Growing up isn’t easy. For women, changes often take place with the velocity of a rocket, as hard-to-understand feelings arise and your body isn’t necessarily your own. The vulnerability of a flower-yet-to-bloom — a girl not yet a woman but neither a child — appeals to but also disfavours its nymphs. With great courage and provocative approaches, two films from this year’s Seminci competition, Princess (Israel) and Flocking (Sweden), address the condition of young women through stunning performances of youthful girls in the process of growing up as rape victims. Rape is one of the least punished crimes, and even though the law has changed and the attention to female abuse has grown, sexual harassment often goes unnoticed even when it’s declared and accused. While we fight for equal rights and treatment, and we encourage feminist behaviour, we still fail to notice the victims nearby: the fragile girls and teens struggling in an over sexualised society.
While Swedish director Beata Gårdeler (Flocking) prefers to center her attention on the adolescent Jennifer (Fatime Azemi), who is raped by her “coolest” classmate Alexander, the Israeli filmmaker Tali Shalom-Ezer (Princess) chooses to center her camera on a 12-year-old girl abused by her mother’s boyfriend. The two stories distance themselves in terms of approach, even though they try to make a point about a similar subject. On one hand, Flocking reveals its rising action in the beginning of the film, as the viewer knows the story will focus on Jennifer’s attempt to prove that her colleague Alexander raped her, contrasting with the oneiric appeal of the troubled stepfather and innocent playfulness of the androgynous victim Adar (Shira Haas) in Princess.
Flocking begins with a symbolic scene of authentic joy, as a group of girls carry a cake at a wedding party through the labyrinth of a slaughterhouse. Though the focus is not on them, we meet the two protagonists, Jennifer and Alexander, from an early stage in the film. The 15-year-old Jennifer seems to enjoy herself too much and makes a fool of herself by getting drunk and throwing up at the party. The next day, she becomes the target of classmate chats, a stylistic tool which will guide the entire film. Jennifer soon confesses to the principal (and then to the police) that the most popular boy in school, Alexander, has raped her, a story which seems hard to believe given the tight community.
The story unfolds with a scandalous seclusion of the victim and with unbalanced supporting players. As the trial begins, the peaceful community gathers around the molester, Alexander, a taciturn blonde boy. Flocking has a constant pace, and the evolution of Jennifer’s isolation from the society grows progressively in episodes which are delicately marked by the small chat transgressions of classmates. Accompanied by an instrumental intermezzo, the tension of the scenes build, and the subtext comes to attention when it’s revealed that the person causing all the commotion is actually the molester’s mother, a pushy woman who goes beyond everything to defend her son. One by one, each individual fails to support the silent Jennifer (a non-typical victim), even the law, the school and the moral leader of the small community.
Little by little, Jennifer will become the outcast of this small village. One may be deeply moved by the strength of this girl — abandoned by every one, yet not flaking out — and by the ruthlessness of the society. It’s heartbreaking to watch how the skepticism affects everyone to the point of merciless behaviour towards Jennifer, as she is perceived to be the instigator who spread doubt across the innocent peaceful community. Yet a shared hate for the girl will unite the community against Jennifer, to the point of slut-shaming her with graffiti that says “Whores are for raping.” The victim is well acted by young Fatime Azemi, and Jennifer proves to be a strong female character. She doesn’t wallow in pain, even though she clearly feels it, and the reticence to support her is rooted in her dignified attitude. Jennifer disturbs with her way of dealing: she doesn’t cry, she doesn’t look affected, she tries to go on with her life and asks for justice … she demands her rights. This is something uncommon for a victim. Jennifer’s body language misleads people — she doesn’t make eye contact, she hides besides her hair and has no hesitation in calmly narrating how the act has happened. Jennifer is taken for a liar because people have preconceived opinions about how one should act in cases of sexual abuse. The fact that Jennifer wants to go on with her life and even finds the power to attend her swimming class is unthinkable. Flocking opens a debate on crowd response in such situations and the community response is baffling. The movie highlights the idea of what constitutes rape, how it can be proved and which gestures can be considered sexual assault without being too explicit. The body shaming continues from beginning to end, as Jennifer is asked what clothes she wore on the date in question. Also, she’s asked if she provoked the whole situation and is forced to admit that she had previously made out with Alexander in a bathroom. While the authorities humiliate Jennifer with their hesitation to believe the sexual intercourse was forced, others take her accusations as teen babble.
The cinematography of Flocking is dark-toned, and every interaction of the protagonist is marked by alternate angles to show the difference from the two contrasting points of view. Cloistered from the entire society (with her mother and sister alienated from work and school), Jennifer becomes not only a lying whore that changed everyone’s lives with her pathetic stories about the abuse, but also the one responsible for her mother’s separation from her boyfriend. Despite a focus on group reactions to sexual assault, Flocking and Princess both explore a mother-daughter relationship in the face of abuse. In the Swedish film, the daughter is perceived as both an enemy and competition for the mother, who becomes aware of her daughter as a sexual person and no long an innocent little girl. This aspect of the dynamic is less explored in Flocking, but the concept has a prominent role in the moving Princess.
The cherry on top of this year’s Seminci “Meeting Point” competition (the first and second feature film competition) is the Israeli film Princess, a sensitive look at underage sexuality and the experiences of an androgynous-looking little girl. The princess is Adar, a 12-year-old beautiful girl that spends most of her time at home with her affable mother’s boyfriend Michel. She is a gifted girl who treats school recklessly and prefers the overly-intimate atmosphere of home. At the age of sexual discoveries and self discovery of her body (she even gets her period as the story evolves), Adar is drawn to the arousing ambience created by mother Alma and her boyfriend. The tomboyish girl engages in what seems to be a pure bonding game with her surrogate father, Michel, and while the fact that he calls her by the masculine “prince” rather than “princess” doesn’t raise any flags in the beginning, this closeness surely raises some eyebrows. The couple’s dynamic lacks boundaries and personal space, as Michel and Alma aren’t shy about their sexual manifestations and allow the little girl to hear their sex noises (or even intrude in their bed). In a dream-like provocative dance scene filled with desire, the sick interaction between the three of them reminds of the sexual tension in the threesome dancing scene in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, another movie that explores inappropriate relationships and blurred lines of desire.
Aside from being a film about sexual abuse and parenting, Princess is a movie about genre defining and troubled childhoods. Tali Shalom-Ezer fills the story with mystery and shifts the attitude of the mother in order to raise flags about Adar’s issues and careless upbringing. At first, Alma seems to enjoy the playful dynamic between her free-soul boyfriend and her adorable little girl, but she will soon change her mind when instincts of feminine competition arise. In this permanent vacation, Adar’s closeness to Michel triggers some kind of Electra complex for the girl, who fights with her mother for the surrogate father’s attention. Alma is not the typical maternal figure, and while she feels something is wrong between her daughter and Michel, she prefers to stay in denial and blames Adar.
The originality in Tali Shalom-Ezer’s film thrives by approaching Adar’s issues with sensitivity and a welcome ambivalence, especially when she introduces Alan, the male doppelgänger of Adar. The girl picks the mysterious boy out of nowhere and brings him into her troubled home. The resemblance between the two indicates the ambivalence of Adar’s feelings, as she enjoys the attention she receives, despite an awareness that something is wrong. Just as Adar lacks femininity, her new buddy lacks boyish features. Their mirrored behaviour (as well as their inseparable appearance) is meant to confuse the audience given the two become impossible to differentiate. We don’t know if this is a sign of Adar’s sexual awakening or if Alan is just a projection of her androgynous self. It’s no coincidence that problems emerge after Adar gets her period (a fact she wants to keep secret from Michel) and that the images recall fantasies and dream-like tones. The kids’ interactions mock and imitate the adults’ unashamed behaviour, as they mime sexual intercourse and become intimately closer. Alan has enigmatically entered this family much like the visitor from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema. He is the symbol of illicit sex and abuse, a projection of Michel’s desires, but at the same time, he embodies Adar’s search for self and gender differences.
The concept of projecting one’s desires through a double isn’t new to cinephiles (see Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and numerous other films), but the Israeli director chooses this strategy to elegantly explore the sexual vulnerability of the little girl. The change of gazes function as an enigmatic element of the scenario (which disturbs even more). The princess — externalised into a prince by Michel (in an attempt to think of her differently) — seems to be aware of the impression she makes on him. Even more, she seems to understand the implications of it, and at some point, she even takes pride in the muse-type effect she has on Michel, who, she claims, wants to paint her naked. Michel is not shy about his intentions either and remains allusive in a scene where he shows the little girl a couple making love on an abandoned road. The borders and taboos are often broken in Princess without actually showing too much. In terms of music choices, one of the most unsettling scenes of the movie is accompanied by Lesley Gore’s hit “You Don’t Own Me,” a declaration of independence from a girl who has to fight for her stolen innocence. Finally, Princess shifts the tension from slightly-suggestive inappropriate relations to assault, from reality to nightmare, and from innocence to guilt, thus showing how temptation changes the dynamic of a family. This ambiguity draws the mother into denial and even victim-blaming — helpless reactions in order to avoid a cruel reality (“the worst thing in the world,” as Adar calls it).
In the end, films about “lolitas” are often alienating and troublesome because they reveal the unseen faces and dark realities within communities. Different in technique and means — from the darker Flocking to the desaturated, luminous and dreamy Princess — the female directors manage to tell original stories without all the melodrama and serve up a heavy dose of intensity. The delicate and perceptive exploration of the victims’ condition highlights the wonderful acting but also a bitter conclusion: there is nothing idyllic about youth when the experience is tainted by adults.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic based in Spain. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Public Relations and graduated with a thesis on cult images in Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema. Apart from writing for various Romanian publications, Film Reporter, Reforma and The Chronicle, she has written for Indiewire and was selected for their 2015 Critics Academy at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. Along with her film criticism activity, Andreea has worked at Romanian Film Promotion and was the coordinator for an art center in Bucharest.