Author: Charlotte Crofts
Format: 35mm film
As a feminist filmmaker, is it possible to represent rape without reproducing patriarchal power relations?
How do the formal, aesthetic and technical choices of the filmmaker impact on the way in which rape is constructed?
How do location and mise-en-scene contribute to the emotional geography of rape narrative?
What opportunities does short film offer for the emergent feminist filmmaker?
Rape Narrative and Visual Representation
Bluebell develops out of my published research on Angela Carter’s feminist reappropriation of Red Riding Hood in the short story (1979), radio (1980) and film adaptations (1984) of ‘The Company of Wolves’ (Crofts 1998, 2003). Jack Zipes (1983) suggests that Red Riding Hood is one of many rape narratives that have traditionally functioned to acculturate young girls to their expected gender roles. However, some feminist academics argue that Carter simply reproduces the patriarchal power relations of the original fairy tale (see Andrea Dworkin 1982, Patricia Dunker 1984, Avis Lewallen 1988). According to Maggie Anwell (1988), this is even more the case when her work is translated to film, reflecting a wider concern with whether feminist politics in general can survive the transposition to the screen without being ‘reduced, manipulated – even travestied – by the underlying market forces’. Having engaged extensively with feminist debates around gender, visual representation and spectatorship in my academic writing (with reference to Laura Mulvey 1977, 1996, Maggie Humm 1997, Ann E Kaplan 1997 amongst others), it has been illuminating to explore these issues through practice.
Process and Formal/Aesthetic Choices
In presentations about my research I reflect on the creative process, discussing the rehearsal of the rape scene with the actors (in contrast with Sam Peckinpah’s original choice to withhold his intentions of the rape scene from Susan George in Straw Dogs (1971)), blocking scenes with the camera (the implications of my choice to use continuity editing, as compared to the seven-minute locked off “objective” long shot used in Gaspar Noë’s Irreversible (2001)), the sexual politics on set (gaining the trust of the male DOP as a first time, female director), editing (intense discussions about cross-cutting between the rape and tickling scene and whether to ditch the wide shots of rape) and post production choices (such as finding the right sound for the bluebells and using contrasting colour temperatures for the bluebells / intensifying the blacks in the picture grade to differentiate between past and present).
Location, Mise-en-scene and the Emotional Geography of Rape
My research engages with other feminist film practice such as Chantal Akerman, Catherine Breillat’s, and contemporary academic screen media practice research on gender, memory and place, by Inga Burrows and Carol Stevens. Through reflecting on my practice I return to the discussion of spectatorship and narrative space by such seminal film theorists as Mary Anne Doane (1991), Annette Khun (1982, 1995) and Stephen Heath (1977), as well as drawing on the more contemporary socio-cultural theorization of the social and psychological construction of space such as Rachel Pain’s research on gender, social exclusion and fear of public space (1997, 2001) and work by feminist narrative psychologists, such as Janice Haaken (1998), Mary Gergen (2001) and Michele L. Crossley (2000)).
Short Narrative Forms
Clare Hanson (1989) suggests that the ellipses and gaps in short narrative forms leave space for the reader’s imagination. My research aims to encourage just such an active spectatorship, formally experimenting with non-linear narrative, disrupting the Aristotelian unities of time, place and character (see Rosemary Jackson 1981) and using cliché, exaggeration, repetition, flashback and revelation to trouble audience expectation of rape narrative.
With the politics of rape and representation being so loaded, particularly when translated into film, my research questions could only be fully addressed by shifting my focus from pure film theory to film practice situated in a research context using a reflexive and embodied research methodology.
Resituating these arguments in my own film practice has enabled me to gain a new perspective on and contribute to ongoing debates around rape narrative, gender and visual representation.
Film Festivals, Screenings and Reviews:
Industry Preview, Cube Cinema, Bristol (Jan 2004)
University of Bristol MA Film and TV Alumni Showcase (Feb 2004)
Women in Independent Film Showcase, London (July 2004)
Rushes Soho Short Film Festival, London (July/Aug 2004)
*Palm Springs International Festival of Short Film (Aug 2004)
*Los Angeles International Short Film Festival (Sept 2004)
BBC Night of Many Stars Festival, London (Oct 2004)
*Seagate Foyle International Film Festival, Derry (Nov 2004)
Showcasing Women, Women’s Media Studies Network, Lincoln (Jan 2005)
Shoot and Slice Screening, London (Feb 2005)
Reviewed in Showreel Magazine (April 2005)
Coronet, Elephant & Castle, double bill with Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (May 2005)
Imaginaria International Film Festival, Conversano, Italy (Aug 2005)
British Society of Cinematographers New Talent Showcase, Pinewood studies (Oct 2006)
[*Academy Award shortlists for the categories Best Animated Short†and Best Live Action Short are made up of prize-winners of ‘Oscar nominating’ festivals, those marked with an asterisk above].
Conferences, Symposia and Research Seminars:
Media Arts Research Seminar, London South Bank University (Oct 2004)
AMPE / MeCCSA Annual Conference, University of Lincoln (Jan 2005)
3rd International Language, Communication, Culture Conference, Evora University, Portugal (Nov 2005)
2nd International Emotional Geographies Interdisciplinary Conference, Queens University, Ontario (May 2006)
JMP Symposium on Dissemination and Peer Review of Practice Research, Salford University (June 2006) (invited, plus expenses; published in Journal of Media Practice)
Centre for Media Research Seminar (invited, plus expenses), Ulster University (Nov 2006)
Narrative/Non-Narrative/Anti-Narrative Conference, University of the West of England (in association with Encounters International Film Festival), Bristol (Nov 2006)
The film has also been acquired by the British Film Institute Archive and the University of Technology, Sydney Library.
Support in kind from Granada Media, Films@59, BBC Bristol, Casualty, Icon Films, Film Labs North, Kodak, The Finishing School, Marks and Spencer and Lee Lighting.
Funding from LSBU:
Faculty Small Research Grant, £1000 (for 35mm transfer and screening tapes).
Faculty Small Research Grant, £600 (international conference attendance).
Faculty Small Research Grant, £1000 (website design)
Department of Arts, Media and English support for attendance at all other national and international conferences and film festivals in Los Angeles, Ireland and Italy (see below).
Crofts, C. (2007), ‘Bluebell, short film and feminist film practice as research: Strategies for dissemination and peer review’, Journal of Media Practice 8.1, pp 7-24
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows
Review 1: Accept
Bluebell has already achieved some success in the Industry festival circuit. This is a narrative short, with the script as its most essential ingredient. It is a well told story, well shot, well edited, actually in the prevailing industry conventions of realist film-making, and has achieved the film festival screenings that demonstrate its quality. From the text we read that the research questions centre around issues of constructing rape as a feminist filmmaker without reproducing patriarchal relations, with particular reference to the formal, aesthetic and technical choices, including location and mise-en-scene. The research outcome has been to “resituate those arguments in my own film practice has enabled me to gain a new perspective on and contribute to ongoing debates around rape narrative, gender and visual representation”.
The text indicates extensive engagement with the field – a thorough literature review is cited, with examples of other rape scenes in cinema which provide a precedent that will be opposed both in terms of shot and screen presence, and in terms of working with the actors and film crew. The text indicates that the filmmaker has researched the active spectatorship described by Clare Hanson, and has intended to “formally experiment with non-linear narrative…using cliché, exaggeration, repetition, flashback and revelation to trouble audience expectation of rape narrative”. I watched the film before I read the accompanying text. The use of flashback, switches in time seemed unremarkable in terms of what we expect from film storytelling in 2006 – in other words, they did not strike me as unexpected or even as non-realist. It was within the story-telling, however, that two moments did illustrate how the filmmaker’s intention to disrupt expected narrative is achieved: the first clear break from the expected storyline is when the woman who has been raped refuses to let the nurse insert a speculum in her vagina. Instead, she leaves the hospital. It is a quietly filmed and quietly acted rejection, unexplained, and quickly passed over. But it left me thinking ‘She has refused to be a rape victim’. For this (female) viewer, it feels quite shocking, that the protagonist would walk away from those who are supposedly there to help – that she might deny the medical staff some essential information that would lead to her own healing, and the identification of her rapist.
The second surprising moment is the montage of the woman, now a mother (it seems as the result of the rape), tickling her daughter in the same bluebell grove where she was raped. This tickling sequence is intercut with the rape scene as the protagonist’s memory. Its uncomfortable mainly because the intercut produces something like paedophilia by proxy, as the shots of the man’s rape are followed within fractions of a second by the girls’ giggles. Like my obedient response ‘ she is refusing to be a rape victim’ I can hear in my head a line I could imagine the director might to produce ‘ she has replaced the rape with tickling, replaced the sexual violence with mother-love’. Even more, the protagonist has taken on the mythic powers of Kali, or Durga, or The Great Mother, when she picks up the stone and hits the rapist’s head, killing him. She has become the two-handed, ancient object of patriarchal fear – the One who takes life with one hand, and recalls it, with the other. But this is not implicit in the film, which remains realist in its choice of shots and framing. This is what I, a viewer, bring as an interpretation of the action.
However, these reflections were produced in me by the film. I remained focused on the film throughout its length, although I did not become emotionally involved, but obedient to the storytelling set up by the film-maker, who set up expectation, conflict, resolution, in the classic structure.– ‘I wanted to know what would happen next’ and that kept me attentive. I have thought about the film since. I was disappointed with the lack of pleasure, and lack of emotion, and lack of aesthetic encounter. The viscerality of film was absent. There were no images to lose myself in. However, it could be that this is what the director intended. She wanted to arrest my desire for an experience that would work on me emotionally, visually, sensually. She wanted instead to keep hold of my interest, just enough, that I didn’t switch off, and so that my rational, verbal, responses would be brought into play. So I congratulate her. And if she wants to make films for me (and why would she?) then she could perhaps bring her intelligence and organisational zeal in at a later stage to the film-making process, and allow the work to well out of her unconscious, that ripe provider of the delicious, the terrifying, the inexplicable.
Does this film and text work as research? I think it does work as research, and interestingly, for more or less the same reasons why I felt a little short-changed by it as a film. It replaced pleasure with critical reflection. Its (somewhat clumsy) illustration of its thesis – reappropriating the feminine – were articulated through the story, and conveyed to me. I ‘got’ it. I agree in principle that the area of gender is central and important. This is evident even in my need to point out that I am a female reviewer, which I do as a courtesy for the reader, who I expect will interpret my intervention differently if it comes from a man or a woman, and because the identification with the character, which is one of the main grammatical keys in this convention of story-telling, is usually different for a man and a woman, especially in a rape scene. But my main point is this- could there be film as research that allows the full range of emotion, of visual pleasure, that works unconsciously as well as consciously, that re-appropriates the language of the female, not just as textual illustration of a thesis, but as dream and seduction? I would like to point to some film that I think does this successfully, although it is much longer and documentary, rather thanb fiction. However, Charlotte Crofts might find the references to rape, and their place in the reality of a particular group of women’s lives, relevant in These Girls (68 mins 2006 , by Tahani Rached Egypt). It is an example of film-making that allows the rough poetry, the visual excitement, of these girl’s existence, to have a place on the screen.
Review 2: Reject
The short film that Crofts has sent us is a fairly accomplished fictional short, sumptuously shot, if awkwardly acted at times. It suggests nothing so much as “calling card” for future commercial projects. I see little theoretical value in and of the film itself, as it is highly debatable as to whether Crofts is seriously engaging the questions she poses in her brief written report. Choices such as casting a “movie star” like, attractive, man as the “rapist/father” make one wonder in what way Crofts is attempting anything very different from more commercial rape scenes. There is nothing in form or content that leads me to believe the filmmaker is attempting anything particularly new or innovative with regard to her central research questions. The written report itself is the real reason for my negative recommendation, however. The questions she sets up as her research questions are naïve to the point of illiterate, in feminist terms. It’s as if Crofts thinks she is inventing the wheel on this, as if feminists haven’t been debating (heatedly, I might add) questions of power, domination, phallocentrism and representation since the 1970s. Of course, she does make vague reference to some of those very feminist debates, but with little or no evidence of comprehension. I think her fourth “research” question is her most honest: “What opportunities does short film offer for the emergent feminist filmmaker?”. This filmmaker is much more concerned with her opportunities in the market than the opportunity to seriously interrogate difficult but well-worn questions.
Review 3: Accept
This is a beautiful short film, very well shot and post-produced. It is also very ambitious as a piece of research, which the accompanying text (which also follows the ScreenWork guidelines closely) makes clear. The well articulated research questions and context in the accompanying text put the work in the tradition of feminist filmmaking and scholarship, to which the work is intended to contribute. In my view it does this substantially – primarily through the ways in which the filmmaker experiments with non-linear narrative. So my recommendation would be that we accept both the screen work and the statement (with some minor recommendations – see ‘the accompanying text’ below).
The screen work:
This is a very assured piece of filmmaking with high production values, economically and gracefully edited (with no slack in its short length) . The central device – of moving between the film’s ‘present’ with Juliette and her daughter Bluebell, and the ‘past’ trauma of Juliette’s rape experience – is an original way in which to explore an alternative and non-exploitative representation of rape, particularly because of the risky (but in my view effective) strategy of intercutting Juliette’s ‘innocent’ relationship with her daughter, with the brutality of the rape and her fighting back. The performances (particularly the little girl), the music, cinematography and the editing are all polished and professional, well suited to a film which the filmmaker describes as ‘a feminist strategy to engage with the mainstream realist mode’ (Crofts 2007: 18).
The accompanying text:
The text provides a very useful context for the film, in a recognisable and clear structure. My comments/suggestions below are mainly minor quibbles, and partly informed by reading Charlotte’s JMP illuminating article (Crofts 2007).
In the first research question, should it be ‘represent’ rather than ‘construct’?
In the second paragraph for ‘Context’ wasn’t the actor in Straw Dogs Susan George?
I think a bibliography/filmography would be very useful at the end of the Context section (presumably substantially the same as in the JMP article).
In fact, is it possible to make a PDF of the article available on the ScreenWork DVD? It provides a much fuller discussion of the film than is possible in this text. If not I would certainly suggest that the sentence I quoted above about her strategy is added to this text. Whilst I think the film does ‘trouble audience expectation of rape narratives’ I think it is important for our reading of the film as research that we know that it attempts to do this within a mainstream tradition.