The programming of the Cinema of Childhood screenings has understandably steered clear of depictions of child neglect or abuse.
This isn’t necessarily to ignore serious and valid societal concerns or to affect a whitewash of festive positivity over the series, it’s more a matter of narrative focus and its implications. The films have been chosen because they are wonderful examples of the expressiveness of children, and in cases of neglect or abuse, victims are typically deprived of their liberty to express themselves. It’s debatable whether the children involved in such narratives are subjects or merely objects, fragile within the frame and deprived of their agency. A good (if extreme) recent example of this would be Markus Schleinzer’s Michael in 2011; a very good but utterly draining movie, it certainly had enough to say about children, but far more to say about their abusers.
Mark Cousins has favoured films that give their child protagonists an unusually wide measure of freedom in their environment. But in Crows, the Polish director Dorota Kędzierzawska shows us a more problematic mode of childhood freedom, that of premature independence. The unnamed ten-year-old girl at the story’s centre has plenty of expressiveness, perhaps even too much, but due to the emotional neglect of her largely absent mother she has nowhere to direct her energy, the urge to express and connect. Desperately at odds with all those around her, she agitates generally, in every direction, wildly diverging in mood, attitude and posture.
It’s quite amazing to see her countenance change so quickly. From hissing, scowling, animalistic provocation, she needs only to loosen a little tension around her brow and she’s immediately a pretty and smiling young girl, sweet and mischievously delighted by the smallest of sparks to her imagination. Looking scrawny in boy’s shorts, she half-mockingly copies the stilted motions of a ballet class from the alley outside its window. Passing through an affluent part of her home city, she stops by an imposingly fenced garden and initiates playful, silent communication with the young girl of perhaps three or four who lives inside the house. Later she escapes the urban environment and wanders to a beach, where she is frightened away by an accosting stranger. And all the while she has the tendency to caw like a crow, and snarl at dogs.
Our anonymous Crow is a ball of volatile energy. Her whims and responses are so distractible, yet deeply meaningful to her as she freewheels through them moment by moment. Because her desperation is urgent, she lives with urgency. Her mother’s neglect has not subdued her. Quite the opposite: it has compelled her to behave more daringly, seeking an impact, some influence or approval, love and enjoyment. To this end, she decides to abduct the infant girl from the affluent family house, proclaims herself the girl’s “real mother”, and attempts to restart her own life in this role.
For its modest duration of less than 70 minutes, Crows mostly confines itself to two radically different locations: the sandy beach, unpopulated but adorned with fishing nets, and an unnamed Polish city with tenement blocks of black-grey brick and schoolyard railings that suggest an old English workhouse. In fact, with its dusty urban grime and strangely caricatured incidental characters, not forgetting of course the poor but precocious child at its heart, the whole film feels like a skeletal Dickens tale reworked in a 1990s European arthouse style. It’s also very clearly the work of a female writer-director – not even the best-intentioned male could have coaxed such naturalistic and nuanced performances out of the two young girls in the twin roles of captor and captive, surrogate mother and adopted daughter, and, eventually, profoundly sympathetic friends. And I’m not drawing upon lazy old suppositions about ‘innate’ emotional sensibilities by making this gender distinction – in Crows there is an empathy that can only have been born of experience. Kędzierzawska shoots like she knows what it’s like to be a surly, flighty, fascinating young girl.
The title for The Guardian’s review of Crows – “Child kidnap turned into dreamy cinema” – emphasises the cold reality of the central incident, and indeed the film itself does seem to equivocate about the criminality of this act. It is a sympathetic work, made of moments both touching and somewhat feral, like ‘Lord of The Flies’. Kędzierzawska’s ‘criminal’ is eventually rendered with pity: the film’s penultimate shot invites and expresses this most forcefully, and I couldn’t possibly spoil it with a description. The older child’s escape attempt with the younger in tow is not shown as moral transgression or an act of domination, but a process by which she can try to negotiate her own role in life. In ‘adopting’ the younger girl she seems to be giving up her own childhood, angrily demonstrating to the world that she can be a better mother than her own. She’s saying, “I can make a better job of this, and I’m starting today.” For such an obviously vulnerable and volatile individual, this is a remarkable statement to make.
But of course it’s not that simple. The kidnapping isn’t simply a naïve attempt at righting her mother’s wrongs. The helpless little girl she has taken comes from exactly the kind of home our Crow wishes were hers: earlier in the film we saw the loving, idealised parents, and a welcoming warmth behind the windows as the two girls waved to each other across the garden. There’s a tension at work in the older girl’s behaviour once she commits to the runaway; she is alternately mothering, flighty, and easily irritable, determined to succeed and yet clearly unfit for the task. Perhaps she knows it is a spiteful and misdirected act of retribution. In an incredibly touching exchange late in the film, the younger girl manages to probe her kidnapper’s vulnerability, and the pretense breaks down. Our Crow realises she can’t be a runaway mother, and in that moment resigns herself once again to her painful situation.
I seem to have used up a great deal of virtual ink wrangling with the main character’s emotional extremes instead of writing about the film’s visual and narrative style. In a way, this is evidence of its strength – it’s certainly a stylised piece of cinema, with a narrative perspective on its subject that’s interesting enough to merit serious study, and yet in my memory the characters’ predicament pushes itself to the fore. All the film-school techniques operate slightly behind the human drama, coalescing as they should into a very distinct and coherent ‘mood’ for the film as a whole piece. If you can get past the dated and slightly Muzak-leaning saxophone soundtrack, Crows is a consistently captivating piece of work.
Words: Dave Hamilton-Smith