluctant to reveal the truth to her estranged father Koldo, Amaia persuades sevillano one-night-stand Rafa, whom she meets on her no-longer-required hen do, to pose as Antxon. Though the couple do reach the altar, Rafa is ultimately unable to go through with the marriage. In spite of this, the film concludes (spoiler alert!) with Amaia travelling to Seville to declare her love for Rafa. This ending thus sustains the heteronormative couple, unmarried though reunited, as the desired object.
How does one negotiate this network of ideas surrounding the heteronormative couple then? The film provides an embittered critique of matrimony. Amaia is jilted not once but twice: initially (and outwith the diegetic content of the film), prior to the wedding, by the unseen Antxon and subsequently, at the church altar, by Rafa posing as Antxon. Early on in the film, we witness the protagonist attempting to return her custom-made wedding dress, willing to take a cut-price refund for the item. She later, having been dumped by Rafa, tosses it on the fire in her home, watching the dress disappear into the flickering flames. The wedding dress therefore becomes a symbol of disillusionment with the heteronormative institution of marriage.
Furthermore, there are no examples of happy marriages beyond the central coupling of the film (Figure 3). There is no mention made of Rafa’s parents. Amaia’s parents are separated. She is estranged from her father and has been for six years and her mother, who does not appear in the film, is apparently in a new relationship with a man from Seville. Merche, who poses as Rafa’s mother, is widowed, her Civil Guard husband presumably a casualty of the Basque conflict. The heteronormative institution of marriage, the film appears to suggest, is, if not an unobtainable ideal, then most certainly an outmoded and redundant concept.
With its renunciation of marriage as the ultimate objective of the heterosexual couple, Ocho apellidos vascos conforms to the genre paradigm of the contemporary romantic comedy. While the genre is renowned for its adherence to the narrative pattern that concludes with the happy ending, specifically the union of man and woman (Mortimer 2010: 4), contemporary works have shown a tendency to replace the romantic relationship with friendship (Deleyto 2003: 182). But, like the contemporary romcom, while the film might dismiss marriage as an antiquated idealism, it retains the heteronormative couple as the ultimate objective for its protagonists who are reunited in the concluding sequence, as mentioned above. In this regard then, Ocho apellidos vascos offers no escape from the heteronormative structures and structures that dominate society, politics and culture.
Without wanting to produce a dichotomous or reductive reading, should we interpret this position on marriage positively or negatively? How are we to understand the depiction of the unmarried couple and its function within familial relationships? How might the personal politics, epitomised by the unmarried couple, at the core of this film map onto national politics?
In my original article, I was quite sceptical about the underlying politics of Ocho apellidos vascos. My initial reaction was that the film is proposing the utopian unification of the nation, in which similarities rather than differences are emphasised, by means of a romantic relationship, if not marriage, between two individuals from distinct autonomous regions within Spain. However, having rewatched and thought some more about the film, I’m starting to wonder if the film is amenable to a more nuanced, and perhaps more generous, reading of kinships and affective relations (Figure 4).
The traditional nuclear family, which typically revolves around the mother and father (or, in other words, the heteronormative married couple), is absent in Ocho apellidos vascos. In its place are a series of affiliations forged through choice: Rafa and his friends, who appear to be a substitute for his family; Rafa and his “mother” Merche; even Merche and Amaia’s father Koldo, who will become romantically involved by the end of the film (and whose love will be rekindled in the sequel Ocho apellidos catalanes). With this in mind, to map the politics of the personal onto the national in Ocho apellidos vascos necessitates a nuanced interpretation of the relationship between the family and the nation. What I’m starting to realise, especially in the writing of this post, is that this relationship, and the associated political stance of the film, is more complex than I initially thought. This is not to suggest, of course, that the film is without issues or flaws but rather that I need to unpack in more detail the undercurrents of personal and national politics at its core.
Last week I watched Tenemos que hablar(We Need to Talk), a 2016 romantic comedy directed by David Serrano whose previous works include Días de fútbol (2003), Días de cine (2007) and Una hora más en Canarias (2010). The film is currently showing on UK Netflix. It stars Michelle Jenner (who I also saw recently in Almodóvar’s latest offering, Julieta) as Núria, a young woman recently engaged to her Argentinian boyfriend Víctor (Ilay Kurelovic). Her forthcoming nuptials mean that she must make contact with her ex-husband Jorge (Hugo Silva) to whom she is still married. A misunderstanding leads Núria to believe that Jorge is suicidal following her declaration that “Tenemos que hablar”. This in turn leads to Núria’s decision not to reveal her recent engagement to Jorge and her fabrication of a false reality whereby she attempts to convince Jorge that all is well in her and her parents’ life in an effort to improve his psychological instability.
I had initially watched Tenemos que hablar in some much-deserved downtime with the expectation that it would provide nothing more than light entertainment. I was by no means expecting the film to inspire an intellectual response. However, it quickly gripped me as being invested in a political commentary informed by the current economic climate, and concurrent related societal phenomena, both within and beyond Spain. The film appeals to me for two main reasons, both of which correspond to my forthcoming monograph on the politics of performance in contemporary Spanish cinema. Indeed, while I have already selected my case studies for the book, I may make reference to this work in the introduction to the text. The reasons for my interest in Tenemos que hablar are: 1) that it explicitly indexes the contemporary economic climate in Spain with specific reference to political involvement in this crisis; and 2) that it deploys performance as a means of dealing with this situation. In this post, I focus on the first of these aspects. I hope to write a follow-up entry on the role of performance in the film but want to rewatch it and spend a bit more time thinking about the significance of this trope. I welcome any thoughts on either of these themes. Feel free to share these with me either through the comments function below or via Twitter (@FionaFNoble).
Seseña: The Future Centre
The film immediately positions itself within the spatio-temporal framework of the current economic crisis gripping contemporary Spain. The scene-setting prologue takes place between the years of 2006 and 2012 with specific reference to the economic crash and its impact on contemporary Spain. The action begins in 2006 with a confident Jorge instructing his future in-laws to invest in a new-build apartment in the neighbourhood of Seseña (Figure 1) – one of Spain’s so-called ghost towns, situated to the south of Madrid. Half-finished towns like Seseña are the result of the 2000s construction boom, a phenomenon about which you can read here. While Jorge’s mother-in-law expresses concerns about the isolated locale of the apartment block, she is reassured that this is an up-and-coming area and will eventually be well-connected – a fact that the audience know not to be the case from the contemporary vantage point of 2016. They make reference to Spain’s financial buoyancy with Jorge self-assuredly asserting that things are only set to improve.
The subsequent scene takes place in 2007 at the wedding of Jorge and Núria as the hapless couple persuade Núria’s parents to invest in a company called Fórum Filatélico – a well-known pyramid scheme that defrauded thousands of investors. This is followed by a scene in 2008 in which Núria’s mother bemoans the fact that they’ve still never found anyone to rent out their flat in Seseña. Jorge advises them to put up their print shop as collateral as well as advising them to rent two units in the infamous Castellón airport – like Seseña, a spectral remnant of earlier economic buoyancy. Built to the tune of 150 million euros, the airport only welcomed its first flights – thanks to budget airline Ryanair – in 2015 despite opening in 2011 with the politician responsible for the project currently behind bars for tax fraud (you can read more about Castellón airport here). When Núria’s parents express concern at the contemporaneous economic climate, namely the crisis in the US, the young couple insist that this will not reach Spain, that Spain has the most solid banking system in Europe.
2012: Jorge’s Final Attempt
The final scene of this opening prologue takes place in 2012 with Jorge asking for what little money his in-laws have remaining for an investment in priority shares that will purportedly allow them to recuperate what they have lost (Figure 2) – a scheme that clearly fails as the opening scene of the film proper depicts Núria and her new partner Víctor as he proposes to her. This prologue thus provides a panorama of the Spanish economy, and its interlacing with politics and society, in recent years. In so doing, it offers a pessimistic survey of contemporary Spanish society.
This sequence sets the scene for the rest of the film which meditates on the hopelessness of individuals such as Jorge, who we subsequently discover is unemployed and flat-sharing with Lucas, the manager for whom he previously worked. Indeed the first post-credits scene featuring this pair reveals that they scrape by financially by letting out their spare room on Air BnB. In spite of its initially disheartening tone, the film does conclude with a triumphant ending in which [*SPOILER ALERT] Jorge successfully wins back his ex-wife’s affection. For Lucas, the fact that am unemployed Spaniard steals the girlfriend of an Argentinian is some victory!
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.