The Abducted Girl in Anti-Roma Imagery

This is the first of two articles on the use of the girl image in anti-Roma racism. Here I will describe the hundreds of years old accusation that Roma steal non-Roma children. In the next one, I will discuss in depth the case of the “blond angel” in 2013, when the presence of a blond little girl in a Roma camp led to the claim by both police and media that she had been abducted from a non-Roma family.

Note: Following European usage, I use the singular noun Rom and the plural noun and adjective Roma to designate people of this ethnicity, while the adjective Romani will designate the corresponding culture and language. There are also ethnic Roma subgroups carrying specific names: Sinti, Kale, Manush, Romanichal, etc. However well-known designations such as “Gypsy” or “Tzigane” / “Gitano” should be avoided, as they usually carry cultural and literary stereotypes.

The Roma people originated from India and migrated into Europe during the Middle Ages. For a long time it was thought that they came from Egypt, as illustrated by the novel Isabel of Egypt, first youth love of emperor Charles V written by the German romantic Achim von Arnim in 1812 (imagining a brief love affair between the Holy German Emperor and the daughter of the leader of the Roma people); indeed the word “Gypsy” comes from “Egyptian.” On the other hand designations such as “Tzigane” or “Gitano” come from the medieval Greek Atsinganos, meaning “untouchable.”

Roma were enslaved in Romania until the middle of the 19th century. In Western Europe, they have been persecuted since the 15th century, first accused of being Turks, or Turkish spies, then of being criminals. Over and over, laws and ordinances were enacted to prevent them from settling down, with various penalties for offenders: deportation, forced labour, flogging, mutilation, execution or their children to be taken away. In 1721, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI ordered the execution of all Roma adults, while children were “to be put in hospitals for education.”

Being always expelled from one place to another led the Roma people to a life of forced nomadism (similarly, during periods of persecution, Jews often moved from one town to another); from that comes the image of Gypsies living in caravans. While Jews were generally emancipated throughout Western Europe during the 19th century, the same did not happen for Roma, who were considered “born criminals.” The persecution culminated in the Nazi genocide that targeted both Jews and Roma for systematic extermination; the number of Roma victims is estimated between half and one and a half million. This genocide has been called Samudaripen (meaning “mass killing”) or Porajmos / Porrajmos / Pharrajimos (meaning “devouring” or “destruction”).

Sinti / Roma children victims of Dr. Mengele in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Sinti / Roma children victims of Dr. Mengele in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Literary depiction of Roma shows two apparently contradicting aspects. On the one hand they are presented as criminals on the dark side of humanity. For instance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire Count is transported by savage Gypsies. On the other hand the word “Gypsy” suggests a free and careless life made of travel but no hard work, with picturesque customs, clothing, singing and dance, as well as alluring and liberated women, such as Esmeralda in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, or Carmen in Prosper Mérimée’s novella and the opera by Georges Bizet derived from it. A similar dual racist stereotype holds for African-Americans, seen both as criminals and as people endowed with a very potent sexuality.

Minorities seen as dangerous are generally presented as posing a threat to children. For instance in medieval Europe, Jews were accused of killing Christian children in order to use their blood in the making of unleavened bread for Passover. Now it has been repeated over and over that Roma abduct non-Roma children. Often the abducted child is a girl, as a symbol of helplessness.

Miguel de Cervantes - La Gitanilla (book covers)

Miguel de Cervantes – La Gitanilla (book covers)

The accusation already appears in La Gitanilla (The Little Gypsy Girl), the first novella contained in the Novelas Ejemplares (The Exemplary Novels), the collection of short stories written by Miguel de Cervantes between 1590 and 1612. La Gitanilla is the story of a 15-year-old gypsy girl named Preciosa, who is said to be talented, extremely beautiful, and wise beyond her years. A Spanish nobleman falls in love with her, and after many peripeties, it is revealed that Preciosa is the daughter of a magistrate, Don Fernando de Acevedo, knight of the order of Calatrava; Preciosa’s Roma grandmother confesses to having kidnapped her as a young child and raised her as her own granddaughter. Notice the link between the qualities of Preciosa (talented, beautiful and wise) and the fact that she has been abducted, hinting that Roma as an inferior race could not have such qualities themselves; also in many book covers, Preciosa is shown having blond hair.

I searched the French illustrated “popular” press of the early 20th century for illustrations of anti-Roma racism. Les Faits-Divers Illustrés was a weekly published between 1905 and 1910, with a peculiar taste for the most horrendous crimes and the worst catastrophes. Part of the collection has been digitized by Gallica, and I downloaded there the following image (also found on Wikimedia Commons):

Les Faits-Divers Illustrés, no. 164 (10 December 1908) - Romanichels voleurs d'enfants : Une mère défend sa fille

Les Faits-Divers Illustrés, no. 164 (10 December 1908) – Romanichels voleurs d’enfants : Une mère défend sa fille

The caption translates as “Gypsies child thieves: a mother defends her daughter.” I have transcribed the corresponding article here. It tells that one morning, as gypsies had left a small town, a mother noticed the disappearance of her 3-year-old daughter.  She alerted people around her, then thought about the departed gypsies. Armed with a pole, she ran after them and saw her daughter at the front of a caravan. She snatched her and fought off the gypsies with the pole. Meanwhile, townspeople who had followed her arrived, accompanied by policemen; the latter had to use their authority to prevent people from lynching the gypsies.

Le Petit Journal was a daily published between 1863 and 1944. Politically, it was republican (in the French sense), conservative and nationalist; in 1937 it became the mouthpiece of a fascist party. Between 1884 and 1937 it published an illustrated weekly supplement. Part of the collection of the weekly supplement has been digitized by Gallica, and the website Cent.ans has an almost complete collection of the front and back covers between 1890 and 1930, often with a transcription of the corresponding articles.

The first image, downloaded from Gallica, can also be found—with different colours and contrast—on Cent.ans and on Wikimedia Commons (where it is credited to the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg). The caption translates as “Child abducted by nomads.” I have transcribed the corresponding article here. Antoinette Mirguet, a 10-year-old girl, was going to school, when she was called from a caravan. As soon as she entered it, the man made the horse start. She screamed, but she was threatened with a knife. Approaching the German border, a brave vine grower heard the girl’s screams, and he warned the nomads that he would split their heads with his spade if they did not release their prisoner. Intimidated, they released her, and her savior could bring her back to her parents.

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 585 (2 February 1902) - Enfant enlevée par des nomades

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 585 (2 February 1902) – Enfant enlevée par des nomades

This second image, also downloaded from Gallica, can be found on Cent.ans with the transcription of the corresponding article. Calling for an “energetic law” against vagrants, it tells how a gang of nomads assaulted a 11-year-old girl who was going back home from school, taking her to a caravan. But she resisted bitterly and screamed desperately, so that the Roma had to abandon her and flee.

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 1082 (13 August 1911) - Fillette enlevée par des bohémiens

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 1082 (13 August 1911) – Fillette enlevée par des bohémiens

This third image comes from Cent.ans. I do not have the corresponding article. The caption, titled “A caravan went by…”, tells that a 9-year-old girl was playing when she was abducted by a Rom, tied up and gagged, then brought into his caravan, which departed. But the child managed to escape.

Le Petit Journal Illustré no. 1675 (28 January 1923) - Une roulotte passa...

Le Petit Journal Illustré no. 1675 (28 January 1923) – Une roulotte passa…

In this collection I also found several images about Roma girls, with a quite different tone. The following one comes from Cent.ans. I do not have the corresponding article. The caption tells that a little Roma girl was going to her parents’ caravan with a basket full of fish. Then wild cats, attracted by the smell, attacked her and disfigured her. Readers will notice that no mention is made about rescuing her.

Le Petit Journal Illustré no. 1656 (17 September 1922) - Attaquée par des chats affamés

Le Petit Journal Illustré no. 1656 (17 September 1922) – Attaquée par des chats affamés

The next image, downloaded from Gallica, illustrates the theme of Roma teenagers being precocious criminals: “A farmer woman attacked by Roma.” The corresponding article (with the image) is found on Cent.ans. It says that two “impudent daughters of Bohemia,” “Roma of pure race,” were begging for food. As the farmer woman said she had no food to give them, they assaulted her. Her screams attracted her husband and a hunter. The two Roma escaped but were afterwards arrested and jailed. They were aged 15 and 17. The article ends by calling on the State to address the “scourge” of people without regular home or employment.

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 782 (12 November 1905) - Une fermière attaquée par des bohémiennes

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 782 (12 November 1905) – Une fermière attaquée par des bohémiennes

There is also an image and an article (in No. 877 dated 8 September 1907) about Roma releasing a bear in a sheep enclosure, together with a longer one about the origin and customs of the Roma people, repeating the usual stereotypes mixing the fascination for their picturesque life with their labeling as “lazy” and “born criminal”.

The child abduction libel against Roma is also found in “children’s songs” or “nursery rhymes,” which were told to children to warn them against approaching Roma. The following one is famous in the English-speaking world:

My Mother Said… (Anonymous “Children’s Song”)

My Mother said, I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood.
If I did, she would say;
‘Naughty girl to disobey!

Your hair shan’t curl and your shoes shan’t shine,
You gypsy girl, you shan’t be mine!’
And my father said that if I did,
He’d rap my head with the teapot lid.

My mother said that I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood.
The wood was dark, the grass was green;
By came Sally with a tambourine.

I went to sea – no ship to get across;
I paid ten shillings for a blind white horse.
I upped on his back and was off in a crack,
Sally tell my mother I shall never come back.

These accusations repeated for centuries rest on nothing. Thomas Acton, Emeritus Professor of Romani Studies, University of Greenwich, clearly stated: “I know of no documented case of Roma / Gypsies / Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere.” In a letter to Dennis Marlock dated August 2nd, 1990 (quoted by Ian Hancock), he wrote:

Compared with the massive record of murder, theft, kidnapping and other crimes by non-Gypsies against Gypsies throughout history, Gypsy crime against non-Gypsies pales almost into insignificance, so that to prioritize the study of the latter over the former shows a twisted sense of values.

To finish, readers who want to learn more about the history of the persecution of Roma in Europe, can watch the Holocaust Living History Workshop video Porrajmos: The Romani and the Holocaust with Ian Hancock, produced by University of California Television.

When Innocence Has No Voice: Munted

A film like this makes me think that there is no such thing as fiction. To make a compelling story, to get the audience to really care about the characters, it is more effective when it is taken from one’s real experiences. Munted (2011) is a remarkable short film produced by Welby Ings and based on an incident that occurred in 1961 in King Country on the North Island, New Zealand. The filmmaker recalls that a man was badly beaten and hounded out of the district without being able to comprehend what he had been accused of. He decided to tell this story showing how innocence can be brutalized whenever sanctioned rumor is pitted against a truth that can’t defend itself.

The word munted is slang meaning both damaged or worthless and drunk. The word obviously applies ironically to the main character but also to most of the other characters, though in a different sense.

The film is narrated by a 10-year-old girl called Katrina (Ella Edward) who lives with her Aunt Kath. This adds a layer of reality as the story is told by a child with its naivete and misconceptions about the adult world.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (1)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (1)

She introduces us to Don (Phil Peleton), an artist who lives in a building near Katrina. He draws sketch after sketch of flowers—a symbol of female innocence and played to great effect in the opening of the film—and sometimes sketches Katrina as well. The two have an emotional attachment and Katrina tells Don she wants to be an artist. The drawings shown in the film’s opening were actually drawn by Ings himself.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (2)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (2)

We get a sense of Don’s backstory from a combination of exposition and narration throughout the film. Apparently, while drunk, he got into an auto accident, killing his wife. He was subsequently unable to save his daughters from drowning because of his own fear of the water. In his art, water is always portrayed as darkness and associated with death. As a result of the crash, he suffered some kind of mental debilitation with both physical and psychological components.

Katrina comments that Don’s drawings are all covered in writing which seems to spoil the images, but it is clearly meant to reflect the artist’s mental state. The integration of text into an artwork is personally significant to the filmmaker who did not learn to read and write until he was fifteen. Therefore, Ings’ childhood memories of written text is as a kind of textural art suggesting labyrinthine forms. The film itself is also covered in text seemingly serving the superfluous function of English subtitles.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (3)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (3)

One day, Katrina’s biological mother, Brooke, appears with a new beau and is intent on taking the girl back. Aunt Kath resists this idea. She was unable to have children herself and her sister seemed incapable of taking care of a child so the arrangement worked out well for a while. It is clear from Brooke’s behavior that her desire to get Katrina is motivated by a selfish desire to restore her respectability as a mother. The two women look for Katrina by going to Don’s place. There, Brooke finds a folder with photographs of little girls.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (4)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (4)

Brooke begins applying pressure by making incessant phone calls to her sister. Finally, she does some digging, perhaps into the newspaper archives, and finds misleading clues to Don’s past. The impression is that Don is a pedophile who murdered two girls. Brooke makes the case that this proves that Don is a dangerous influence.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (5)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (5)

The situation is exacerbated one day when Katrina swims too far out and gets caught in an undertow.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (6)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (6)

In a startling act of heroism, Don overcomes his fear and manages to save the girl. However, when the others arrive on the scene they interpret it as an attempt by Don to harm her.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (7)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (7)

Brooke finally appeals to the egos of her beau and some of the local ruffians suggesting that they should really do something about Don. While in his tub—another drowning reference—the men come by, beat him, murder him and then set his place on fire. The dual purpose of fire here, destroying both the art and the man is an intentional reference to the famous quote: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” (“Where one burns books, one will also finally burn people.”) (Heinrich Heine, Almansor, 1820/21). This outcome is a vivid statement about the nature of the moral panic surrounding pedophilia and sexual abuse.

Throughout the murder scene, the song Farther Along is sung.

Farther Along

Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to wonder
Why it should be thus all day long
While there are others living about us
Never molested though in the wrong

When death has come and taken our loved ones
It leaves our home so lonely and drear
Then do we wonder why others prosper
Living so wicked year after year

Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand it all, by and by

Faithful ’til death, said our loving Master
A few more days to labor and wait
Toils of the road will then seem as nothing
As we sweep through the beautiful gates

Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand it all, by and by

After the funeral, Katrina packs and shares her concluding thoughts:

Things can happen like that, if you’re alone and don’t have any friends to look after you. You’ve got to be really careful. You’ve got to fit in. That’s just the way it is.

Welby Ings - Munted (2011) (8)

Welby Ings – Munted (2011) (8)

Welby Ings is an associate professor of graphic design at Auckland University of Technology, a storyteller and makes short films in his spare time. He is fascinated by how people think and has concluded that the act of creativity is really a form of “disobedient thinking”. He is a captivating public speaker and shares important lessons taken from his own upbringing. Munted won the 2012 Leeds International Film Festival Award in the short film category and was an official selection for several other festivals as well. His first film Boy (2005) was shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2006.

The Devil You Know: The Sugarbowl

Pip wanted to do a piece comparing two short films illustrating different ways children cope with abuse. The first is De Suikerpot (The Sugarbowl, 1997), written and directed by Hilde van Mieghem and the other, a Russian film, will be covered in a future post.

Watching this film, it is clear that van Mieghem (b. 1958) knows her subject matter personally. The film is a blend of a true-to-life account interlaced with artful symbolism resulting in a grim little jewel.

In the beginning of the film, we find little Kristien (Aline Cornelissen) humming while making the morning coffee. One of our first clues to the dynamic about to play out is when she decides whether or not to take a sugar cube for herself and decides, “No, because I am a good girl.” Besides the recurring motif of the good girl, we begin to understand the sugar as symbolic of the girl’s tactic in keeping peace in the household.

The first sign of apprehension is that we hear the dog, Woelfie, in the background barking. Kristien goes out to tell him to stop or he’ll wake up mommy. She goes into the refrigerator to find a leftover steak to shut him up.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (1)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (1)

In the casting process, over 300 girls were auditioned with ten finalists for the director to meet personally. Cornelissen was the first and seemed to understand what van Mieghem wanted exactly. We see our first glimpse of this little actress’ skill when she first enters the bedroom. We can see that there is some kind of tension as she does not have the kind of cheerful expression one would expect.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (2)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (2)

First, we see she has a loving and playful relationship with her father (Dirk Roofthooft) as they horse around a bit before mommy (played by van Mieghem herself) wakes up. The moment she wakes up, she has an accusatory tone. The two go into the kitchen to see that Kristien has made the coffee and there is a moment of joy.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (3)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (3)

She has also made a drawing of “Queen Mommy”. The family have a peculiar custom of calling each other by royal titles: King Daddy, Queen Mommy, Princess, Lady, Your Majesty, etc. However, mommy’s level of control is that of an omniscient. She tells Kristien that she has a pair of special glasses so she can see what she is up to at all times.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (4)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (4)

Suddenly, there is a cut to the boiling kettle and inexplicably mommy explodes, hitting Kristien. Van Mieghem used her own sister as a body double so that the little actress would not be receiving any blows, even make-believe. This time, daddy manages to intervene, sending Kristien to her room.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (5)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (5)

This is a surprising detail since often a man in this kind of relationship is a rather helpless figure. Mommy cries that she cannot take any more of this miserable rat of a child and that Kristien must go. Next, the film cuts to her arrival at a parochial boarding school.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (6)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (6)

It is explained that she will sleep there and Kristien protests that she wants to stay at mommy’s house.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (7)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (7)

This may seem strange since this would be an opportunity for her to escape her abuser, but these relationships are more complex than most people realize. Young children unconsciously assume that all families are pretty much the same until they get older and observe the differences. To Kristien, all women probably have this violent side and men are kind, sometimes playing the knight in shining armor. With mommy at least, there is the idea that she will be loved so long as she can manage to be good—an ethos reinforced by a parallel religious doctrine. And Kristien has a better hope of manipulating someone she is familiar with, not so with the Sisters at the school. When mommy goes in to work out the arrangements, Kristien runs away.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (8)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (8)

Mommy is frantic and disconsolate while looking for her little girl. Kristien comes upon a kind woman (Els Dottermans) and is given a ride home.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (9)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (9)

The woman offers to walk Kristien to the door and is told that mommy will be mad that she was with a stranger and will hit her. Assuring her that she would keep that from happening, Kristien panics and punches the woman in the belly, telling her she cannot always be there to protect her, and runs off.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (10)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (10)

Van Mieghem admits she is a control freak and as such, she stuck strictly to the storyboards, perhaps missing opportunities to make improvements. For example, she did not notice that Dottermans was actually pregnant and could have made much more of it in the story. If this had been more clear in the film, the punch would have made a potent symbol, a way of telling the fetus of the harsh world it will face. In her full-length films to follow, van Mieghem has learned to take advantage of such serendipitous opportunities during shooting.

Kristien does not walk into the house right away but hides until daddy comes home. Then she enters and mommy is overjoyed, lavishing her with affection and promising her special treats.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (11)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (11)

Mommy promises not to send Kristien away any more and daddy goes out to get the promised treats. She begs daddy not to go and he tries to reassure her that he will only be a short while. Meanwhile, mommy has a brainstorm; she will heat up that leftover steak in the refrigerator. I believe this scenario is meant to convey the idea that no matter how much you try to control a situation, the smallest detail will always foil your efforts. Kristien, realizing the danger, tries to cover up the fact that she gave it to Woelfie and tries to surreptitiously dispose of the remains, but she is caught. And the violence begins all over again with daddy unavailable to protect her.

Hilde van Mieghem - De Suikerpot (1997) (12)

Hilde van Mieghem – De Suikerpot (1997) (12)

In the end credits, Kristien is singing the same song we heard in the beginning, but this time we can hear the lyrics:

There’s a fire deep down in me
And that fire is you
I can’t live an hour without you
‘Cause I love you so

In a video interview, van Mieghem says this story is absolutely autobiographical. But an alert viewer will not need to be told this, given the expert execution of this story. She was abused like this and wanted to tell the story in a way that would make an impact on the audience. In her youth, she was a consummate actress, but was too young to pursue her dreams as a director. At 33, she finally attended the LUCA School of Arts in Sint-Lucas to learn this craft. Shot in five days, De Suikerpot was her debut and her only short film, but also the one with the greatest social impact. Her next film, De Kus (The Kiss, 2004), featured her own daughter, Marie Vinck. At first, she wanted complete control of the production process, but the demands of full-length films are formidable, so she has contented herself with just directing.

I would like to thank Dimitri for translating the video interview of Hilde van Mieghem presented by Filmfestival Oostende.

Random Images: Jenn Violetta

One of Pip’s obsessions has been images of girls with guns and dark imagery in general, so naturally he had to include one among his “test” images.

Jenn Violetta - Empire (Date Unknown)

Jenn Violetta – Empire (Date Unknown)

There are a lot of sites covering the work of Jenn Violetta, but very little biographical information except that she operates out of Seattle.  Her photography reflects a compelling juxtaposition between violence and beauty.  The violence can be symbolic as in the presence of guns or uniforms or literal with blood and mutilated faces.

Jenn Violetta - (Title and Date Unknown) (1)

Jenn Violetta – (Title and Date Unknown) (1)

At first glance, the following image seems to be mundane and idyllic, but take a closer look at the globules of splashed water.

Jenn Violetta - (Title and Date Unknown) (2)

Jenn Violetta – (Title and Date Unknown) (2)

Jenn Violetta - (Title and Date Unknown) (3)

Jenn Violetta – (Title and Date Unknown) (3)

If anyone knows how to contact this artist, this site could offer more substantive biographical information and discussion of artistic inspiration than is currently found on other sites.  -Ron

Sinister Charm: Ronald Searle and the St. Trinian’s Girls

In the course of working on Pigtails, I have to view a lot of films that feature little girls. Some are good, some not and some defy classification. One was The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) and after watching it, I knew I had to review it because of its unusual portrayal of girls. Upon further consideration, I could not help wondering where the idea for the film had come from.

After leaving school at the age of fourteen, Ronald Searle (1920–2011) took night classes at the Cambridge School of Art. To pay for his tuition, he worked various jobs: solicitor’s clerk, parcel-packer and clerk at the Co-op. At fifteen, he became the resident cartoonist on the Cambridge Daily News and in the next year began contributing to the student magazine. A scholarship awarded in 1938 allowed him to study full-time at the school. In April 1939, he joined the Territorial Army as an Architectural Draughtsman and saw his first drawing published in the Daily Express that November. His military service then took him to the village of Kirkcudbright in Scotland, which happened to be an artist’s community. One of his most welcome ports of call was the home of the Johnston family. One day, as a purely domestic joke, he made a drawing to please the two schoolgirl daughters who attended an academy by the name of St. Trinnean’s.  He was encouraged to include it with a small number of cartoons he was hoping to submit to the monthly magazine, Lilliput.

Searle, however, had been posted abroad before publication and within a month of his posting in Singapore, the Japanese invaded. While under fire, Searle found a copy of the October issue of Lilliput and saw his cartoon in print for the first time. After the British forces surrendered, Searle was listed as missing and no more was heard of him for almost two years. On December 29, 1943, the Red Cross finally informed his family that he was in fact alive.

During his incarceration as a prisoner of war, Searle continued cartooning and drawing secretly, recording many of the atrocities he witnessed. The Japanese were aware of his activities, and for three months in 1945 he was allowed to draw murals at a beach villa and officer’s club. In August 1945, a ceasefire was declared and he returned home that October.

An Assistant Editor at Lilliput noted that he picked up his career right where it had left off.

…[Searle] walked into our offices bearing a neat folder containing seventy-two cartoons. They were drawn in faded brown ink, on stained and yellowing paper. Some of them were crumpled. Most of them had survived burial in the jungle undergrowth or under disease-ridden mattresses, where the Japanese would be unwilling to search…We asked him for more and published them every month for the next three years. -Kaye Webb, November 1945

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (1)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (1)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (2)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (2)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (3)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (3)

It is reasonable to expect that Searle’s experiences would have found a way to spill over into even his most light-hearted work. Webb, with whom Searle began an affair, stated that:

It hardly seems necessary to mention that Searle does not really think of schoolgirls as murderous little horrors. But unconsciously he was seeking to reduce horror into a comprehensible and somehow palatable form.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (4)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (4)

In 1947, Webb gave birth to a twin son and daughter at about the time the gin-swigging, cigar-smoking portrayal of the girls emerged.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (5)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (5)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (6)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (6)

Hurrah for St Trinian’s! (1948) was introduced by D.B. Wyndham Lewis, who became the girls’ official chronicler when a writer was needed to accompany Searle’s cartoons. He later published a full-length novel with Searle, The Terror of St Trinian’s (1952), writing as Timothy Shy. Other books included The Female Approach (1950), Back to the Slaughterhouse (1952) and Souls in Torment (1953). Additional writers seized on the opportunity to bring St Trinian’s to life with more stories and songs. After the cartoons were reprinted in The Tribune, Art News and France Dimanche, the girls had become unstoppable and, despite his intentions, Searle’s cartoons remained in print into the 1990s. The first book to publish the complete drawings was finally compiled in 2007 as St Trinian’s: The Entire Appalling Business.

Searle’s biographer Russell Davies noted that though, at the time, scarcely more than a dozen St. Trinian’s drawings had yet appeared, the invention of new horrors for the girls to wreak was becoming a chore. By 1952 Searle decided that his life had been dominated by them for too long and stopped drawing them, killing the girls off in an atomic explosion the following year.

St. Trinian’s has gone. Encouraged by the success of recent atomic explosions in the Pacific, the school Nuclear Fission experts threw themselves into their experiments with renewed enthusiasm and with the help (thanks to certain old girls) of some newly acquired top secret information, achieved their objective at midnight last night. The remains of the school are still smouldering. By some miracle the statue of our patron saint, scorched but uncracked, still stands where once the ripple of girlish laughter could be heard on a clear frosty morning. The fate of the teaching staff is unknown, nay, will never be known, and a few young ladies are believed to have survived. Early morning reports from parts of the country bring news of blackened figures silently trotting through sleepy villages, but bloodhounds have failed to pick up a scent—however radioactive. This blow from which St. Trinian’s cannot recover (the building fund has been embezzled anyway) may bring a sigh of relief to many a parent and a quiet tear from true lovers of healthy girlhood. Let it suffice for us to say (before we draw a veil over the last broken limb) we are proud that the name of St. Trinian’s has echoed through the land. R.S. -From Souls in Torment, 1953

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (7)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (7)

Searle may have been trying to please the British public and presumably the children’s book critics, but he was not happy to regard it as a key part of his life’s work.

The cartoons were both incredibly popular and highly ridiculed. The novelty of British schoolgirls breaking stereotypes may simply have been refreshing, but it may have also had therapeutic value for a populace recovering from the horrors of war. For women and girls, it likely had a liberating effect—giving them a way of voicing a seething resentment at the confinement of polite British society and hope in being accepted as they are, warts and all. The ridicule was a predictable backlash against women’s independence and the latent fear of lesbianism. Despite these attacks, St. Trinian’s became a household name and the basis for countless inside jokes.

It was probably Arthur Marshall—another St. Trinian‘s author—who gave the school’s headmistress, Ms. Fritton, her persona in the film comedies that followed. As is often the case, the first film was the best and it was no small task for the screenwriters—Frank Launder, Sydney Gilliat and Val Valentine—to patch a series of comedic beats together into one coherent story.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (8)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (8)

The main plot is about the goings on surrounding a horse race. Ms. Fritton’s brother—both brother and sister were played by Alastair Sim—has a contender named Blue Prince and is coercing his sister to allow his daughter, Arabella (Vivienne Martin), to reenroll in the school after having been expelled for arson. That in itself would have been a small matter except for the fact the the building in question was not insured. Here we meet Bella and one can see she is holding a cigarette at the bottom of frame.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (1)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (1)

The reason for her return is to help her father spy on another contender, a horse owned by a sultan called Arab Boy. This is his daughter Fatima’s (Lorna Henderson) first year at St. Trinian’s and will presumably be the source of the intelligence.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (2)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (2)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (3)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (3)

When the girls of the Fourth Form learn how fast Arab Boy is, they hope to make some money by placing a bet on him before word gets out. At one point, due to Bella’s interference, they have to hide the horse in their dorm room. Ms. Fritton gets wind of this situation and also sees it as an opportunity to finally get some funds for the school and perhaps finally pay off her staff. The situation has the Fourth Form and Sixth Form girls plotting against each other and one can’t help rooting for the younger girls who finally prevail.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (4)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (4)

One girl in particular has learned to survive by keeping her ear to the ground, and she is periodically squeezed for information by the other girls.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (5)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (5)

Even in the beginning of the film, it is established that the girls terrify the local constabulary which, along with the Ministry of Education, is conspiring to shut the school down.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (9)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (9)

A female detective infiltrates the school posing as a gym teacher in order to gather evidence. A tour of the school exposes her to the many terrors of the school and what the girls get up to. In chemistry class, Ms. Fritton advises the girls to be cautious when working with nitroglycerine and we also learn they are producing bootleg gin which a shady character named Flash Harry helps them sell.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (10)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (10)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (6)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (6)

The detective is dismayed to learn of the girls’ lack of discipline and tactics in field hockey matches. They do not win by skill, but by literally putting their opponents—and any meddling referees—out of commission well before the second half! There is always a stack of stretchers on hand at these games.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (11)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (11)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (7)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (7)

The girls of the Fourth Form have saved the day and for the first time since 1927, the school is able to give an award for good conduct, which the girls immediately spoil.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (8)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (8)

There were several sequels, but there was no consistent feel to the films given how far apart they were produced. In Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957), the girls contrive to cheat on a national competition to justify traveling abroad to meet a rich and eligible bachelor. In The Pure Hell of St. Trinian’s (1960), the girls are subjected to a scheme to be inducted into a sheik’s harem. In The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966), the girls are relocated after burning down their school and discover that robbers have stashed their booty there. In The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s (1980), the girls decide for some reason to go on strike and get other schools to join them. And then there has been a recent spate of remakes: St. Trinian’s (2007) and St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009) which take advantage of the public’s new familiarity with British boarding school life since the Harry Potter films.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (12)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (12)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (13)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (13)

Although St. Trinian’s is a fictional school, various aspects of it were inspired by different schools. It was reputedly based on two independent girls’ schools in Cambridge—Perse School for Girls and St Mary’s School. Searle, growing up in Cambridge, saw the girls on their way to and from school on a regular basis. In fact, in the Perse School for Girls’ Archive area there are several original St. Trinian’s books, given to the school by Searle himself. The gymslip style of dress worn by the girls closely resemble the uniform of the school that Searle’s daughter Kate attended.

I found an interesting site that chronicles the history of girls’ schools, both real and fictional, and you can read more here.

René Iché

My second post is dedicated to René Iché, another French sculptor. He was born in Sallèles-d’Aude in 1897 and died in 1954. Iché was a soldier in WWI, where he suffered injuries and trauma. His experiences in the Great War inspired him to create one of his most famous works, Guernica. Many artists were moved by this historic event where the German Luftwaffe deliberately bombed a Basque civilian population, and created memorial works, most famously Pablo Picasso. But Iché’s piece is much simpler than Picasso’s. It is simply a single skeletal little girl, a symbol of the most innocent victims of the attack.

René Iché - Guernica (1937)(1)

René Iché – Guernica (1937)(1)

René Iché - Guernica (1937)(2)

René Iché – Guernica (1937)(2)

Another fascinating piece by the artist is Contrefleur, a word that translates to “Anti-Flower” which doesn’t seem very flattering. This is Iché in realist mode. In stark contrast to the usual artistic ideal for the youthful feminine figure, he gives us a pubescent girl who is a little fleshy, and her demeanor is somewhat shy and standoffish. Additionally, her pubis—usually smooth in sculpture—is meant to be covered in matted pubic hair. No fay little creature, this! And yet I still find her beautiful. I think Iché did too, and he meant the title ironically, as a snub to critics and idealists.

René Iché - La Contrefleur (1933)

René Iché – La Contrefleur (1933)

The Girl as Unrequited Lover: Ana Torrent, Pt. 3 (El Nido)

This post comprises the third and final entry in our Ana Torrent film series.  Before we begin, I would like to point out that, because the quality of film available to me was relatively poor—bleary, washed out and dim—the stills taken from it are not as good as I would’ve liked.  Nevertheless, I took over 120 stills in all and sifted through them to get what I believe were the finest examples from the bunch.  Anyway . . .

Although El Nido (The Nest) was a contender for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1981 Academy Awards, the Oscar instead went to Moscow Does Not Believe in TearsEl Nido is an odd little film directed by Jaime de Armiñán and is widely considered his best film.  It stars Victor Alterio as an aging but spry widower and the then 13-year-old Ana Torrent as the young girl he becomes infatuated with.  Torrent won Best Actress for her performance at the 1980 Montreal Film Festival, as well she should have.  Though Armiñán lacks the artful flair of Erice or Saura, this was a solidly directed film, and I find it strange that I had never heard of it before, only discovering it when I began to look deeper into the early career of Ana Torrent.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered she had starred in Spain’s answer to Lolita!

The film opens with Alejandro (Alterio), a wealthy and reclusive widower, listening to classical music in his living room and pretending to conduct the orchestra.  We see him first in silhouette; when we first see him in the flesh, he’s riding a horse through the forest.
Again, he seems to be conducting an orchestra, though this time the music is in his head.  Alejandro is something of a dreamer and a rebel, a man who walks to the beat of his own drum, and the drum he hears is distinct in his head.  It isn’t a drum, actually; it is Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, a piece based on the Book of Genesis and inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem that is, in part, about the Fall of Man.  Foreshadowing perhaps?

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (1)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (1)

Alejandro’s cerebral concert is interrupted by an egg striking his head.  Befuddled as to its origin, he rides away, only to find a red scarf monogrammed with a ‘G’ attached to a tree limb.  Back at home, Al amuses himself by listening to his music and playing chess against a computerized board.  He tells the game, “I see you coming.  But I will not fall into your trap.”  Definitely foreshadowing.  Meanwhile, the scarf still intrigues him.  To whom does it belong?  Amparo, Al’s housekeeper, comes in, interrupting his reverie.  Al has an antagonistic relationship with the woman, who puts up with his moodiness and eccentricities with great forbearance.  The two exchange shouts and insults more often than not.  Al really doesn’t want her there, and only tolerates her presence because she manages the household affairs, leaving him to his daydreams, the only thing that makes him happy since his wife’s demise.  Amparo berates him for letting basic household upkeep slip, using his dead wife’s memory to guilt trip him, but Al is not interested in such things.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (2)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (2)

Again Al wanders into the woods, this time finding a note with a feather attached that says, “The goldfinch feather will take you to the great tree. G.”  He can’t help but follow the clue.  His curiosity stoked, he climbs up the remains of the ancient dead tree he frequently visits, only to find another note pinned to the top, again with a feather.  “The jay feather will lead you down the stream. G.”  At the stream, Al finds yet another note and feather, this one stuck to a limb out in the midst of the stream.  Having to traverse the swift waters to get to it, Al is both amused and a little exasperated.  The note reads: “The feather of the hawk will take you to the tower. G.”  Who would go to such trouble to torment the old man so?

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (3)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (3)

Back at home, Alejandro tries to figure out where the clues came from.  After a lead he’s given by Amparo turns out to be a dead end, he decides to visit his only real friend in town, the local parish priest, Eladio.  Although Al is an atheist with a dim view of religion, and he and the priest often exchange insults, it is clear that the two men are quite fond of each other.  Al brings Eladio a box of chocolates and asks for his help in identifying the handwriting from the notes.  The priest is a scholar and has some knowledge of graphology, among other things.  The priest identifies the writing as that of a young girl, and suggests she is stubborn and uneducated but has some native intelligence, sensitivity, passion and a sense of humor.  These qualities suggest someone who is a good match for Alejandro, if not as a lover then at least as a companion.

The priest also identifies the tower referred to in the final note as the bell tower of his own church.  He and Al decide to climb the tower to look for the next clue.  Here Al wonders why the girl has chosen him.  What exactly does she see in him?  The priest says it’s because he’s a fool and that she’s toying with him for her own amusement.  They find the clue, which says, “Falcon feathers will take you to the performance. G.”  Eladio warns Al that this game could lead to trouble, and informs him that the local school children are putting on a performance of Macbeth.  It seems that Al’s mystery girl may be even younger than he anticipated.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (4)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (4)

And here we get our first glimpse of the girl, Goyita, (Ana Torrent), who is portraying Lady Macbeth in the play, a difficult and nuanced part that requires great acting skills.  Al is immediately taken with the girl’s performance even in the rehearsal.  It is evident now that this is no ordinary young girl.  She is precocious, spirited and beautiful.  I must say: how differently Ms. Torrent looks here than she did in her earlier films!  She reminds me a bit of the young Natalie Portman.  As Lady Macbeth, some of her lines are provocative.  “Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,” she says.  These are not words one would ordinarily hear coming from the lips of a middle school-aged child.  Al is a captive audience, and Goyita is, in turn, distracted by Al’s presence to the point where it begins to affect her performance.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (5)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (5)

Having been ejected from the rehearsal by the teacher, Al waits for Goyita outside until the rehearsal is over. Their first meeting is in the town square, in the street.  Alejandro walks Goyita home, quoting lines from Macbeth himself.  Meanwhile, Goyita’s teacher spots them walking together and is obviously concerned.  Al—and the audience—finds out here that Goyita is only 13 years old.  No wonder her teacher is worried.  We also learn that Goyita has been aware of Al for years, and it is only recently that she has decided to get his attention, although she did so coyly, through her little game with the notes and feathers.  Isn’t that exactly like something a 13-year-old girl would do?  Usually their affections are reserved for boys much closer to their own age though.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (6)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (6)

They soon arrive at Goyita’s home.  It turns out that her father is a policeman.  This certainly complicates things.  Before they part ways, Goyita mentions that she also knew Alejandro’s wife, yet another element that will cement their bond.  And as she is ascending the stairs to her family’s apartment, she whistles.  What do you think the tune is?  None other than Hadyn’s The Creation, of course.  Is it deliberate?  Well, Goyita has said that she knows where Al lives.  It’s possible—even likely—that she’s heard him listening to this same oratorio.  So, it seems she knows very well what she’s doing.  The last thing she does before entering her home is stomp several times on the floor, an act which indicates that, although preternaturally bright and mature, she is still a kid after all.  Kids tend be noisy when they’re happy.  What is the source of Goyita’s joy?

Immediately she is confronted by the police sergeant, who criticizes her for being too loud.  Goyita’s relationship with the stern and unpleasant sergeant is one of mutual dislike and mistrust, as we will see.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (7)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (7)

Back at home in his study, Al asks Amparo if anyone has come to visit.  He is eagerly awaiting a visit from his new little friend.  He dials the number of the police station, but when someone answers, Al doesn’t speak, afraid to reveal his identity and why he’s calling.  The officer on the other end hangs up on him.

We cut to Goyita’s home, where her family is eating dinner.  She is in fact the oldest of four children.  Psychologists interested in birth order would suggest this accounts for at least some of Goyita’s high intelligence and maturity.  This theory is, of course, only moderately accepted in the larger mental health community.  Nevertheless, Goyita is a good model for the theory.  During dinner, Goyita’s mother criticizes her for climbing trees, calling her a naughty tomboy.  It seems poor Goyita is constantly being attacked from all sides.  One might say she is the typical misunderstood teen, only she is anything but typical.  Goyita’s mom also uses this opportunity to criticize her husband, Goyita’s father, whom she considers a lazy and ineffectual disciplinarian.

Soon the sergeant appears, inviting himself into the house.  Goyita’s dad rises when the sarge—his boss—enters.  Since the family lives over the police station, the sarge is apt to appear at any time.  The sergeant insinuates that Goyita has been climbing to the building’s roof, and the girl curtly answers, “That’s a lie,” earning her a smack to the back of the head from her mom.  We find out that Goyita’s given name is actually Gregoria; Goyita, or sometimes Goya, is a diminutive nickname.  The sarge accuses Goyita of leaving the attic door open and of breaking out a window.  She denies it, but her mother takes the sergeant’s side.  She ends Goyita’s meal and sends her to her bedroom as punishment for these offenses.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (8)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (8)

Alejandro prowls around Goyita’s school, waiting for her to get out of class.  Goyita’s teacher, Marisa, spots him and addresses him.  Their conversation is warm and friendly.  I can’t help but think that, if such a thing occurred in this day and age, the teacher would likely call the authorities immediately, and she certainly wouldn’t be friendly towards the man.  In fact, she apologizes for being rude to him the other day when she chased him
away from the rehearsal.  Meanwhile, Goyita watches the conversation from a nearby window.  She seems worried.  What are her teacher and her new friend discussing?

Well, Marisa is inviting him to the performance of Macbeth!  The old man isn’t sure he’ll be able to make it, though of course there is a powerful drawing card in the form of Goyita.  He wonders if Goyita was assigned this difficult role as some kind of punishment.  This isn’t a bad assumption.  Goyita certainly has a tendency to be mischievous.  But no, she is studying acting and volunteered for the part.  She’s the real deal, Al realizes, a girl truly interested in the arts.  His fascination for her only deepens.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (9)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (9)

Later, Alejandro enters an artist’s studio that’s full of old paintings and objets d’art.  It should come as no surprise that Alejandro is an aesthete, an admirer of beautiful things.  The artist turns out to be a young woman he is well acquainted with by the name of Mercedes.  Indeed, the two are lovers and their relationship is something of an open secret.  Yet, their relationship is well organized, with Al showing up at certain times each month.  This time, however, he has shown up early.  Something—or someone—has stirred up his passion, causing him to break out of his usual routines.  I wonder who that someone could be?

When a young couple shows up at the studio to invite Mercedes to some film event, she casually informs them that she and Alejandro are lovers.  Al feels like she is mocking him because she doesn’t really want to be seen with the old man.  She promptly informs him that he doesn’t understand her at all.  She’s right, for, although the two are lovers, they aren’t really compatible, though not because of their age difference.  They simply have different temperaments.  Anyway, to prove her sincerity, Mercedes drags him into the street and kisses him passionately before all and sundry.  There can be no doubt now that she cares about him, but what are his feelings toward her?  Note that she’s wearing red, the same color we usually see Goyita in.  Red has long been associated with passion and sexuality; so it is here.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (10)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (10)

Later, Goyita shows up at Al’s home on her bicycle.  The gardener nearly sends her away, but Al happens to see her ride up and alerts her to his presence and meets her on the lawn. His joy at her presence is obvious.  This is a man in love, no doubt.  Though Al is pleased to see her, he also takes time to lecture her about leaving home without her parents’ sanction.

Today this same story would be spun another way: Al would be a selfish sexual predator, a one-note villain who doesn’t really care about Goyita and manipulates her to get into her pants, and Goyita would be a lonely innocent who doesn’t understand what she’s getting into.  It would be a cautionary tale about the dangers of underage girls meeting up with strange older men.  But this film is far too classy and nuanced for that.  Alejandro does care about the girl, and while his emotions are running high, sex is the farthest thing from his mind at this moment.

Unfortunately, Al’s scolding, though gentle, upsets Goyita and she storms off.  But Al intercepts her; he doesn’t want her to leave, of course.  She says she came by yesterday and he was gone; she asks where he was.  He was in Madrid, he tells her, a bald-faced lie.  He was actually in Salamanca (which, incidentally, suggests their town is somewhere in the vicinity of Avila), meeting his lover.  Perhaps, then, Goyita has another reason to be upset.  Does she intuitively understand that he has been with a lover?  Maybe she is jealous after all.  Yet, she decides to stay.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (11)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (11)

As the two walk through the woods, Goyita insists that Alejandro not visit her at the school, or talk to her teacher for that matter.  More jealousy?  It must be said, the young teacher is quite beautiful.  Or is Goyita simply worried that word of their meetings will get back to her parents?  Whatever the case, Al promises to do neither of those things in the future.  Next she wants to know why he wears a beard, telling him that it makes him look old.  This is our first real hint that Goyita’s feelings about Al are more than emotional.  She desires for him to look younger, more pleasing to her eye, which means she has been assessing his appearance as someone of the opposite sex.  And yet, when he asks her if she’d like him to get rid of it, she emphatically replies, “No.”  She is confused by her own feelings, perhaps even fighting them.  They hear a bird chirping in the vicinity.  Is it a goldfinch, Al wonders?  Goyita identifies it as a coal tit.  She is forever correcting him on his bird identifications thereafter.  The girl definitely knows her birds!  Is she equally adept at identifying the bees?  Well . . .

Goyita asks about his necklace, which he tells her is a talisman meant to remind him of the concentration camp he was put into by the Francoists during the Spanish civil war.  It’s interesting that all three of the Ana Torrent films we have examined are connected to the Spanish Civil War in some way; few outside Spain can imagine the impact of that event on the lives of those who lived through it and through the Franco regime.  Al in turn asks Goyita how she knew his wife.  As it so happens, she was, like Goyita, a bird nest enthusiast.

In one of the most poignant scenes in the film (which kicks off an extended montage sequence set to music of The Creation), Alejandro and Goyita stand near what appears to be a broken monument in the countryside, both pretending to be conductors.  This is a metaphorical manifestation of their love for each other and their perfect compatibility, as they work together to conduct their imaginary orchestra.  In their minds they are perfectly in sync; but, of course, the realm of the imagination is not reality.   Previously Al had occupied the raised spot in their relative positions, but in an act that conveys multiple layers of meaning, Al steps down and leads Goyita to the higher position.  He is not only demonstrating his true love for the girl by literally placing her on a pedestal, he is also stepping down from his post as representative of his generation and allowing the next generation to replace him.  He’s old and he knows it, soon to die.  More foreshadowing.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (12)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (12)

As the montage continues, they dance.  Couples dancing has a semiotic relationship to sex.  This doesn’t mean that Alejandro and Goyita have had sex (or will), only that if they did, it might look something like this—honest, attentive, joyful and elegant.  We will see the dancing again, and each time it happens, the camera moves in a little closer as their relationship becomes more intimate.  In another kind of dance, the two circle and weave around each other on their bicycles.  Their relationship is being forged and strengthened with these actions.

The montage continues with skeet shooting, Al shooting the skeet while Goyita works the skeet thrower.  He’s a crack shot.  Remember that, because it will be relevant later.  This is also another sexual metaphor.  Al then teaches Goyita to fire the shotgun.  Again, these activities do not imply actual sex; they merely indicate what a sexual relationship would be like between them, a perfect give and take.  Despite their huge age difference, they are perfectly compatible in their shared world.  Would that this was all there was.  But it isn’t.  The reality is, they must contend with the rest of the world, and there is where their
compatibility breaks down, for their huge age disparity will inevitably mean heartbreak for Goyita.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (13)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (13)

The montage continues to unfold, and we see our pair riding horses together, a bit more dancing, and then they play Leapfrog.  It is interesting to note that, among the activities supposedly enjoyed by Edgar Allen Poe and his own 13-year-old bride was this game.  The couple lived in New York City (specifically, Fordham) for a brief time, and there are accounts of Poe and Virginia playing Leapfrog in Central Park with friends of theirs.  Finally, Alejandro and Goyita climb a tree to examine a bird’s nest before the montage ends.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (14)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (14)

Later, as they prepare for bed, Goyita’s two younger sisters, as small children are wont to do, tease their elder sibling about having a boyfriend.  Goyita denies that Alejandro is her boyfriend, and the sisters call him a holy fool.  They have no idea what that means; they’ve only heard the sergeant refer to Al by this term.  It starts an argument between Goyita and her sisters.

Back at Alejandro’s place, Al proclaims to Father Eladio that he’s a normal man, and yet he’s obsessed with this young girl.  The implication here is that Al is no pedophile or sex deviant; he has never been interested in young girls before, but now he finds himself in love with one.  To be fair, Goyita is hardly an average girl.  But what a quandary to be in!  Eladio tells him that if he didn’t know Al, he would’ve reported him to the authorities, yet he knows his friend would never hurt the girl.  Eladio suggests that Al should marry his lover Mercedes to get his mind off the girl and put an end to his loneliness.  Eladio asks how old the girl is, to which Al replies “110 years,” a joke referring to Goya’s precocious nature.

When they meet again, Goyita asks Alejandro what a holy fool is, to which he describes himself to a T, right down to the clothes he wears.  Goyita has the gardener call the police station to inform them that “Goya Menendez is eating dinner with her school friend.”  Again, Al lectures her about lying, especially to her parents.  Goyita dons Al’s headphones, a gesture meant to convey that she isn’t listening to Al’s lecturing.  When he removes the headphones and repeats his point, she again threatens to leave.  She has no patience for Al treating her as an elder treats a willful child; she sees him as an equal and wants him to treat her the same way.  Again he stops her from leaving and agrees with her point that they must lie about their relationship.  Perhaps he is finally seeing it for what it is, whereas Goyita, with youth’s ability to pierce instantly through facades, had seen it that way all along.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (15)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (15)

Alejandro tells Goyita that he dislikes the civil guard (police).  This seems to make her happy; she dislikes them too.  She asks to see his deceased wife’s bedroom, a request that makes Al uncomfortable for a couple of reasons, but he agrees to do so nonetheless.  At this point Goyita attempts to properly seduce Alejandro.  She picks up his wife’s brush and begins brushing her own hair with it.  She tells Al that his wife was unattractive in comparison to her, describing the woman as short, stocky and small-breasted!

She then goes through his wife’s old things, finding a beautiful blue dress that she holds up to herself.  She clearly has plans to replace Al’s absent spouse.  She says that it’s rumored that Al married for money rather than love.  This accusation finally pushes Al past his breaking point, and he becomes angry, but Goyita quells his anger by pointing out that she never actually believed the rumors.  She asks why they never had children.  Al says it was because his wife was barren, an answer that satisfies Goyita, who may be thinking about having kids with Al herself.  Finally, Goyita wonders if his wife suffered as she
was dying.  Al says that he suffered more than she did.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (16)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (16)

Then they have dinner.  The meal is elaborate, but only because Goyita is there.  She is flattered that Al would go to such trouble for her.  Later, while the two are looking at bird nests, Al asks why Goyita chose him.  “For everything,” she tells him.  Giving up the pretense of cautiousness, Al decides to drive Goyita home.  On the way, her teacher spots her in Al’s car and is obviously worried about her student.  Before she leaves his car, Goyita asks him if he likes her.  He tells her that she’s a child, albeit a bright and sensitive one. But that’s not what Goyita wants to hear; she wants to know if he likes her as a woman, and says that if he doesn’t, she will leave and never speak to him again.  She’s giving him an ultimatum: either love me on my terms or don’t love me at all.  Al tells her that he does indeed like her as a woman, but that it isn’t normal for someone his age to be attracted to a 13-year-old girl.  She asks for and receives a kiss from him (a chaste
one on the cheek).  He says to her that if people tell her bad things about him, she shouldn’t believe them. She agrees wholeheartedly.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (17)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (17)

While speaking to Goyita’s teacher, who has ostensibly come to ask him about music for the play, Al asks her why she agreed to let the girl play Lady Macbeth.  “Because she is evil enough to understand the role,” the teacher insists.  The teacher then asks him why he chose Goyita.  He never really answers her, but he points out that Goyita forbade him to talk to her, so he is violating his promise by even speaking to her.

He and Goyita meet again in the woods.  They swear a blood oath, mingling their blood in an act that mimics consummation.  They each carve their own first initial into the palm of the other and rub the wounds together.  Goyita then gives Al her red scarf, and Al gives Goyita his talisman.  Goyita then asks him to burn all of the pictures of his wife as well as her clothes and other belongings.  This he refuses to do, and she leaves.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (18)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (18)

Later, at school, the teacher asks to see Goyita’s hand.  When she asks what the A means, Goyita says, “Nothing.”  Because it is a letter A, the teacher asks all the boys whose names begin with A to stand.  But none of them have an initial on their hands.  She then asks all the children with an initial to raise their hands.  Every child laughingly raises their hand.  The kids are making a joke of Goyita’s love, but the teacher still believes it is another child who shared the blood oath with Goyita.  She tells her students that childhood romances are normal, though she does have some concerns about the cutting because of the risk of infection.

Later, as Marisa is painting props for the play, Goyita pays her a visit.  While getting her to help with the painting, the teacher also devises a plan to get Goyita to reveal what’s going
on with her: she will ask Goyita a personal question, and for every question she asks her, Goyita will get to ask Marisa a personal question in turn.  Goyita agrees to these terms.

After a few throwaway questions, Marisa gets down to the nitty-gritty.  “What does ‘A’ mean?” inquires Marisa.  Goyita replies, “You already know,” but she admits it stands for Alejandro.  Goyita asks what will be on the next test, which, by the established rules, the teacher must answer and does, but she isn’t happy about it.  How clever our girl is!  The teacher then asks if Goyita has the ‘G’ on his hand, which of course he does.  Goyita then wants to know why her teacher went to visit her friend.  She responds that she wanted to know if he was a trustworthy person.   The teacher then asks what it is Goyita and Alejandro do together.  Goyita lists the things they do, which does not include anything sexual.  The teacher advises Goyita to end the relationship, but Goyita claims it has already ended because he refused to do everything she commanded him to do.  (Despite the stereotype, it is clearly Goyita who is in charge of the relationship and doing all the manipulating.)  Even so, this is a lie on Goyita’s part—her relationship with Al may have undergone a temporary setback, but it is hardly over.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (19)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (19)

The film cuts back to Alejandro’s place.  Although he had refused to destroy his wife’s belongings, in the end he does as Goyita asked, burning her clothes and the photos of her in his yard.  It seems that no matter how much he resists, he cannot refuse Goyita in the end.  This is what true love has done to him.

The next morning, Goyita discovers that the sergeant has released her pet falcon, which rightly enrages Goyita.  She then happens upon the sergeant screaming at her father, presumably about his daughter’s shenanigans.  Goyita confronts the sergeant about her bird, but he simply shouts at her and calls her an idiot, then chases her out of his office.  Goyita, visibly upset, vows to kill the sergeant.  It’s an empty threat, of course; she is no murderer.  But she despises him that much.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (20)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (20)

Al visits his wife’s grave, and the priest finds him there.  Eladio tells Al that the townsfolk,
including the girl’s family, all know about their little romance.  Most people think Al is a bit koo-koo but basically a decent guy.  A small minority think he’s a sex maniac, however, and that he should be taught a lesson.  Eladio says he should beware of the latter group.  Alejandro tells Eladio that for the first time in his life he is really living.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (21)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (21)

When Goyita returns home for supper that night, her mother informs her that she is being shipped off to her aunt’s, and sends her to bed without her supper.  Her father too has had enough, it seems.  He removes his belt, preparing to give her a lashing.  Goyita wants to know why she’s being punished.  After all, it’s not like she and Alejandro are hurting anyone or doing anything wrong.  All they do is ride horses, listen to music and so on.  As it so happens, the anger from her father is all a front to fool his wife.  He doesn’t actually whip Goyita but repeatedly strikes the bed beside her instead.  This makes her mother happy, as she thinks her daughter is finally getting her long-deserved punishment, but her dad seems to understand his daughter better than her mother does.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (22)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (22)

Later, Alejandro tells Goyita that he bought a bird guide.  It seems Goyita has instilled in him her love of birds.  But now she is upset, for she is being sent away on Friday to live with her aunt.  This will be the last time they will get to be together.  She tells him too that the sergeant released her bird and took away the talisman Al gave her.  She asks him to kill the sergeant for her.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (23)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (23)

Back at home, Alejandro’s reminiscences of his times with Goyita are interrupted by Amparo.  In the past this would’ve made him angry, but it’s clear from their exchange that he is a changed man thanks to Goyita.  He treats his servant much better now.  Moreover, he is a broken man.  The loss of the love of his life has ripped the heart out of him.

In their final meeting, Al reveals to his priest friend that he spent five years in the seminary. They share a laugh over that.  Al decides to track down Goyita to her aunt’s place.  Of course, she can only watch him through the window, but she is very happy to see him.  It will be his final view of her, and he will take it to his grave.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (24)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (24)

Alejandro next goes to the police station, where he challenges the sergeant to a duel.  The sergeant thinks he’s joking, but he is quite serious.  He assures the sergeant that he is a terrible shot, but of course we know better.  Later, Al waits on the cliff to ambush the sergeant, who brings Goyita’s father with him.  They both carry machine guns, hardly a fair gunfight.  But Al doesn’t care about this anyway.  He fires on the sergeant and apparently misses.  He then stands in the open, waiting, and the sarge easily mows him down.  After killing Alejandro, the officers discover that Al was using blanks.  The thing is, Al had had the advantage because he was on higher ground, and he saw the sergeant well before the sergeant saw him.  Plus, he was a great shot.  He could easily have killed the sergeant if he’d wanted to, but he’d never intended to do so; his plan had been suicide by cop all along.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (25)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (25)

Many of the townsfolk show up for his funeral, including the policemen, the teacher and the priest.  Goyita later visits his grave, which has been erected on the same site where the old monument once stood and where he and Goyita first danced.  She vows to never give herself to another as long as she lives.  She says that he taught her a new word beginning with A: Amor. She carves another A into her palm and places it against his grave.  The final shot is of Goyita conducting The Creation from Alejandro’s gravesite.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (26)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (26)


Cave Girl: Jean M. Auel’s ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’

With my first post I’m going to discuss the book The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, as well as the movie directed by Michael Chapman. As is usually the case, the book was far more engaging and meaningful than the movie, so I will take the plot points from the book and use various screenshots from the movie. The latter uses three actresses to represent the various stages of Ayla’s life; Emma Floria is 5-year-old Ayla, Nicole Eggert plays Ayla at about 11 or 12, and Daryl Hannah is adolescent/adult Ayla. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t accurately depict Ayla’s timeline. She is under eighteen for the whole of the book, and is 14 at its conclusion. Within that span of time she experiences incredible hardship, but what she learns in those 9 years will change everything forever. 

Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (1)

Ayla is a Cro-Magnon girl (early Homo sapiens sapiens), distant ancestors to our forbears and us. Mog-ur—known to her affectionately by his true name, Creb—is a Neanderthal Man (H. neanderthalensis) and the most powerful magician known to his Clan. They share the same ancestor but are fated to much different paths. Creb and all his people are about to die in one of the most questionable extinctions known to modern science, while Ayla’s kind are on their way to becoming the most populous and (relatively) successful  mammals to have ever existed. Nobody seems to know just what happened there, and Jean M. Auel, while aiming to write fiction based on facts, did not specify how her Neanderthal clan were to become extinct either.

Ayla is taken in by the medicine woman of the Neanderthal clan after an earthquake kills Ayla’s family and forces the Clan out of their cave, their only home. The girl is just five years old, but nevertheless survives the attack of a cave lion (the grass lion’s huge, hungry ancestor) and passes out presumably from shock and pain. She is found by the Clan’s medicine woman, Iza on their search for a new cave home.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (2)

Iza is sibling to the Clan leader, Brun, so he is given to allow Iza to keep and care for the girl. The young girl eventually trains with Iza to become a medicine woman and is quite proficient with flowers and herbs. She also gets in the habit of using the excuse that she is looking for plants for Iza so that she can wander around by herself in the wilderness, thinking and playing in solitude.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (3)


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (4)


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (5)

Ayla’s presence disturbs the others, and their treatment towards her differences profoundly impacts her development. She is especially terrible with following their strict social customs, which include the docility and submission of women as virtues—instead of the low, shuffling walk of Clan women, Ayla is gifted with long, thin legs and is taller than most of the men by age 12. The discomfort she causes is very much about the way that she looks in comparison to the rest of the clan as well. Throughout the book she is repeatedly referred to as ugly by the other members, even by her sweet Mog-ur, and it is assumed she will never acquire a partner. They have no qualms about speaking these things in front of her either.

“He visualized the tall, skinny child, straight arms and legs, flat face with a large, bulging forehead, pale and washed out; even her eyes were too light. She will be an ugly woman, Mog-ur thought honestly. What man is likely to want her anyway?”  Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear


“… The skull of Cro-Magnon 1 does show traits that are unique to modern humans, including the tall, rounded skull with a near vertical forehead. A large brow ridge no longer tops the eye sockets and there is no prominent prognathism of the face and jaw [as compared to H. neanderthalensis].”  Smithsonian Natural Museum of History

Part of the reason why she is regarded with this repulsion is because her childhood seems to last much longer than what is regular for the Clan. Their lifespans average 30 years and the children are usually ready for their mating ceremonies at age 7 or 8. They start to wonder when she doesn’t seem to be developing the regular features of a woman, but it is precisely her childish figure which enables her to gain the skills that will eventually allow her to become independent. In this way and many others, Ayla becomes a symbol of fate for Creb, but to the others she is profoundly mysterious, profoundly wrong.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (6)

Built mainly for storing large quantities of data as memories, the Neanderthal Clan have minds that can peer thousands of years into the past with a process as simple as contemplating the natural life that surrounds them. (This is, of course, speculation by the author. You can do the research for yourself but there is some level of validity to her fictional fantasies.) The Clan can see eons behind them, all the way back to the dawn of life, with the help of a divine flower employed by Mog-ur; Datura stramonium or Angel’s Trumpet—Devil’s trumpet, if you’d like to play your hand on the other side of the paradox. But they can’t think in numerical terms past 3, and Mog-ur, whose mind is significantly more attuned to the abstract, the extra-sensory, can’t pass 20.  Ayla, however, is on her way to multiplying single-digit numbers at the age of five. She so astounds Creb with her mind that he becomes enthralled with her instantly, falling in love with her confidence and intelligence the first year of her stay.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (7)

Despite the rigidity of the Clan’s ways, especially in their expectation of docile behavior from the women, Creb gives Ayla some slack, often only scolding her for behavior that other men would have punished with physical violence. Physical affection is kept at a minimum between the two, but Ayla trusts in the old man’s love.

Her first year with the clan is arduous, as she is forced by her adoptive family and the pressures of the group to conform to their patriarchal expectations. However unexpectedly, she does seem to grow with a strength and confidence that is rare even for males in the Clan, and this brings about the unlucky attention of the leader’s son, Broud, who is to become her unfailing tormentor.

The boy is arrogant and narcissistic, unable to let go of Ayla’s unwomanly confidence and skill set. As Broud becomes a man and more assured in his dominance, his torments too become progressively more vicious and physically violent. But she has a secret. Ayla has learned to hunt, eventually becoming more proficient with a sling than the Clan’s own sling master. Broud’s attacks no longer bother her—in fact, she eggs him on, carrying her secret skill as a totem of confidence. Soon after her first menses at age 10, however, her secret is discovered when she kills a hyena to save a Clan child from death. She is given a comparatively mild punishment, considering it is strictly forbidden for a woman to even touch a weapon—a transgression which is punishable by death—and afterwards is startlingly anointed with the title of Woman Who Hunts by Mog-ur and the leader. From then on she is given the freedom to hunt in the open, using only her sling, but that’s good enough for her. Ayla’s confidence soars, and eventually the Clan begins to accept her, even respect her. Everyone except for Broud, that is.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (8)

Because of his unceasing abuse, Ayla has learned to dissociate from Broud, obeying him but no longer with any hint of emotional investment. But her pain is what makes Broud happy and he is frustrated with her lack of distress. Again shortly after her first menses, Broud comes across Ayla gathering herbs for Iza away from the cave and rapes her. Because of Clan customs, any male is allowed to have intercourse with any female he wishes, even if she belongs to another man, even if she isn’t yet a woman—but most Clan men feel it beneath their dignity to have intercourse with a child.  All a man has to do is give a signal, and the female will “assume the position”. Because of this, the Clan doesn’t protest when Broud takes up the habit of raping her daily, sometimes multiple times a day. The women are confused as to why she is screaming out as if in pain, but the ordeal is seen as some kind of odd phase for Broud, considering Ayla is so unattractive and Broud has a beautiful woman of his own. Iza and Creb notice her crippling depression, but they don’t know what to attribute it to and so have no way of helping her.

A redeeming feature of the Clan is that they don’t stigmatize sexuality in childhood.

“In the Clan, the mating of two people was entirely a spiritual affair, begun with a declaration to the whole clan but consummated by a secret rite that included only the men. In this primitive society, sex was as natural and unrestrained as sleeping or eating. Children learned, as they learned other skills and customs, by observing adults, and they played at intercourse as they mimicked other activities from a young age. Often a boy who reached puberty, but had not yet made his first kill and existed in limbo between child and adult, penetrated a girl child even before she reached her menarche.”  Jean M. Auel, The Clan of the Cave Bear

However, they don’t necessarily know how sex works either. They believe in animal spirits called Totems; assigned to every member of the clan, they protect each person and bring luck or misfortune depending on how the clan behaves. They believe these spirits are rooted themselves in tradition as well, fearing anger from their otherworldly protectors if they stray from long-practiced rites and customs. Male totems are usually “stronger” than female totems (for example, a female totem might be a beaver where a male totem may be a wild boar), and it is believed that pregnancy is caused by the male totem “defeating” the female totem by some undefined spiritual means. A woman’s menses is similarly caused by the woman’s totem defeating a man’s totem. Ayla herself has the strongest totem in the tribe, the massive Cave Lion, assigned by Mog-ur when he contemplates the parallel scars on her legs caused by the cave lion attack when she was just five years old. Throughout her years, Ayla receives assistance and protection from the Cave Lion, noticed only by Mog-ur (as such a strong totem for a little girl confuses the rest of the Clan).


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (9)

Shockingly enough (or maybe not), Ayla soon discovers she is pregnant—and is ecstatic. She had been told all throughout her childhood that she would never bear children, would never mate or find a partner due to her incredibly powerful totem and her ugliness. She forms no connection at first between Broud’s sexual abuse and the pregnancy, but it isn’t long before she pieces it together—becoming the first of the tribe to ever do so. She loves her baby all the same, and I believe the child represents for her a reclamation of her femininity, stripped from her at a young age simply because she didn’t fit the Clan’s idea of what it meant to be female. Her first child, born to her at age 11, is therefore a symbol of her unfailing femininity in spite of her masculine strength. The child is born as a hybrid between the two human species and is seen by the Clan as being deformed, but to Ayla she sees only unity—the mergence of her spirit with that of the Clan in a way she could never accomplish herself. In the end, Broud gives her the one thing she thought she would never get.

An interesting aspect of the plot involves the Clan Gathering, which I will not go into too much detail about. A ritual is held at the gathering in which Ayla must act as medicine woman and distribute the Datura decoction to the females of hers and other Clans. She takes some as well, perhaps too much, but when the women begin their erotic dance, Ayla is pulled by some force to Creb’s ceremony involving the Mog-urs and acolytes of other clans. This is a ceremony not only restricted from female participation, but male participation as well. It is only for the shamans. She learns some interesting things from Creb here and I will not say anything else about it because it’s honestly an astounding scene that should be read in its original form to be appreciated.

download (1)

Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (10)

I find the contrasts between her masculine and feminine aspects quite interesting. Rather, I find it interesting in that she’s not really masculine or feminine. The definitions attached to this duality are entirely subjective, seemingly dependent on the social context in which they are used. It is true that most societies throughout human history seem to have considered hunting an entirely masculine activity, but there are definitely exceptions as with all things. From the Clan’s perspective, she is almost wholly masculine; but then, she bears life, she experiences the cycles of her menses, and she develops a close relationship with plants—all are traits considered feminine by the Clan and many real-life human societies. If you read up on mythology you’ll have heard of Artemis, goddess of hunting, virginity, and protector of nature.

Considering Ayla is a child for most of the book (in the sense that she is under 18), it’s interesting to think of what femininity means in the context of little girls and in the context of Ayla’s role in the Clan. Children are unaware of themselves in a very genuine way, resulting in a sort of freedom that most adults can’t seem to experience. Little girls are themselves a kind of nymph or faerie—feminine, yes, but also masculine in the most surprising and mischievous of ways. They are dynamic, dual. I can say from experience that emerging as a woman from a state of girlhood is entirely frightening. All of a sudden it’s not cute to climb trees in a dress, or acceptable to sit with your legs very obviously open, or to do all sorts of things I was able to do without inhibition as a young girl, without even a thought as to how it was perceived by others. Eventually it became time to grow up, time to accept only one half of the duality while ignoring the other as if it didn’t exist. Ayla is so fascinating because she never seems to experience this horrible shift. Her unheard-of status as Woman Who Hunts combined with her other differences mean that the Clan is constantly in a state of awe or confusion about her, allowing Ayla to dissociate from Clan customs and to walk into herself as she wholly is. She grows up without the notion that she is a child turning into an adult. I’m not sure about the other books, but by the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is a woman and child all in one, and she is also neither—she’s Ayla.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (11)

By the way, I still climb trees in dresses, ha!


Margaret O’Brien

The Dark Side of Innocence: Celia

I dislike using the word “innocence” because it is so misused and often only in a positive context. However, it is my experience that children are just like adults in almost every way. They can be cruel, generous, vengeful, courageous, cowardly, just and unjust. In my remarks about Ana in Cría cuervos—which Pip recently reviewed—I said that she was absolved of murder in the audience’s eyes because the can of baking soda was not really poison and thus she never really killed anyone. But Pip pointed out that this is irrelevant from a moral perspective. Because children do not yet have a fully-developed grasp of consequences, they can do things with full confidence that we would consider rash and they themselves might regret later.

I discovered Celia (1989) while reviewing The Coca-Cola Kid starring Rebecca Smart and I did some follow up by watching The Shiralee and added some supplemental information at the end of that post. But when I watched Celia, I knew this film had real substance and would have to stand alone. The typical synopsis says that Celia is a troubled girl, but my impression is she is a real child—no less than, say, Huck Finn. Pip said that he once saw this film for rent in the horror section! Ridiculous; this is clearly a period drama reflecting the anxieties of a troubled society in 1957/58 Australia. The ostensible horror comes from Celia’s dreams and imaginings associated with the death of her beloved Granny and fueled by the story of the Hobyahs who creep about at night snatching people.

The stage is set when Celia Carmichael (Smart) goes to the shack where her grandmother lives and finds her dead. The depth of their relationship is revealed gradually and here we see a sincere Celia telling her Granny that she will miss her. Throughout the movie, she imagines seeing Granny as though she were still alive.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (1)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (1)

Because of her close bond with Granny, she did not really take the time to bond with other children and she appears to have only one friend, Heather Goldman (Clair Couttie).

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (2)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (2)

A family called the Tanners move in next door and she starts to bond with them. At first, her mother is pleased to see her playing with other children.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (3)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (3)

We learn that she is turning 9 during the Christmas break and that she has a nemesis, Stephanie Burke (Amelia Frid), the daughter of a police sergeant the family call “Uncle John”. It is revealed that the girls are engaged in a pitched but covert battle. Celia wants a rabbit for her birthday, but her father refuses, telling her they are vermin. In the background of this story are two political dramas: one involving the fear of communism and the other, the plague of rabbits that are destroying farmers’ crops. When school resumes, Celia is irritated that Stephanie got a pet rabbit and she didn’t.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (4)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (4)

The neighborhood children spend a lot of time playing in an abandoned quarry with a kind of contaminated water hole and a shed. Celia shares her magic mask with the other children which Stephanie ridicules and runs off with, resulting in a chase and a fight. Celia returns victorious with a lock of Stephanie’s hair.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (5)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (5)

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (6)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (6)

Celia and the Tanner children—Steve, Karl and Meryl—become fast friends and they take a blood oath together, “Swear on my living heart; blood will never part.” This oath presumes that the Tanners are now allied with Celia against Stephanie.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (7)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (7)

We learn that Granny read a lot of books about communism and Celia observes that Alice Tanner (Victoria Longley), the mother, has similar materials. This is a kind of signal that Alice is taking the place of Granny in watching over Celia. In so bonding, Celia brings over some of Granny’s papers and photographs which the Tanners examine knowingly. Whenever Celia got lonely or in trouble, she would sneak into Granny’s shack for comfort, but now she has Alice.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (8)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (8)

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (9)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (9)

Celia’s father, Ray, notices a pamphlet—which Alice had used to make a paper airplane—and interrogates Celia about it. In a rage, Ray goes into Granny’s shack and takes all the books out to burn them which upsets Celia terribly. In a scheme to get her not to play with the Tanners any more, he buys her a rabbit. Does she name it Flopsy or Patch? No, her rabbit is named Murgatroid.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (10)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (10)

Somehow, word of the Tanners’ sympathies with communist philosophy reaches the children at large and Stephanie and her allies go the quarry to taunt and attack the others. The police arrive to break up the fight and Uncle John begins to show his hypocrisy by punishing the other children but not his own daughter who started the fight.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (11)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (11)

Celia learns that Evan Tanner got sacked from his job because he refused to leave the Australian Peace Council which was widely regarded as a communist front. The kids believe it was Uncle John who was the informant and so they engage in a little witchcraft, burning the Burke family in effigy and then throwing the dolls into Stephanie’s room at night. Later they learn that it was actually Ray, in a misguided attempt at manipulation, and Celia leads the children in burning her own father in effigy.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (12)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (12)

While doing this, they are ambushed by Stephanie and the other children who lock them up in the shed and torture Murgatroid by scorching her rear with a burning brand. Celia, at her angriest in the film, vows to get even.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (13)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (13)

After the Tanners move away, a government policy has forced all the children to turn their rabbits in to the zoo. John visits the Carmichaels to convince them that Celia must give up Murgatroid as well, but they refuse. When Stephanie forms a kind of support group for children who have lost their rabbits, she is mystified why Celia does not join. And when Celia returns home, she realizes that her rabbit is gone too and blames Uncle John.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (14)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (14)

After much posturing and politicking and a popular letter-writing campaign, the government is pressured to allow permits for pet rabbits. The children all go to the zoo to retrieve their rabbits, but Celia and Heather learn that theirs died during their temporary internment.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (15)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (15)

They vow to get revenge. They get dressed up and put on war paint in readiness to rid themselves of the despicable Sergeant Burke. Celia was aware her father kept a shotgun for hunting ducks and readies it. The thing that psyches Celia into pulling the trigger is that she imagines that her Uncle John is a Hobyah and suddenly he is dead.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (16)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (16)

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (17)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (17)

Celia and Heather try to hide some of the evidence and Heather is made to swear that this act will be kept a secret forever. The police learn that it was Ray’s shotgun that was used but cannot find a suspect. Celia’s mother later notices a bruise on her chest and realizes what has happened.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (18)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (18)

The Carmichael family keep quiet and Celia seems to resume her normal life. When Stephanie returns to school after the tragedy, Celia has a change of heart and prays with the rest of the class for their family’s future well-being. In one final ritual, Celia leads all the children to the quarry to conduct a symbolic hanging to give Stephanie some closure for the unsolved murder and Heather, who plays the condemned prisoner, has proven she can keep a secret. The children are united now as they race up the slope of the quarry.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (19)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (19)

The notion of an innocent girl as a cop killer is a truly remarkable premise and, I believe, well executed in this film. The implications are disturbing, but it serves to challenge our assumptions of what a child is and what justice is. In times of stress, so often people resort to black-and-white dogmatic beliefs: communists are evil, rabbits are vermin, the government is always right. But we see throughout the film that many injustices are committed by the authorities—the mothers, the fathers, the school teachers, the police and government officials.