This last week I watched two films on childhood and expectations. One was the Academy Award winning documentary I Am A Promise about first to fifth graders in a Philadelphia inner city school and the second was the French film Innocence, which I first noticed a year ago when DVD copies were selling on ebay’s pedophile ring for over $100. Several foreign film watchers assured me that it was not a film for pedophiles of pre-pubescent girls in the same way Baikal films is for pre-pubescent boys so I gave it a watch.
Innocence starts out with swirling, turgid water images which reveal themselves as rolling undercurrents of a green and beautiful stream. This is the theme of the film. We are shown beautiful forests, but then notice that there are air grills on the forest floor leading down to underground tunnels from which there is a rumbling approach; always the darkness behind the reality. We see a coffin and some girls come in. We can’t see their faces, only looking at their young legs, and up their pure white miniskirts. Their bodies are interchangeable. The coffin opens and inside is a naked girl, the newest occupant of this particular place. “Will my brother come?” She is told no, boys are not allowed here, nor are family or visits. There are just girls, who each year exchange hair ribbons, from red up to violet, after which the girls disappear. There is only 1 ribbon colour in each house, five houses and the oldest girl, the violet ribbon, must leave for an hour to disappear each night following a lit path through the forest. There is no education beyond dance instruction and a sort of biology class whose focus is animal life, reproduction and sex. The biology teacher calls the students her caterpillars, who may turn into butterflies, “But not all will.” She murmurs to herself. Her hobby? Collecting and mounting butterflies. If you try to escape, as another newly abducted girl tries, you die. They must play, but are often watched by adult faces in the background.
Innocence is a film about sexual exploitation of young girls through forced expectations. These girls have their childhood and ideas of sexuality dominated by this artificial system which enacts male fantasies about the innocence of little girls. The girls, always in perfectly white mini-skirts and outfits, always with little girl hair and ribbons, go about playing, sometimes naked, sometime turning a kiss quickly into whipping the soft white legs with a birch branch. We find that the oldest girls are forced to perform in an underground secret stage their dancing for a crowd of men. “You are the prettiest” a 50 year old male voice calls throwing a rose on stage. We have a close up of the girl’s face in confusion, but later she examines her naked body in the mirror trying to understand. And all the time, the girls are told by their teachers, “obedience is the only path to happiness.” This has very little to do with childhood and much more to do with creating girls who only can view themselves and the world in one way. Each year the headmistress comes to pick one of the girls to take away. One girl is told that as her period is approaching, she will taken away, outside, “Where you will know how to make good use of those legs”.
The director has said in an interview that what males and females bring to this film will be very different. And the reviews on this film fall directly down the gender line, with Marcy from About.com saying, “I couldn't stop thinking about pedophiles while I watched Lucile Hadzihalilovic's surreal film "Innocence."… Creepy is not strong enough a word.” and Elizabeth of the New York Daily says, “a mysteriously isolated French boarding school, perfectly turned-out little girls are being carefully groomed for ... what, exactly?” Male reviewers like Phil on IMB see it as “an allegory of a young girl's development into womanhood”, Michael from the Village Voice, “The girls, gently examined, indoctrinated, and trained in matters of traditional girlishness,”, Glenn from the Daily Info Oxford “Intriguing, alluring. Perplexing, vexing. All the things a girl wants to be. How appropriate that Innocence, a haunting study of girlhood, is all of these too.” or Thomas on IMB “The film is very much a metaphor for a childhood world which is in many ways separate but also protected from that of adults.”
Several male bloggers/reviews listed Innocence as the best film they had seen about childhood. One has to wonder on viewpoints of a film about the abduction of young girls, forcibly restraining their intelligence and teaching them that the only thing that matters is their aura of purity and their body used for the display/enjoyment of adults. A film where little girls are killed or punished if they disobey before finishing the film with a 20 year old man and 12 year girl old who ALMOST has her period in blatant ejaculation/sexual images is seen as a film about growing up? Or about childhood? Or about developing into a woman? Would these males see films where boys are taught to rub themselves down with oil before wrestling in front of older men and finishing by sitting in the men’s lap as a film about the wonders of a boy’s childhood?
Innocence is the theme of this film, but it is about sexual and social domination of women passing itself off as male fantasies of innocent “girlishness”. The writer/director Lucile Hadzihalilovic does not use accidental imagry. Lucile is the partner and collaborator of Gasper Noe, famous for his film Irreversible, which contains the most explicit, prolonged rape scenes released in mainstream cinema. As Lucile has co-edited Noe’s work, he helped her with her previous project, “her 1996 medium-length film 'La Bouche de Jean-Pierre' (shot by Noé) that she was fascinated by the traumatised perspective of a child's-eye view: that film was about child abuse in a claustrophobic apartment block.” BFI.
Sexual abuse and abuse of children is Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s theme, one which she plays so well that while men are abstracting about the symbols of innocence, women KNOW the horror of constrained sexual expectation that lurks underneath. Some risqué lolita scenes were edited for DVD, and Inspired by the 1888 book, The Corporal Education of Young Girls, I can appreciate the film’s statement about the horror of girls from whom innocence and purity are both social demands but also not only sexual expectations but the very aspects that make them sexual targets. As the New York Times says about the film in a piece entitled, Young Girls and their Bodies, All for the sake of Art: “The line between cinematic art and exploitation has rarely seemed finer and nervier” But since it is a theme few women need or want articulated and since so many men simply fail to get the point, not to mention accepting responsibility for the demands and fantasies in the first place, then this falls back to what a French Film forum asks; “Is Innocence a film for pedophiles?”
I Am a Promise, though no less emotionally exacting, has a far different theme: There are children out there who need us. Following the year of a principal in an inner city Philadelphia elementary school of 600+ students, we get to see the problems first hand. There are students who are smart but only know how to get attention through negative actions like fighting. When the parents, teenagers themselves, are called in the principal often has to calm down a parent planning on beating the child as the solution. There are children as young as 5 and 6 who dress themselves and come down, hours early, while their parents are in jail or passed out high in bed, to wait until the school opens. The free breakfast and lunch is the only food they get all day. There are kids who have moved in with strangers at the age of 6 rather than stay at home. “She’s like a cat that won’t leave.” One older man says about the child living with him, “She calls me her grandfather, but I’m not. She just was waiting here on my steps when I came home.”
We see a first grade class of high risk boys, taught by a male teacher who will be the only male role model they have. These 5 and 6 year old, beyond the regular school curriculum get lessons in what it means when a parent is an alcoholic or a drug addict, and the ways to escape and flee to safety when things go bad. They get instruction on how to stop having nightmares by things they have seen adults doing to each others. The children ask, “What are white people like?” and they discuss it, as there are no white children in the school. One father comes by, and promises to come to help his son every day, but we can see the needle track marks on his hands; he never returns. Students are taught what to do when they come across a used needle, as the staff must clean the school ground of needles EVERY morning. They talk about The Corner, and the principal tries to get the police to not do drug raids when school is releasing. A rumour goes round that a nine year old girl has been abducted and raped, and the frantic father is down at the school with the principal. This is childhood. Maybe a little dirtier, a little more dangerous than the childhood I knew but not all that different from the LA neighborhoods where a bunch of kids would get together to search for bottles to return for deposit, or if someone had a bike, take turns riding, walking on old rail tracks, avoiding the “bad” places and the neighbors with mean dogs, hiding out on rooftops. The playground in I am a Promise has an ex-marine tending kids, and so did my elementary in LA, he came complete in combat fatigues and a bullhorn.
The documentary tells one tale, a child at a time, that these are kids that could make it, with enough help, but that help isn’t coming. One child moves in with his grandmother, who looks about 40, while another mother of three struggles with night jobs after the children’s father leaves them. And while schools in Philadelphia’s suburbs get $8,000-$16,000 per student, this one only gets $4,000. The principal arrives at 5 am and spends her off hours scouring bargain bins at stores for possible school supplies.
After watching the documentary, Linda and I talked and decided that while we don’t have a car, or a lot of money, we are stable and capable of caring for someone. We emailed Big Sisters to let them know that we were a lesbian couple and we wanted to join their Couples for kids program – as there are 10,000 kids in Canada who still need a Big Brother or Big Sister. So far we haven’t heard back, but next week we’ll write them again. I recommend skipping the rental fee for Innocence and getting I am a Promise instead. The kids at the end sing that they are “a promise, a potential.” And they are right. Feminism, LGBT rights, human rights are all about helping to make sure individuals can fulfill their potential. That goes double for those children who never get to show their potential in a world of chaos and fear.
4 hours ago