Tagged: Gender issues

180° Rule (Iran 2020)

The family group at a magical wedding

This debut feature by Farnoosh Samadi is relatively short (around 83 minutes). Ms Samadi has mostly been working on short films, writing several and also co-writing a feature with Ali Asgari. Her own film deals with two familiar social issues that have been dealt with by several Iranian directors and, for international audiences, most notably by Asghar Farhadi. The first is the highly patriarchal nature of Iranian society which allows women to do many things but still requires them to seek permission from a husband or a father. The second issue is the propensity to lie to avoid social conflict or criticism. This latter can be seen as a widespread concern about the corruption of a society – many people in Iran seem to be ‘living a lie’. It forms the basis for Farhadi’s film About Elly (Iran 2009) but is also an important element of other Iranian films. I suspect it is a form of lying most associated with the middle class who have status to lose (as well as the arrogance for some to feel that they are ‘above the law’ or, more radically, that the law is an ass and it should be challenged). This latter is much more dangerous in a state like Iran.

The basic outline of this drama presents Sara as a middle-class woman who works in a girls school where she appears to be a respected and trusted member of staff, to whom the girls might take a problem. She has a young daughter of her own and a husband, Hamed, an executive given several ‘missions’ which require him to fly to various locations on trips lasting a few days. As the narrative begins it is clear that he has not asked for leave to attend Sara’s niece’s wedding some distance away in the North of the country. He is then sent out on another ‘mission’ (the subtitles are rather basic) but he forbids Sara to go to the wedding because he doesn’t think she is competent to drive herself and their daughter. Sara has bought a dress for what is intended to be a magical wedding in a forest and her young daughter (of around five) has learned a song to sing as the bridesmaid. Of course, Sara is going to defy a husband who is being unreasonable. I’m not going to spoil what is not a particularly complex plot but fate is not kind to Sara. Her family rally round to protect her but Sara makes the mistake of constructing a lie to cover what she feels is a failing on her part. She is in a state of shock and understandably not thinking straight. Her family, principally her parents and her brother, collude with her but when Hamed returns he disproves her story quite quickly and becomes violently angry. What follows is a set of legal procedures that again are familiar from Farhadi’s films with a demonstration of the male authority which permeates the whole system. Sara’s response is to remain silent throughout, in some ways an eloquent commentary on the the inequality of the legal system. Sara then finds herself facing further problems related to her position at the school and in particular her interaction with a specific student which points to another, separate but connected social issue for women. The narrative concludes with an ending that may divide audiences.

Sara has a difficult time in her marriage as this shallow focus shot connotes

The strongest aspect of this film is the central performance by Sahar Dolatshahi, an actor who featured in Permission (Iran 2018), another film about a woman denied permission by her husband. She also stars in an earlier, and better, film Inversion (Iran 2016) in which she plays an independent woman pressurised by her family to give up her independence. The actor playing Hamed, Pejman Jamshidi, is given little to do other than to be angry. I’ve read that he is generally known for comedy roles. I think that this film could have been an effective melodrama given the events in the narrative but the overall presentation of the film seems quite ‘functional’, apart from the spectacle of the wedding in the forest. True, it does begin with a close-up of milk boiling over on the stove and later there is a folkoric natural event that is often seen as a warning. But again, I didn’t really notice the score and rather than the ‘excess’ of a traditional melodrama, the mise en scène of the film added little. I have managed to find an interview with the director in which she explains that she has always been interested in the ‘secrets and lies’ that play such a strong role in Iranian social life. She has envisaged a trilogy of films and this is the first (which draws on the experiences of one of her friends). She does at one point admit: “Unfortunately, due to time and financial problems, I did not have the chance to rehearse with the cast and I just used my experiences from making short films. I always tried to choose my cast based on what I feel is the closest image to my film’s characters”. It is difficult to make low budget films and as well as the pressure of time, what tends to happen is that the there is not enough paid development time for the script and planning the shoot.

Sara’s brother attacks Hamed because of his treatment of Sara

The title of the film requires some explanation for those readers not part of the film industry or film academia. I don’t know if the film has a different title in Farsi but I’m assuming that this English title refers to the convention of ‘not crossing the line’ – here is a brief explanation on Wikipedia. The convention is helpful in filmmaking if the intention is always to ensure that the audience knows where the characters are in relation to each other in any setting. What does it mean in the context of this film? It seems to be metaphorical in that Sara has ‘crossed a line’ and finds herself in the ‘wrong place’. But there might be a more specific reason for the title.

The social issues in this film are important and Farnoosh Samadi faces many problems as a woman trying to write and direct films in Iran. I want to support her intentions but I feel that the film feels a little undercooked for international distribution. On the other hand I’m pleased that we are still able to see films coming out of Iran and this was my second film at the Borderlines Festival – where it was included as part of the ‘F-rated’ strand. My next screening is another Iranian film but I expect a rather different experience. A contrasting Iranian film directed by a woman is Son-Mother (Iran-Czech Republic 2019).

Carry on Cabby (UK 1963)

Carry on Cabby

They don’t make them like this any more

It’s probably a good thing that such blatantly sexist films – see above – like this are not made anymore. Except, of course, the Carry On . . . films (1958-92) were not quite as straightforwardly reactionary as the poster suggests. For a start, the men are all pathetic, self-absorbed idiots; the competent gender is female. This is expressed in Cabby through Hattie Jacque’s character who, in umbrage at her husband’s (Sid James) attitude toward her, starts her own cab (taxi) business, in secret, and easily beats him at his own game. In comedies it’s relatively easy to dramatise such subversive representations as we’re obviously not meant to be taking it seriously however in order for the humour to work it has to draw upon generally recognised tropes; in other words, maybe men deep down knew their hubris was ridiculous. Talbot Rothwell’s script gives James lines that demonstrate his own stupidity in one sentence: he bemoans not knowing what his wife’s up to but refuses to ask her if she isn’t going to tell him without him having to ask.

bingo

A Bamforth postcard

The film’s poster isn’t a million miles away from the style of Bamforth’s smutty/bawdy postcards that drew on the Musical Tradition of double entendres and terrible puns. I’m not sure the Carry On . . . series’ style of humour has any purchase for today’s youngsters, or even those slightly older; how much is my enjoyment for them nostalgia or a funny bone trained by the films during my formative years? In writing about them John Hill suggested:

the earlier films . . . focus on . . . institutions which bear most heavily on working-class experiences . . . the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude characteristic of certain forms of working-class consciousness refers primarily to the experience of authority relations, especially petty officialdom. (Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, 142-3)

The series ran for over 30 films showing how popular it was with the mass audience, even whilst the latter was declining for cinema during the 1960s. It was a healthy antidote to the middle-class niceties of Anna Neagle (directed by Herbert Wilcox) but without the gritty realism of the new wave, which invariably featured working-class characters. In Cabby the conflict is not with officialdom and the gender wars, of course, are resolved in favour of men who get to act the heroes in a typical Carry On . . . ending which dramatises collective action. However, it is noticeable that the collectivism of trade unions is shown not to be desirable.

The key to the series’ success was the actors; in addition to the aforementioned, other regulars grace the film: Kenneth Connor, Jim Dale, Liz Fraser and Charles Hawtrey. The men’s attitude toward sex is puerile and apparently typically British, who seem to feel they could never compete with French eroticism, and I wonder to what extent the passionless, middle class, stiff upper lip attitude (evident in Neagle’s films for example) informed these representations. The censorship of anything sexually daring only started to loosen during the ’60s and it wasn’t until the mid-’80s that the industry (self-)regulator changed its name from British Board of Film Censors to British Board of Film Classification. In 1969 Carry on Camping brought female, topless nudity into the mainstream by starting the film with characters watching Nudist Paradise (UK, 1960); one of a number of ‘nudies’ that circumvented censorship by documenting, as opposed to dramatising, life on a nudist camp. If memory serves, Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) is the best of the films.

The Incessant Fear of Rape (Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal, India Hindi 2019)

In 2012 a young woman was gang-raped while travelling on a private bus in Delhi and her friend was beaten. All the six men on the bus, including the driver were involved in the rape and beatings. The incident and the trial that followed created a media storm in India and internationally. The Incessant Fear of Rape is the second film from the team that made Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017), a film which was much admired when it was shown at festivals in the UK in 2018. It dealt with sex workers who set up a female co-operative as a protection against abuse and exploitation. The new film, again written and directed by Aditya Kripalani and co-produced by Sweta Chhabria, is not directly about the 2012 gang rape incident but instead explores how a group of women might respond to the constant threat of rape they face travelling in the Delhi region.

It is significant that the narrative is set in Delhi which as a city region has grown extremely quickly to become the ‘National Capital Territory of India’ and the second largest urban area in the world with 26 million residents. It rivals Mumbai as symbolic of the ‘New India’ with the ‘satellite city’ of Gurgaon where the women live and the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies. All of this means that many workers find themselves commuting for long periods across the city region. Kripalani’s film sees four women who find themselves in a ‘female only’ taxi struggling to make the journey home one evening when the traffic congestion is particularly bad.

In the taxi, from left Shagun driving, in the back Vibha and Shaila and, in the passenger seat, Chitra

The driver, Shaila (Kritika Pande) is the young owner of a taxi company who finds herself driving tonight but who is soon ousted from the driver’s role by the aggressive police officer Shagun (Sonal Joshi) who claims she knows a better route. In the back are Vibha (Shalini Vatsa), employed as a ‘social media consultant’, and Chitra (Chitrangada Chakraborty) who teaches martial arts classes for women. With her closely cropped hair, it took me a while to recognise this lead player from Tikli and Laxmi Bomb. The women don’t know each other but they are soon chatting about, among other things, forms of feminism, and when they decide to stop at a roadside bar/café because the traffic is so bad, Shagun tells the others about her first encounter with a violent man in her police work. At their outdoor table a man in leathers on a motorbike leers at Chitra and makes a nuisance of himself around the four women. Later, the women find themselves on a lonely road where the same man (played by Vinay Sharma) re-appears, riding close to them and shouting. Chitra loses her temper and manages to knock him off his bike. Soon the four women have a ‘captive’. What will they do with him?

After a long day in the office Vibha takes a double dose of nicotine for the journey home

The women have already discussed the fear of rape and how men don’t understand what rape means and what it means to be fearful on the streets at night – or in buses and taxis. They quickly determine to teach this man a lesson. Shagun knows about some empty premises and they lock him up in a metal cabinet. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative pleasures about how the plot develops but I do want to discuss ideas about genre and narrative structure. There are four women in the car who don’t know each other and who each respond differently to the situation. We learn most about Vibha. She is introduced at the beginning of the film arriving for work on a Metro train. In a clever title sequence we see her framed under signage indicating the ‘Women Only’ carriage on the train and later aggressively smoking two cigarettes as she looks out over the city. On the soundtrack is a rock song with some English lyrics I couldn’t quite work out but they relate in some way to the narrative. Vibha recognises something in Chitra’s behaviour and invites her home after they have locked up the man. We will learn about Vibha’s back story in some detail and later we will learn about Chitra too. (Vibha’s story is told in flashback introduced in an elliptical way). Only Shaila will remain without a back story. Her role, in generic terms, is to be the one who has to be ‘taught’ and convinced that what the other three women plan to do is thought out and ‘justified’ as a response to male violence. In a way she stands in for us, the audience.

The women in the print shop contemplating their next step

Once the man is locked up, the generic elements of a different kind of film come to the fore. Now we have a prisoner and four potential gaolers. I was impressed by the script at this point and the way that a certain kind of ‘training programme’ was developed. Although I haven’t watched any examples, I remember the cycle of ‘torture porn’ horror films such as the Saw films and I wondered if the women would inflict increasing forms of physical pain on the man. But their plans are more sophisticated and involve breaking him down psychologically. To some extent this draws on ideas about BDSM. Rape is about power rather than sexual drive and the women want the man to understand this so they use humiliation and link it to gender roles. They discuss how men in India still think of women only in three ways: women must ‘dress to look hot’, ‘cook well’ and ‘be fuckable’. (I think the film’s Hindi title refers to this sexist language.) This might well apply to male ideas everywhere but India does seem particularly mired in this form of sexism. The recent film Article 15 (2019) focused on sexual violence in rural Uttar Pradesh and linked it casteism, but The Incessant Fear of Rape takes place in the National Capital Territory and involves the ‘New Women’ of India. The women want to ‘break’ their captive and to publicise the lesson they are giving. I won’t give away the ending which is in some ways shocking, but on reflection makes some sense after I read about the Delhi bus gang rape in 2012. The Incessant Fear of Rape is a disturbing narrative – as it should be. The women’s fear is understandable but their actions might be considered excessive in relation to what the man did and they conjure up ideas about vigilantism and revenge which aren’t lawful. What do we make of the moral questions about their actions alongside our thoughts about the social evils of rape?

Vibha and Chitra after they have taken the man captive

I did the film disturbing to watch but it certainly made me think about rape in new ways and overall I thought it was an example of how a different kind of ‘social’ film could expose the issue and engage an audience. But how is it as a ‘film’? It’s low budget and classifiable as an ‘Indian Independent’. I don’t think the film has been released to cinemas in India but it is available on Netflix and that’s how I accessed it in the UK. Since I don’t have a Netflix account I had to watch it at a friend’s house. One weakness in the film, which may have been attributable to how the Netflix signal was received, was the poor sound quality. I had difficulty hearing the English dialogue used by some of the women and the music didn’t come across well, especially the bass notes in the guitar track which ran through several sequences. Aditi Sharma’s camerawork, following on from Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, uses mainly ‘available light’ and works to represent the harsh environments. The empty print shop is sometimes bathed in different single colours. The mise en scène of Vibha’s apartment offers us artworks, a shelf of books and film posters. I recognised a poster for Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), a parallel film starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Vibha is cine-literate and Aditya Kripalani was an FTII graduate. He is also a novelist and the eclectic selection of popular fiction and biographies on Vibha’s shelves made me think about where my images of Gurgaon and ‘New India’ came from and I think they are literary, for instance from Chetan Baghat or Aravind Adiga novels. Chitra’s apartment has another display of artworks and the lives of all four women are quickly sketched out in a series of montages.

The Incessant Fear of Rape is a raw, vital film about a serious issue in the ‘New India’. It deserves a wide audience and a thorough discussion of its ideas.

Documentary, truth and eagle hunters

Father and daughter in the Altai hills of Mongolia – one of the promo images from THE EAGLE HUNTRESS

We saw The Eagle Huntress back in January and though I enjoyed the film there were several things about it that made me circumspect. It purported to be a documentary about a young teenage girl in Mongolia training an eagle, flying it at a festival and taking it on a hunt. The film was ‘presented by’ Daisy Ridley and championed as an example of ‘girl power’. When I began to research the background to the film I realised that it would make an interesting case study for film and media students and I wrote a short piece for the MediaMagazine (a publication for 16-19 year-olds taking A Level Film/Media Studies). Unfortunately MediaMagazine is only accessible online to subscribers and its production cycle is quite long. I feared that the film might disappear from view before the magazine reached schools and colleges.

Issue 60 of MM includes my short piece on The Eagle Huntress

What I hadn’t realised was just how strongly some of the film’s critics felt about what they were beginning to discover about the film’s production and distribution. After my original posting I began to receive tweets from one of the principal investigators, Meghan Fitz-James in Vancouver, and from others. I found myself re-writing the original post and also publishing some of the comments I received. You can find the post and comments on https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/the-eagle-huntress-uk-mongolia-us-2016/. Since then, Meghan has kept working and kept exposing more aspects of the story. You can access all of her work via her twitter feed @MeghanfjFitz. What she has discovered is another example of a familiar story that has been told about supposedly ‘documentary’ filmmaking going back 100 years or more, but in 2017 is seen in the context of social media and a new level of globalised exploitation of people and cultures.

The background to the controversy is neatly set out in the (English language) clip from France TV above. I’m not surprised  by the evidence that has been uncovered but I am amazed by what it is possible to find using social media and internet searches (and a great deal of effort and no little expense). The research also includes visits to Mongolia and direct contact with some of the key figures in the story. Thinking about the ways in which the filmmaker Otto Bell and his various collaborators on the production and subsequent distribution of the film have gone about their business, I’m conscious of the failure of film studies to properly educate audiences about what they are watching.

Film studies has explored how documentaries have been made and has classified the different documentary modes that have developed since the 1920s. We’ve known and accepted for a long time that documentaries may include ‘re-constructions’. It’s not the practice itself that’s an issue, it’s the deception – the attempt to pass something off as ‘real’. In the last twenty to thirty years, two things have happened alongside the development of digital technologies. Firstly, the explosion of forms of ‘reality TV’ and ‘infotainment’ have undermined the sense and purpose of traditional documentary practice. Secondly, the ability to create digital images that appear ‘real’ but have actually been created not through a camera but by photo software has discredited ‘photographic realism’ so that for many, ‘realism’ is no longer an issue.

Alongside this undermining of documentary as a practice that can inform as well as create art is the gradual de-politicisation of film and media education. In this respect, the furore created by the investigators of the production of Eagle Huntress has demonstrated that film studies needs cultural studies and social anthropology to engage with the subjects of this kind of documentary narrative. It is also important to confront the adoption of ‘girlpower’ as a promotional and marketing tool rather than a liberating ideology for young women in different cultures and to recognise the perils of an ‘orientalist’ approach to stories set in parts of Asia that are not regularly represented in western media. What saddens me also is that a public agency such as the British Film Institute should have helped to fund distribution of a film like this without first investigating the story behind it. At least the BBC has carried reports that contest aspects of the film’s story. We all need to be careful as we watch and enjoy films and then sit down to write about them.

The Eagle Huntress (UK-Mongolia-US 2016)

One of many stunning promotional shots for 'The Eagle Huntress'

One of many stunning promotional shots for ‘The Eagle Huntress’

The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.

So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).

Aishoplan studies hard in school . . .

Aisholpan studies hard in school . . . (photo: Asher Svidensky)

The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film.  In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?

Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?

When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:

Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)

Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:

. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .

Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).

The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:

(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)

Tomboy (France 2011)

Lisa (Jeanne Disson, left) and Laure/Mikael (Zoé Héran)

Lisa (Jeanne Disson, left) and Laure/Mikael (Zoé Héran)

Céline Sciamma is about to become much better known as her new film Bande de filles (Girlhood) is currently drawing enthusiastic audiences and critical attention in Paris. Before I review that film, after it appeared at the London Film Festival, I thought it might be useful to look at Sciamma’s second feature, Tomboy.

All three of Sciamma’s features involve questions about gender roles – the first, Water Babies (France 2007) focused on 15 year-old girls at a swimming pool. The ‘tomboy’ of the title in her second film is Laure (Zoé Héran) a skinny 10 year-old whose family is moving to a new flat somewhere in the Île-de-France region. It’s summer and the area is a fantastic playground for the local children with woods and a lake as well as a tarmac football pitch. Laure quickly meets Lisa – a girl possibly a year or two older but certainly much more developed in her progress through puberty. Laure tells Lisa that her name is Mikael and allows her to think that her new friend is a boy. At home, Laure’s mother is heavily pregnant with her third child (a boy) and Laure’s younger sister, 6 year-old Jeanne, wants to join the gang of children playing outside. At first Laure refuses to take her along – she might accidentally reveal the deception about Laure’s gender identity. But of course Laure will be ‘exposed’ at some point anyway . . .

I spent an interesting time on IMDB and other sites looking at reactions to the film. Although most were very positive, there were one or two angry commentators from LGBTQ communities who accuse Sciamma of not knowing what she is doing or misrepresenting transgendered people. I don’t know anything about Ms Sciamma’s gender orientation but I do think that she’s been extremely careful not to present a polemic or a campaign or to take a moral stance on anything in particular. (As an aside, Tomboy was distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures which specialises in LGBT films and ‘World Cinema’ more generally.) Audiences are entitled to ‘read’ Laure/Mikael’s behaviour in whatever way they wish. My take is that the reaction of Laure to Lisa’s opening question (implying that Laure is a boy) is to simply run with the mistake because it gives her a chance to experience being a boy as a gender role.

There are a couple of interesting observations to make, however. The imminent arrival of a baby brother, who will be able to do the things that Laure thinks she is prevented from doing (e.g. playing football) must cause her some distress/pressure. As one of the IMDB users points out, it might be that Laure has been encouraged by her father to do ‘masculine’ things like drink beer and steer the family car. The scenes that seem to have caused the most offence refer to the actions of the mother (who is faced with the consequences of Laure’s actions and worries what will happen when she starts at her new school at the end of the holidays). Earlier in the film there is a gnomic reference to the family always being on the move. Has Laure done this before? There is no explanation (unless I missed it) as to why they have moved so often.

Whatever we make of these controversies, it is clear that Céline Sciamma is a talented filmmaker. Tomboy is a short feature (82 mins) but it is beautifully-paced. The children’s play is handled very well and they all perform in a natural way. The little sister is perhaps a tad precocious, but such children exist and she is actually quite charming. This is an example of using a small budget wisely and with good imagination, taking a simple story idea and following it through with wit and humour and compassion. I’ve got to go and find Water Lilies now. If you haven’t seen Tomboy it has been on BBC4 (so may reappear) and it is available on DVD/Blu-ray from Peccadillo.