Where Have All the Mothers Gone?
The SCHLINGEL International Film Festival for Children and Young Audiences in Chemnitz, Germany, shows children’s films from all over the world. The films in competition for this year’s FIPRESCI Prize included films from Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Even though these films come from very different cultural backgrounds, they all have something in common: the conspicuous absence of mothers.
LOOKING FOR FATHERS
The conflict between children and parents plays a key role in the cinema for young audiences. In the films we judged at Chemnitz, these conflicts primarily took place between fathers and sons, rarely between fathers and daughters, and almost never between mothers and their children. A recurring theme of these films was that of the father and child (re)establishing a relationship after a period of crisis. This was especially true of Egor’s Secret (Tajna jegora) and The Peewees — The Winter That Changed My Life (Le Pee-Wee: L’hivre qui change ma vie). In the former, young Artjom has to spend one week with his father, whom he barely recalls and hasn’t seen for years. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, without internet access and the other electronic diversions children of his age usually enjoy, he is deeply frustrated with his situation. His hippyish father is equally stressed out, because he is not used to taking care of a child. Nevertheless, during the course of the movie, a joint adventure allows them to establish a strong relationship of mutual respect and affection. The Peewees — The Winter That Changed My Life has a similar approach. In this story, father and son have been alienated from each other since the death of the mother. The mother was the one to take part in the son’s ice hockey career, while the father was and still is mainly occupied by his work. After his wife’s death, he is not able to support his son in any way, neither in dealing with his grief nor as a cheering parent at hockey matches. However, the father and son gradually get closer to each other and overcome their alienation. Like Egor’s Secret, the movie deals not only with the young hero’s adventure, but with a father and son relationship.
There are two more movies about the reunion between father and child, even though they differ slightly from the films mentioned above. I Swan does not deal with fathers and sons, but with a father-daughter relationship. When a man’s daughter, who has been living with her grandparents since her mother’s death, stops speaking, he is forced to take her to his isolated home in the middle of a swamp. As with Egor’s Secret, father and child reestablish their relationship by means of a joint adventure, which in this case involves saving a swan.
One could argue that even Gabriel tells the story of a father-son reunion. Tomek leaves his grandparents to look for his real father whom he has not seen in years. This film features a traditional road trip: Tomek travels to the town where his father lives and is accompanied by a mysterious boy called Gabriel. Even though Tomek doesn’t meet his father until the very end of the story, the father remains the crucial reason for the boy to take the trip. It is their relationship that sets off events, and it is their reunion that the protagonist strives for.
FIGHTING WITH FATHERS
Aside from the alienation/separation/reunion motif, there is another kind of father-son relationship displayed in these films: open conflict. The degree of conflict varies significantly. In The Little Ghost (Das kleine gespenst), there is a minor misunderstanding when a father suspects his son of telling lies, when the boy’s stories about a ghost have actually been true. Naturally the father finally realizes that he has been wrong, apologizes, and reunites with his son by giving him a big and tender hug. Interestingly, the mother does not seem to matter as much in this case as her male counterpart.
Your Beauty is Worth Nothing (Deine schönheit ist nichts wert) tells us another story about a conflict between a father and his sons. The father once fought in the Kurdish resistance in Turkey, which is why his older son holds him responsible for the family’s struggles for asylum in Austria. The younger son is repeatedly asked to do better in school, which is an impossible request given his limited German language skills. But as in The Little Ghost, the conflict between the younger brother and the father is resolved. The strict and seemingly unforgiving father breaks down, gets emotional and even cries. He suddenly understands the pressure he has put on his son, and even though big bear hugs are missing from this film, there is a strong feeling of mutual understanding between father and son.
The repenting father, seeking forgiveness for doing wrong, is another recurring theme. In King of the Cotton (Topraga uzanan eller) as well as Mischief (Klukovina), this theme is connected with child abuse. In both cases, the abusers come to their senses. After having explicitly repented their sins, they become better parents who are able to give emotional support to their sons.
ABSENT MOTHERS AND EVIL WOMEN
But where have all the mothers gone? As seen in The Little Ghost, they are sometimes present without having any major impact on the story. But for the most part, they are physically and emotionally absent. In I Swan, The Peewees — The Winter That Changed my Life, and Gabriel, the death of the mother is part of or leads to the central conflict. Other movies, such as To Be King, feature dead mothers who do not have any impact on the story. Even if the main protagonist is an orphan, the death of the male parent is of more importance to the story.
The third kind of absent mother is the one who has to give her child away. In The Blue Apple Tree (El manzano azúl) and Egor’s Secret, the hero is taken to stay with his father or grandfather because his mother has to go away for professional reasons. In both cases there is no conflict arising between mother and son. The central conflict is the one between the male parental figure and the son.
There are only two movies in which the central conflict arises out of the mother-son or mother-daughter relationship. Very much present, but not at all loving, is the typical fairytale stepmother of Month’s Ruler (Dvanáct mesícku). By neglecting the female protagonist and favoring her own biological daughter, this character definitely creates a conflict. But instead of resolving this conflict and bringing stepmother and daughter closer together, the story ends with the final separation of both parties and, as in most fairytales, some form of punishment for the evil stepmother. However, because of its fairytale logic, Month’s Rulers can hardly be compared to the other movies. Mike Says Goodbye (“De groeten van Mike!”) is a better example of a story revolving around a mother-child relationship. Being an alcoholic, the mother in this story is not able to take care of her son after he is released from the hospital where he has been treated for leukemia. In this case, the mother again has to leave her child with other people (the hospital employees and foster parents), but she is emotionally present during Mike’s struggle to cope with his situation. He always longs to be with his mother and he is finally reunited with her.
Cinema today is extremely preoccupied with father figures. Even action heroes like John McClane are teaming up with their sons to fight the bad guys. Movies like The Place Beyond the Pines put fatherhood and the consequences of an unhealthy father-son relationship into focus. The optimistic way of interpreting the strong presence of the father in these films is to argue that, in their presentation of gender, parenthood is seen to be important for the definition and construction of masculinity. But just as likely, if not more, is the negative interpretation of this phenomenon: that female movie characters are still being marginalized. Even though mothers of today are usually at least as present in their children’s lives as the fathers, the role of the mother remains insignificant in children’s movies. In the rush to praise these new father figures who value relationships with their children over traditional concepts of masculinity, we should not forget about the mothers!
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2013