Saving our children

TIFF 2018 - Part 1 of 3

A scene from Rafiki (Image courtesy of TIFF)

Amidst the socio-political unease of the world, filmmakers this year have seemed preoccupied with examining the ways that adults sometimes struggle with protecting the children they care for. There were two notable scenes from separate films, which both had their North American premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which seemed to be speaking to each other across continents; the Kenyan film “Rafiki” and the American film “Boy Erased.” The two LGBTQ films seemed to emphasise the theme of adult malfeasance in significant ways.

In “Boy Erased” the moment is one the film seems to have been inevitably crawling toward. In the film, Jared Eamons is the son of a Baptist pastor sent to a gay conversion therapy programme after being outed to his parents. Despite the almost banal allure of normalcy and positivity the therapy sessions try to at first induce, we know that this cannot and will not end well. And so, in a late scene one, of the boys who is not responding to the “treatment” is the victim of a quasi-demon-exorcism scene. Prostrate on the ground, the boy lies on the ground as he is beaten with a bible. The bible thumps on his back continuously, the sound resounding throughout the room, as the demons are commanded to leave him.

The moment is reflected in a scene later on in “Rafiki”, a film where two young girls’ burgeoning romance is threatened by the societal and religious responsibilities that affect Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal. A girl sits in a church as a group of church women attempt to expel the demon of homosexuality from her.

To set the moments in the films down via words only makes them both sound almost nonsensical. Almost. Of course, homosexuality is not precipitated by demon possession. And, yet, in actuality both films consider the ways that homophobia manifests itself in ostensibly ridiculous ways, dependent often – although not always – on the shield of religion. The central moment explicates the most potent argument that anti-gay critics use – the bible does not allow and does not endorse it. That, in both cases, these ideas emanate from adults in the films who should know better crystallises the fraught relationship between parent-and-child that both films depend on.

The moments brings the two films together in a way that’s key and essential in 2018 as the Caribbean, and the larger world, wrestles with the realisation that homosexuality is not going anywhere.

I saw “Rafiki” on the same day that India had finally struck down its colonial laws, and decriminalised homosexuality. While chatting with writer/director Wanuri Kahiu at the end of the screening, she grinned when I mentioned the fact. It emphasised the relevance of “Rafiki.” The film itself has been banned in Kenya, where a case is before the courts challenging the constitutionality of its own anti-gay laws. In a late scene, two police officers tease two victims of a hate crime. The law is oftentimes not lawful. But beyond the role law plays in encouraging homophobia, it’s the role of adults and their complicity in harming the children in their stewardship that the four films nod at. The most moving moment in “Boy Erased” understands this, when in a late moment Nicole Kidman, as a mother trying to understand her son’s homosexuality, lashes out as the system that feigns an interest in “fixing” him. “Shame on you,” she bites out. And then, more quietly, “And shame on me.”

It’s her realisation of her complicity that gives the film its true cathartic moment and it’s this awareness that children are forced to grow up earlier than they ought to, that feels especially relevant in 2018. “Rafiki” and “Boy Erased” both look, hopefully through the sadness, to worlds where the gay protagonists can grow beyond the limits of their societies. “Boy Erased,” in particular, hinges its coda on how Jared’s parents can reconcile their religious roles with their roles as parents.

Two less noted releases from the festival, Rima Das’ “Bulbul Can Sing” (India) and Camilla Strøm Henriksen’s “Phoenix” (Sweden) also seek to examine other anxieties that children encounter as they grow up. The films examine varying locales and different time periods but both of them are made vivid and affecting for the way they represent the plight of the teenage girl as a tragic figure labouring under the pressures of the world—a world peopled by adults who seem unable or unwilling to truly wrestle with the difficulty of being young in this world.

“Phoenix” emphasises the relentless lonely for a young girl torn asunder. The girl is Jill. She lives with her mother and younger brother in a modest apartment. She returns home to the remnants of a celebration and is slightly confused for her birthday, her fourteenth birthday, is days away. We realise, soon enough, that the pseudo-celebration is for her mother, and not for Jill. Her mother, Astrid, is a temperamental artist and the prospect of a new job in a gallery momentarily injects enthusiasm in her erratic cadence.

But this enthusiasm does not last for long as we soon realise Astrid’s mental health issues – a crippling bout of depression – threaten to disrupt any semblance of peace in the family. For all its realistic themes, “Phoenix” flirts with some surrealistic touches. The mother’s paintings – serpentine mostly – come to life for Jill in a move that teases fantasy, and the gentlest possibility that her mother’s mental health issues might be hereditary. Henriksen has a knack for cultivating a foreboding, non-realistic mood which makes these unreal variations some of the most exciting parts of the film.

    Rima Das’ work in “Bulbul Can Sing” exists on the other spectrum, bathed in realism. Das, whose previous film “Village Rockstar” has just been chosen as India’s representative for the 2018 Foreign Language Picture Oscar, is a one-woman film production team. She writes, directs, produces, shoots, and scouts all by herself. And her films, “Bulbul” is her third, are connected by their setting – Das’ home village, a small country locale. The girlhood loneliness that marks “Phoenix” is present in “Bulbul” even if not at first. Our protagonist has friends, the charming Bonnie and diffident Sumu. Like Jill, she is only the cusp of becoming a woman, at fifteen years old her reedy voice does not seem to impress her vocal teacher. And, in fact, all the adults at her school seem to exist on a wavelength somewhere beyond from the students. Das is as interested in the locale of Kalardiya as she is in her characters, so that this rustic village is tenderly shot with its flora and fauna and almost idealistic aestheticism. But, everything cannot be ideal, and Bulbul and her friends yearning to grow up are kept repressed by the limiting sexual mores of the village. Very soon, though, tragedy strikes and Bulbul is forced to grow up in ways that rend the heart and force her to find her voice.

“Phoenix” ends on a more desolate note. A hardened Jill looks forward to the future that seems gloomy but one which she seems ready to steel herself to survive. “Bulbul,” in its closing, finds a tinge of hope that is not absolute but is encouraging. It is as if after all the hardship, Bulbul realises that she can sing.

Regardless of where they end, the films join in asking us, what kind of worlds we are creating for our children (bound by strictures of patriarchy, religion, and education) where their individuality is obfuscated by the rote. The way the four films diverge and converge emphasises the diversity of the festival, where female filmmakers have been given a spotlight (1/3 of the films this year were by women) and TIFF’s internationality offers a chance to see how these similar themes resound across continents. From Asia to Europe to Africa to the Americas, the question of our children’s future seems more poignant than ever in a world where adults threaten to do as much harm as good.

More of Andrew Kendall’s coverage of this year’s TIFF releases can be found at

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