Girls on film

The Cinema of Childhood, a touring festival, spurs Davina Quinlivan to reflect on screen representations of bodies in flux

July 3, 2014

The Cinema of Childhood
BFI Southbank, Edinburgh’s Filmhouse and selected cinemas across the UK

In Djibril Diop Mambéty’s The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999), we watch Sili Lam, a 12-year-old girl on crutches, negotiate the ochre-tinted dust tracks of Senegal, determined to take on the male-dominated world of newspaper vendors. In one scene, dressed in a flimsy white dress, she argues with a policeman, glaring at him while resting on her crutches, insistent and wide-eyed. Most striking of all is her refusal to play the role of the victim; in every scene, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Carrying her trade on her head, Sili (Lissa Baléra) wears her copies of Le Soleil like a badge of honour, the thing she has won the right to make a living from and, in so doing, she becomes a revolutionary of sorts. Her refusal to conform, rejecting the rule that denies women the right to sell newspapers, is a protest against the patriarchal order of her home town. For this, she ranks among cinema’s greatest heroines.

Authentic representations of girlhood are a rarity; often we find ambivalent portrayals of girls, their young bodies aligned with Lolita-esque narratives

Mambéty’s film is one of 12 currently available to rent on the new BFI Player, a video-on-demand platform, as part of the British Film Institute’s collaboration with Mark Cousins, The Cinema of Childhood, that grew out of his recent documentary, A Story of Children and Film. Seventeen films from 12 countries and seven decades will also tour the country until the end of the year. But although Cousins’ film makes some fascinating points in exploring the nature of childhood through cinema, it rarely considers the role of gender, its formation and the limits we impose upon children as a consequence of their gendered identity. I want to address this missing aspect and to focus here on a number of notable films such as Mambéty’s that offer richly observed images of young girls and often their transition into adolescence.

Set in Francoist Spain, Victor Erice’s seminal film, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), tells the story of a little girl, Ana, whose world is irrevocably altered when she meets a fugitive solider. Ana’s obsession with James Whale’s horror film Frankenstein (1931) beautifully evokes the naivety of childhood when she refuses to accept the murder of its “monster”, by whom she is fascinated. This innocent perspective also shapes her discovery of the soldier, caring for him while he hides in a sheepfold. Unaware of the threat he poses to her, Ana’s experience of the soldier is dangerously enmeshed in her memory of Whale’s film and his “monster”.

Her inner life is delicately composed and fleshed out; the film is filled with oneiric, heady images of the farm she lives on, its dusty yellow landscape serving as a potent backdrop to the light-filled daydreams she finds herself lost within. On the soundtrack, we hear her father’s beehives rumble and vibrate like the electricity used to power Frankenstein’s being, the kinetic force of the film spilling over into her life. Above all, the close-ups of Ana’s open features enable us to connect intimately with her, willing her dreams to live on just a little longer before they are inevitably tainted by the savage reality of war. Erice’s film says something not only about the imaginative powers of children, but also foregrounds their nurturing qualities as we witness Ana’s immediate desire to feed and protect the soldier.

While Erice’s film permits viewers to see the world through the eyes of a young girl, the subject of female adolescence and its bodily implications is vividly articulated in expressly cinematic terms in Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s film Innocence (2004). This is loosely based on the Frank Wedekind novella Mine-Haha: Or, on The Bodily Education of Young Girls (1903), and girlhood is rendered in opaque terms, explored through abstract figurations and macabre gestures, complicating our perception of female identity.

We follow a young girl as she enters a strange boarding school, arriving in a coffin. There are frequent allusions to the cycle of the natural world, especially butterflies (suggestive of puberty), and we watch the girls at play, dancing, sitting on swings, all filmed in a way that gets under the skin of the viewer, compelling us to relate to the very feeling of growing and becoming, sensing the world through the eyes of the “innocent”. Hadžihalilovic fills her film with lingering close-ups of her subjects, their hands and legs, bodies holding dance positions or feet scurrying through the woods. Bizarre, unsettling and immersive, Innocence is all about feeling both the awkwardness and the strangeness of female adolescence.

Similarly sensuous is Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), whose story of female pleasure is widely regarded as a triumph in feminist film-making. However, much less is written about the vital role of the protagonist’s daughter. Set in New Zealand, the film opens with the arrival of Ada, a mute piano player, and her daughter Flora, after an arranged marriage. Escaping her husband’s oppressive behaviour, Ada embarks upon an affair – and, gradually, her sensual world unfolds, her sense of selfhood is restored. Flora is central to the story because she is not only her mother’s interpreter, her voice, but also her fierce defender. Through this role, she becomes Ada’s conscience and takes on a dual identity.

Flora’s dark bonnet and black dress underscore the severity of her situation as an outsider in New Zealand and the conduit of her mother’s intentions (which she sometimes embellishes further). She is also filmed frequently alongside Ada, with Campion’s rendering of mother and child emphasising their shared features and expressions. Petulant, bloody-minded, loving and attention-seeking, Flora is not a peripheral character, but the symbolic soul of the film.

All these films align female identity with an embodied view of the world, bodies in flux and moving towards womanhood. Yet these more authentic representations of girlhood remain a rarity, particularly within mainstream cinema. Far more often we find ambivalent portrayals of girls on screen, their young bodies aligned with Lolita-esque narratives rather than anything more positive. Despite their sassiness and self-possession, even the characters portrayed by Jodie Foster in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s Leon (1994) are victims of exploitation and crime: little Lolitas entangled in friendships with violent men. Highly successful horror films such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) owe much to their portrayal of female adolescence as a self-destructive force, tapping into cultural anxieties about menstruation and the life-giving power of women’s bodies.

Unless demonised in the horror genre, the female child tends to be angelic, her threat neutralised through sweet images of loveliness and endearment, as seen in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or the two-dimensional young orphan, Newt, in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), Ripley’s surrogate daughter. Girlhood, we might say, remains a largely enigmatic narrative subject in the cinema. Yet the films I have explored here suggest just how much is lost when little girls are reduced to aliens, demons and villains.

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