Bluebell develops out of my published research on Angela Carter's reappropriation of Red Riding Hood in the short story 'The Company of Wolves', the radio and film adaptations and their reception by feminist critics (see Andrea Dworkin, Patricia Dunker, Avis Lewallen and Maggie Anwell). Jack Zipes suggests that Red Riding Hood is one of many rape narratives that have traditionally functioned to acculturate young girls to their expected gender roles (see 'The Rape of Dinah', Genesis 34). However, the academic theory of 'rape culture' could be argued to do little to empower women. My research uses the cliché of 'stranger' rape to set up and upset audience expectations of rape narrative, challenging the construction of women as the victims rather than survivors of rape. Resituating these arguments in my own film practice has enabled me to gain a new perspective on the complex issues of gender, sexuality and visual representation.
My research formally experiments with non-linear narrative, disrupting the Aristotelian unities of time, place and character (see Rosemary Jackson) and using cliché, exaggeration, repetition (see Maya Deren Meshes of the Afternoon), flashback and revelation to trouble audience expectation of rape narrative. The limited space of the short film forces a creative use of narrative 'shorthand'. Clare Hanson suggests that the ellipses and gaps in short narrative forms leave space for the reader's imagination. My research aims to encourage an active spectatorship in which the spectator is "moved" both physiologically, by the cut, in relation to space (and time), and also in terms of emotional affect (see Stephen Heath and Mary Anne Doane). I am also concerned with the location and mise-en-scene of rape (see Straw Dogs, Irreversible) and the relationship between memory and place (Inga Burrows and Rachel Pain's research on fear of crime and gendered use of public space).
How might a feminist filmmaker approach the visual representation of rape? My research reflects on the creative process, including scriptwriting, casting character development, rehearsing and workshopping the rape scene with actors (in contrast with Sam Peckenpah's withholding of the details of the rape scene from actor, Susan George in Straw Dogs, and her negotiation over how she wanted to be portrayed, including use of close ups on her face to align the spectator with her subjectivity), blocking scenes with the camera (scene coverage, shot selection, camera angle, use of continuity editing – as opposed to the locked off long shot used in Irreversible), on set (developing a relationship with male DOP as a first time, female director), editing (intense discussions about whether to ditch wide shots of rape, and cross-cutting between the rape and tickling scene), music, sound design and picture grade (intensifying the blacks and contrasting blue for bluebells in past and present).
Media Arts Research Seminar,
London South Bank University (Oct 2004)
AMPE / MeCCSA Joint Annual Conference,
University of Lincoln (Jan 2005)
Language, Communication, Culture 3rd International Conference,
Evora University, Portugal (Nov 2005)
Emotional Geographies 2nd International Interdisciplinary Conference,
Queens University, Kingston, Ontario (May 2006)
Peer Review and Dissemination of Media Practice Research Symposium,
(invited, plus expenses), Salford University & JMP (June 2006)
Centre for Media Research Seminar,
(invited, plus expenses) Ulster University (Nov 2006)
Narrative, Anti-Narrative, Non-Narrative Conference,
University of the West of England (Nov 2006)
Showcasing Women Screening, Women's Media Studies Network,
Lincoln (Jan 2005)
'Director's Notes', Showreel Magazine (April 2005)
Charlotte Crofts (2007), "Bluebell, Short Film and Feminist Film Practice As
Research: Strategies for Dissemination and Peer Review" in
Journal of Media Practice, Vol. 8, No. 1, June.
ScreenWork peer-reviewed DVD of Screen Media Practice Research (Sept 2007)
Anonymous ScreenWork Reviews
Review 1: Recommendation - 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. It’s 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 filmmaker, 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 filmmaking 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 than 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 filmmaking that allows the rough poetry, the visual excitement, of these girls’ existence, to have a place on the screen.
Review 2: Recommendation - 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: Recommendation - Accept
Awaiting full text
Review of Bluebell screened at the Narrative/Non-Narrative/Anti-Narrative Conference organised by University of the West of England (November 2006):
Bluebell is the story of a schoolgirl walking through a sublime bluebell forest of birch trees. A young man appears and rapes her. As she is being raped, a bluebell gives her a surreal flash. She grabs a stone and kills the rapist. Visiting a gynaecologist to have an abortion, she runs out, deciding to keep the child. She has a daughter and returns to the gorgeous location of the rape with her toddler daughter.
At the beginning of the film the little girl asks why she is called Bluebell, a question the film sets out to answer in non-linear fashion. The plot jumps in time and juxtaposes the rape with the revisiting of the forest and thus renders the emotional complexity of the woman’s predicament in a disturbing way.
Presenting her own film, auteur Charlotte Crofts indicated that rape narratives and collective representations of rape were inspirational to the story. She wanted to offer a counter-view, a more empowering vision of women overcoming rape experiences, as opposed to the prevailing victimisation generally circulated in the media. Having completed a PhD on the work of Angela Carter, Crofts was inspired by the work of Angela Carter and her Little Red Riding Hood version – In the Company of Wolves.
Crofts envisions Little Red Riding Hood as a ‘rape narrative’. Regardless of how far one goes in the interpretation of the fairytale, Little Red definitely is a story developed to prepare children for the dangers of life outside the safety of the home. It’s a story about distrusting (sexual) others. Fairy tales have gone soft in times of political correctness and soft parenting. Fear is avoided, closure preferred.
As Crofts pointed out, the irony is that most rape incidents happen in the private – not the public – sphere. But we still keep demonising the public space. We can’t walk through a park or idyllic public piece of nature without asking ourselves where the paedophiles and rapists are hiding. Crofts' images of the schoolgirl walking through the forest are a disturbing and thought-provoking staging of the thoughts that condition us today. It’s almost as if beauty has lost its innocence.
The most poignant moment is the juxtaposition of the rape and the mother rolling around with her daughter. It’s a mise-en-abyme embracing the complexity of the situation. When I showed it to my film production students at The Arts Institute at Bournemouth some were disturbed by the ambiguity of the parallel editing. In her introduction, Crofts revealed that her editor had been against including the scene, as she found it too disturbing. Crofts decided to keep this crucial juxtapositioning and her film thus accentuates the complexity of real life. Dream and nightmare, beauty and ugliness are inseparable and cohabit the same spaces, whether real, imaginary or hybrid.
Bluebell also highlights that parenting is always – by extension - a violation of the self. Being a parent means relinquishing part of the self, opening it up to the other. Individual parents often want their children to be as they were and have a similar experience, to be identical to them or to fulfil their unrealised dreams. Having children means mixing up the self with the other. The child is an eternal reminder of the relationship, whether originating in desire (love) or force (rape). This is not to say that Bluebell embellishes rape. It stresses and dramatises the ambivalence and discomfort - to put it mildly - of living with the rape, while also offering an extreme case study of the experience of parenthood. By extension, it points to the fears of parenthood as much as the fear of rape.
The girl choosing to walk out from the abortion suggests the powerlessness of science and medicine in particular to deal with inter-personal violence. The gynaecologist can interrupt the pregnancy, but not take away the memory of the experience. All that medicine can leave is a wound. A scar. A nightmare.
When the child is born, the memory can be turned into something more positive. The scene with the child is set in the location of the rape. The beauty of the child and of the spot may be forever contaminated by the violation, but by having a daughter she loves – and who loves her, the mother has the power to reclaim a more positive meaning for this space. Choosing to have the child has empowered her.
The choice to keep the child is made during the rape. The girl sees a bluebell flickering in a moment of magic realism… A wink of destiny, fate or creation? A moment of beauty in the midst of a nightmare? Hope? A way out? This seems to be the girl’s understanding. She ‘sees the light’, grabs the stone and kills the rapist, then decides to keep the child. The flickering bluebell is the moment when she gains control, when she goes from being a passive victim to actively dealing with the obstacle she has been confronted with.
Bluebell is a powerful film that doesn’t sentimentalise but skilfully deconstructs rape as a socio-cultural narrative, personal experience and contemporary myth. If this film was the answer, what was the question asked by the historical unconscious? How to live with rape (and its associated intrusions)? As argued earlier, this film also offers what might be a controversial take on parenthood, so the question could also be about how to be a parent. The answer given by the film is that we have to embrace complexity.
Anti-abortionists could argue that the flickering flower is a child’s call for help. Bluebell wants to live, not be aborted. In other words, the desire for a child to be born doesn’t only stem from two adults having sex, but also from a child’s will to be born. This raises interesting questions and heightens the complexity of the situation and is yet another indication of the multiple layers and richness of the film.
It’s a short but very powerful film, not to say provocative, as it can also be said to take a cold and disengaged look at a horrible phenomenon. But this is exactly the point of the film: it shows a woman taking control after an experience that could have destroyed her, or that would have done so according to the dominant narrative and representational patterns.
The girl loses in innocence. She is hurt. But she is a survivor (she even kills the rapist) and manages to live with the wound and even find new energy/life in the tragedy – a daughter. Inevitably, her daughter will always remind her of the terrible experience, but there’s hope, as she can pull the nightmare towards the dream, regain the beauty of the location for the cause of love and dreams as opposed to the rape nightmare. She has the pleasure of watching her Bluebell grow up.
(Arts Institute at Bournemouth)
Review of Bluebell screened at the Narrative/Non-Narrative/Anti-Narrative Conference organised by University of the West of England (November 2006):
In simple terms Bluebell tells the tale of a rape of a young woman resulting in a pregnancy and the birth of a daughter. It is told through snatches of memory and glimpses of the woman’s present as she plays with the child. The scenes for both the rape and the mother’s interactions with the child take place in the same landscape. The purple carpet of the flowers and the strong verticals of the trees obsessively running through each are further underscored with cheery "plinky tinky" music.
Bluebell is not a straightforward rape film or even a rape scene. The camera angles simultaneously make the viewer victim (when looking up at the grey sky and a near leafless twig) and attacker (voyeuristically panning up the schoolgirls legs for instance). By using flashbacks of events in both short clip form, and static images zipped through at high speeds, a huge amount is told in a tiny space of time. The inclusion of the woman’s obvious love for her child further complicates the narrative since it is not a clear ‘rape is always terrible’ structure. In an alarming, but highly emotional cutting, we see a juxtaposition of the child screaming, whilst being tickled, alongside her mother being raped. The child’s screams are presented in contrast to the mother’s increasing muteness.
Sound and colour are used with real dramatic effect. The bluebell flowers appear brighter, healthier even, before the rape and whilst the child is playing. During the attack they look scraggy and grey, with the exception of one that glimmers in the woman’s vision. Similarly the colours in the doctor’s surgery and the toilet where she vomits are muted and pale, as though the times where she lacks control over her own body must be dimmed. The edge of the doctor’s curtain is outlined in a darker colour presenting a visual replication of labial lips complete with the folds in the fabric. This becomes menacing with sounds of the doctor’s speculum taking on tortuous properties.
Whilst the woman is being raped we are presented with a moment that is almost fantastic but is promptly ruined with the addition of a special effect. A glint has been added to the single bluebell that she is focusing on - like the star that so often appears in the corner of a bright white cartoon smile, rendering the moment cheesy. This is further ruined with a sound effect like a star popping. This is a huge shame since the viewer has already recognised that the woman’s lingering gaze signifies her ability to both endure and resist. It is this moment that makes the woman’s choice of name for the child – Bluebell – make sense and not seem sadistic, as on first impression. This over egging of a moment is rare though, and perhaps the only moment where the viewer is not credited with the ability to understand and empathise.
(Visiting Lecturer in Art, Media and Design, University of the West of England)
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