By Sharon Byrne
That’s meant to be a bit French, before any politically correct types are tempted to throw some fauxrage around…
First, I want to say something to the SBIFF crew:
I’ve been to many film festivals in other cities, as well as ours, over the years. This was well-organized, and professionally run. My press credentials were checked at every event. The opening spot was superb – a brilliant weaving of sponsor thank-you’s into an engaging celebration of Santa Barbara’s film history. Lovely nods to Mike DeGruy. Thank you for bringing families and children in, with Youth Cinemedia, 10-10-10, and free screenings of great animation films. The festival line-up brochure was easy to use. The confusion that normally reigns at film festivals was completely absent, replaced by informed, organized, well-trained teams of volunteers.
OK, now on to Les Girls.
While I recognize that SBIFF programming did not revolve around this theme, nevertheless, due to some strange serendipity created by my schedule’s limited openings, I landed in three screenings that revolved around adolescent girls.
Sadly, it was a rather dismal picture for the world’s girls.
I previously reviewed After Lucia, where bullying moves far beyond anything that could have possibly provoked the Columbine shooting.
I took my 15 year-old daughter, a hopeful-filmmaker, to see Broken. This film, winning some BAFTA awards, revolves around Skunk, an 11 year-old girl full of contradictions and independence that I immediately warmed to. She lives in a London cul-de-sac packed full of difficult neighbors. There’s Rick, living with his parents across the road, who seems to be starkers (stark raving mad). Three harpies live next to him, ranging from 9 to 19, co-habiting with a grief-stricken father, who just lost his wife (like After Lucia). That father acts out his grief in rage when one of the harpies gets knocked up, and blames poor Rick. This sets up the violence that Skunk witnesses, and sends her life into a spiral where many of the adult characters seem to go not just a little bit off, knocking her into a fair amount of disequilibrium.
BAFTA was spot on in picking this one as their top film. It’s packed with great acting, not the least of it by the precocious protagonist, played by Eloise Laurence. I didn’t think it possible to upstage Tim Roth, who plays her father Archie, but she does it all the way through, in spades. You’ll be annoyed with the adults in the film as self-absorbed, but the children hit it out of the park.
The last of my Les Girls trilogy was War Witch, or Rebelle. This Canadian contender in the Oscars foreign film competition was as tough to sit through (for this single mother of a 15 year-old girl) as After Lucia. Komona lives in a village in the Congo, and at age 12, is taken prisoner by invading rebel forces. This is the story of the kidnapped child soldier in Africa. Komona is forced by her abductors to shoot her parents, an act they endorse as preferable to death by machete. We follow her through her 12th, 13th, and 14th years of life. She drinks a ‘magic milk’ in the jungle, obtained by taking a machete to a particular tree, and draining the sap, which looks like milk. All the child prisoners are forced to drink it, but for some reason, only Komona sees ghosts, which serves as a warning for where government soldiers lie in wait to kill this child army of rebel forces. This earns her the title of Guerre Aux Sorcières, or War Witch. A young albino, known as the Magician because of his assortment of various gris-gris cures, takes her under his wing, and further protects her.
After a terrible battle with government soldiers, he decides they have to escape because the rebel leader will kill her at some point (he’s already killed 3 previous war witches) and if he doesn’t, the government soldiers certainly will.
She narrates her story to her unborn child as a 14 year-old about to give birth, deeply conflicted by what’s she’s done, though it was all utterly necessary for her survival.
Rachel Mwanza took the Silver Bear for acting at the Berlin Film Festival. She is stellar in the role, as are the adolescent actresses in After Lucia and Broken.
While these films were deeply thought-provoking, I have to confess that I felt not just a little despair over what the international film circuit is turning in re young girls. The bar in international film is incredibly high. The situation for girls in various parts of the world is every bit as dire as filmmakers have reflected, admittedly. Each of the girls in these three films navigates a dreadful landscape that she is thrust into, snatched out of childhood innocence, in her own way.
But there was little to celebrate in terms of outcomes.
One wonders if perhaps next year we couldn’t have some films from around the globe that are a little more uplifiting, empowering, and, well, darn it, hopeful when it comes to Les Girls.