Edited By Janina Falkowska and Krzysztof Loska
This book examines small cinemas and their presentation of society in times of crisis and conflict from an interdisciplinary and intercultural point of view. The authors concentrate on economic, social and political challenges and point to new phenomena which have been exposed by film directors. They present essays on, among others, Basque cinema; gendered controversies in post-communist small cinemas in Slovakia and Czech Republic; ethnic stereotypes in the works of Polish filmmakers; stereotypical representation of women in Japanese avant-garde; post-communist political myths in Hungary; the separatist movements of Catalonia; people in diasporas and during migrations. In view of these timely topics, the book touches on the most serious social and political problems. The films discussed provide an excellent platform for enhancing debates on politics, gender, migration and new aesthetics in cinema at departments of history, sociology, literature and film.
8. Reality of corporeality: Female corporeality in recent Slovak social film dramas (Katarína Mišíková)
Academy of Perfoming Arts in Bratislava, Slovakia
Abstract: The most distinctive cinematic trend of contemporary Slovak cinema, labeled as social drama, is characterized by current topics, such as racism, relationship between majority and minority, disintegration of family relations, changes in the ethical values of a society undergoing constant economical transformations, prostitution, unemployment, and poverty. Although it is a stylistically rather heterogeneous body of films, it can be described by a prominent realistic tendency. Several of these films are fiction debuts of documentary filmmakers who draw heavily from non-fiction and observational realism conventions, one of these being the portrayal of physical experience. My chapter deals with specific ways the experience of female corporeality in crisis as presented by accentuating the relationship between the physical and the social body. It examines depictions of various physical and social aspects of processes that female characters of recent Slovak social dramas are subject to, such as adolescence, aging, pregnancy and motherhood, physical (self-)abuse, and violence.
Keywords: Slovak cinema, corporeality, realism, female characters
Democratic processes of the 1990s in East-Central Europe and following European integration introduced several new topics into Slovak cinema. One of them was reconsideration of traditional female archetypes and stereotypes in the light of gender studies. In times when turbulent transition to market economy lured away many talented filmmakers among male providers into commercial sphere, a significant trend of female scriptwriters and directors came to the forefront. Eva Filová in her “gender history” of Slovak cinema Eros, sexus, gender in Slovak Cinema divides the work of female authors who emerged at the turn of the millennium – Eva Borušovičová’s Blue Heaven (Modré z neba, 1997) and Truth or Dare (Vadí nevadí, 2001); Laura Siváková’s Quartétto (2002) and Heaven, Hell… Earth (Nebo, peklo… zem, 2009); Katarína Šulajová’s Two Syllables Behind (O dve slabiky pozadu, 2004); Zuzana Liová’s Silence (Ticho, 2005)1 and The House (Dom, 2011); and Mira Fornay’s2 Foxes (Líštičky, 2009) – into three groups: “1) lifestyle stories ← 115 | 116 → about independent young women, 2) stories of female genealogy, stigmatised by motherhood, 3) stories of bad girls – revolting nature of feminist.”3 Filová explores how this “feminization” of Slovak cinema reflected current feminist trends and brought about new types of heroines, who in various degrees and ways questioned the role of woman-body and woman-mother, and sought to introduce woman subject into Slovak cinema.
My chapter deals in somewhat more modest and less political way with different aspects of female heroines in contemporary Slovak cinema, which concern 1) the relationship between the social and physical female body and 2) the ways of realistic depiction of socially determined emotional and physical states and sensation of female characters by means of poetic tropes. The changed social situation of women in contemporary Slovak cinema is, on the one hand, connected to gradual (however, still somehow gentle) sensitization to gender issues, and, on the other hand, to new economic opportunities of Slovak citizens in the European Union. A traditional role of a woman, tied to land and family,4 is thus changing and we can witness a growing number of migrating women characters. However, this new female mobility does not only bring positive values in the form of social or economic capital, it is often accompanied by social and physical degradation or destruction of heroines.
The films I am going to analyze are part of the social film drama trend that is currently the most consistent trend of Slovak art-house cinema. Social dramas are not the kinds of films, whose domain is female imagination; they do not primarily concern relationships between women and men or issues of female identity. They are rather concerned with reflection on current phenomena of post-socialist reality: disintegration of traditional family relations, economic migration, socially underprivileged groups, racial intolerance, etc. Therefore, we can hardly describe social drama as a feminist film trend – neither from the aspect of frequent character types nor from the aspect of authorial background. Only three women are active among social drama directors (Mira Fornay, Zuzana Liová, and Iveta Grófová), and although the main characters of their films are usually women (with the exception of My Dog Killer [Môj pes Killer, 2013] by Mira Fornay), ← 116 | 117 → the reflection on female fate is not their central subject. However, I will claim, that what these films have in common, is a transformational crisis of female characters. Each of them undergoes a series of social and physical transformations, which are an important part of the realistic representation of the actual reality. This distinguishes them from all three groups of female films from the millennial turn as identified by Filová. Those connected female view of reality mainly with the sphere of imagination and dreams and in this way separated it from the public sphere and hence current social situation.5 Nevertheless, not all analyzed films are stories of bad girls, rather they propose an interpretation of social reality by means of current subject matter and realistically motivated poetic tropes.
Realism and corporeality
Current social issues are a common thematic motif of realist cinema6; however, realism is not easily defined by a certain group of narrative and stylistic devices. Techniques of evoking the reality effect can vary from hand-held camera to extreme long shots, from featuring amateur actors to professionals, and from long shots to jump cuts.7 A recurring technique of the realist style is the portrayal of emotional states of characters as physical states. Let us consider two examples in which long shot as a seemingly unmanipulated representation of reality evokes an impression of reality. Film Koza (2015) by Ivan Ostrochovský about the last tour of a former boxing champion is shot predominantly in static long shots that cue the viewer to take part in physical suffering of the main character. When portraying the physical suffering of the boxer during and after his fights, the camera dwells on the image of the boxer scapegoat,8 thus cueing the viewer to take part in the protagonist’s martyrdom. Similar device is used in the film Made in Ash (Až do mesta Aš, 2012) by Iveta Grófová, when the viewer is indirectly witnessing a real piercing of heroine’s lower lip and almost perceives her pain from the needle ← 117 | 118 → in the lip in a literary way. These devices emphasize the ontology of cinematic image as an actual image of pro-filmic reality by evoking visceral experiences of characters. Social drama films featuring female characters can provide even more complex instances of demonstrating the relationship between the social and the physical body of protagonists, because they depict emotional and psychological transformations of characters as physical states.
Transformational crisis of female characters in social dramas
The analyzed body of films presents various types of migrating women, who are forced by their social situation to move from one place to another, and in this process, undergo also complex physical and psychological transformations. Their horizontal movement is motivated by problematic family and economic background. Similar to men, they are looking for job opportunities in more prosperous regions of Europe, where they assume economic responsibility of themselves in typical female occupations as caretakers. Betka, the protagonist of film Foxes by Mira Fornay, left her provincial birthplace because of the lack of job opportunities and followed her elder sister to Ireland in order to work as an au pair. Similarly, in the film Eva Nová (2015) by Marko Škop the daughter-in-law of the main character leaves her drunkard husband and moves to Austria, where she works as a home nurse. Dorotka, the heroine of Made in Ash, was a good student, but straight after her A-levels she is forced by the social situation of her family living in Romani settlement in Eastern Slovakia to leave for the Czech town of Aš and together with other Eastern European and Asian girls to work as a seamstress in a textile factory. Other characters are forced to leave their homes because of broken family ties or because of problems with alcohol and drugs. A restless adolescent Ela from the film Miracle (Zázrak, 2013) by Juraj Lehotský was sent to the detention center by her mother, who lives with a younger boyfriend. From there, Ela flees to her drug-addicted boyfriend, who sells her as a white slave to gangsters, and after her escape she finds – at least temporarily – peace at the institution for pregnant adolescents. An aging former actress Eva Nová from the eponymous film is leaving the alcoholic rehab for the third time, she goes from one inferior job to another, and in a quest for a renewal of the relationship to her estranged son, she repeatedly travels from the city to her birthplace in rural Slovakia. Eva, heroine from The House, is trying to get away from her native home in a small town and from her authoritative father in order to study and work in England.
These female characters are moving not only horizontally but also climb or fall in the social hierarchy. Eva Nová used to be a prominent actress of the socialist era, but after the break-up with her partner and director and after the change of ← 118 | 119 → regime, she fell under the spell of alcohol, which got her to her knees. She has no ambition to get back into the spotlight; she just wants to defend her right to get a second chance, mainly in relation with her son, whom she neglected in her heyday. Inadaptable and aggressive Betka from Foxes becomes a second-rate citizen in Ireland, one of many Eastern European girls, who might be useful for work and fun, but are not suitable for the acceptance in society. Heroines of films Made in Ash and Miracle reach the very bottom of social hierarchy. Dorotka from Made in Ash loses her job at the factory and struggles along in bars until her more experienced friend finds a German sex tourist for her. Ela from Miracle wants to save her boyfriend from debts and agrees to be sold to gangsters as a prostitute; they rape and beat her and only after her escape she finds out that her boyfriend actually does not care for her at all. Relatively secure is the social situation of Eva from The House; however, she manages to fly away from the family nest in the end and has to look for her own place in the world.
As we can see, these are stories of socially motivated migrations, the ups and downs of heroines. All of them are stories of transformational crisis, in which the social and physical frames of migrating women change: they undergo the process of coming of age, aging, pregnancy and motherhood, physical abuse, and violence. In order to emphasize the psychological aspects of these physical transformations, the films deploy a wide array of stylistic devices, from observational realism to complex poetic figures. According to the conceptual metaphor theory by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson as proposed in their Metaphors We Live By,9 poetic tropes provide abstract concepts with factual reality and give symbolic structure to material reality. In these films, the metaphorical images are not only organically integrated into a realistic discourse, but they are also directly connected to the physical and emotional states of the protagonists. In this way, they support Lakoff and Johnson’s claims that metaphors enable us to comprehend human experience by means of metaphorical projection, in which we grasp abstract concepts using the concepts that stem from a physical base.
The social film drama trend in Slovak cinema typically concentrates on subjects such as economic transformation of post-socialist reality, multiculturalism, globalization, and disadvantaged social groups. These subjects are predominantly portrayed through stories of decaying family relations: female protagonists lose their safe domestic harbor and have to face their crisis alone. While all these themes of female transformations deal with the impact of crisis on protagonists’ ← 119 | 120 → psychological and social status, they are rendered through a series of embodied metaphors. The theme of coming of age corresponds to tropes associated with the dialectics of freedom and stability; the theme of violence and (self)abuse is evoked by tropes of victims; the theme of aging is emphasized by images of physical decay of objects; and the theme of motherhood makes use of aquatic metaphors, evoking images of amniotic fluid.
Coming of age
In the fragile phase of adolescence, the heroines negotiate between the need to be independent and the need to feel safe. Their process of coming of age is marked by conflicts with parents who are reluctant to respect this dialectic.
In The House, high school student Eva takes cleaning jobs in order to save enough money for her ticket to England, and she spends all her free time helping her father to construct a house she has no intention to live in. She experiences a brief, but intense love affair with her teacher, and in the end, is able to set herself free from her birthplace and leave for England. The figure of windows cleaning points to Eva’s need to broaden her horizons, to see the world with her own eyes. The house in the process of construction is both a complex metonymy and a metaphor. It is a metonymy of a family that suffers from the lack of affection by the father who tries to secure only material needs of his daughter. It is also a metaphor of Slovakia – a country still “under construction.” Finally, the rural residence metaphorically points to the tradition that restrains the character instead of providing her with safety.
The heroine of film Miracle experiences a drastically accelerated process of coming of age, when she is separated from her family and soon loses also her somewhat childish ideas about romantic relationships. Ela is still a child and she longs for someone who is going to take care of her. Before she leaves with the gangsters, she asks her boyfriend to teach her to swim, which is something that children are usually taught by their parents. The figure of swimming is an embodied metaphor that describes Ela’s situation: she wants somebody to teach her to swim in the deep waters of life, but people on whom she relies only let her drown.
Prostitution as the ultimate survival strategy of women living on the edge is a recurrent social drama motif; however, it is not the only way in which female bodies are subjected to oppression. Excluded from safe family relations, the disillusioned heroines often undergo the process of self-abuse in an elusive hope for better lives. ← 120 | 121 →
In Foxes, the protagonist Betka is always getting into conflicts with other people. She is visually compared to stray foxes that wander around the streets of Dublin in search for something to eat and spread dangerous disease. Betka is handled by other people as a stray fox, they rarely miss an opportunity to show her their social dominance: may it be the family she works for, her new boss, or a lover. In a series of violent confrontations, she gradually loses everything and self-destructively tries to defend herself by destroying her sister, the only person who always helped her.
In Miracle, Ela experiences a common training of future prostitutes by a couple of gangsters, who test new material themselves before selling it. Her boyfriend drives her to his drug dealer, who traps Ela in a somber apartment, where she is forced to get naked in front of three gangsters, is raped by them, and on the way to another country manages to escape from the car and flee back to her lover.
In Made in Ash, Iveta Grófová has combined a documentary footage, shots from security cameras and mobiles phones with staged para documentary scenes, subjective defocused shots, and dream-like animation sequences in order to create a richly structured record of her protagonist’s emotions and sensations. In intimate sex scenes, blurred images simulate subjective perceptions of physical trauma. An embodied metaphor of a stripper, “crucified” to a pole, is a representation of many girls, who on the symbolical end of post-socialist world become cheap entertainment for Western sex tourists.
While coming of age is an accelerated process of making a place for oneself in the world, aging is a gradual process of becoming irrelevant, almost invisible. Women stripped of their physical attractiveness lose their social roles outside of motherhood.
All analyzed films present young protagonists, the only exception being Eva Nová, where the heroine observes her process of aging. The story of once famous actress, who got old and weary in the struggle with alcoholism, and after years spent in rehab, tries to re-establish both her life and relationship with her estranged son, represents her crisis by several embodied metaphors. Škop develops the psychology of her character by recurrent portraits of her face that is constantly confronted with other people, her own reflection in mirrors, and old photographs from her past. Her fate is also embedded in her name: Eva Nová, New Eve. She is already old, but wants to make a new woman of herself. Eva carries the burden of the past, which the narration reveals very sparingly. The carry-on, which she takes with her on several occasions, is a metaphor of this burden. She is well aware ← 121 | 122 → of the fact that she is old and useless just like spoilt fruit she sorts in her new job in a supermarket, but she still tries to carry on with her life and therefore plants new flowers in her flat in place of those that dried completely during her absence.
Given that the majority of Slovak social film dramas are portrayals of dysfunctional and disintegrated families, one of the recurrent motifs is traumatized motherhood. Only toward the end of Foxes, a flashback reveals the true reason for Betka’s hysterical behavior: she accidentally gets pregnant by her future brother-in-law and tries to get rid of the baby with a pair of scissors.
In Miracle, the underaged Ela is pregnant and decides to give birth to the unwanted child even though her mother warns her of spoiling her life in exactly the same way as she once did. In the end, Ela gives the baby for adoption. The last shot of the film shows Ela looking at the newborn baby that already does not belong to her. Tenderness on her face is a miracle, to which the film’s title refers, as she never got any tenderness from anybody.
The most complex portrayal of traumatized motherhood represents Eva Nová. Because of her acting career she left her son in the care of her single sister. When she tries to become close with him after years, he refuses her. The film’s closing is both a symbolic fight and an embrace of the mother with her son in an inflatable swimming pool. Its circular shape refers to their disintegrated family. The son bought the swimming pool for his wife, who has left him and has a swimming pool in her new Austrian home. This swimming pool is much larger; however, there is no water in it. The water in the inflatable swimming pool metaphorically refers to oblivion that both mother and son searched in alcoholism. In connection to the relationship between the mother and her son, the circular swimming pool also evokes mother’s womb with amniotic fluid, in which their bond – at least temporarily – is reborn.
We can conclude that even though gender and feminist issues are not prominent in the social drama trend, these films present complex portrayals of several gender issues by emphasizing the relation between the physical and social bodies of female characters. Contrary to the feminine trend from the millennial turn, they do not reserve these subjects to the sphere of imagination, but make them a part of realistic representation of actual reality. Even though the stylistics of the films is predominantly realistic, these films do not stay away from poetic tropes, but ← 122 | 123 → deploy mainly figures that have an embodied quality to them and evoke emotional states of protagonists through the portrayal of physical processes and sensations.
This work was supported by the Slovak Research and Development Agency under the contract no. APVV-0797-12.
Filová, Eva. Eros, sexus, gender v slovenskom filme. Bratislava: Slovenský filmový ústav, 2013.
Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Mišíková, Katarína and Ferenčuhová, Mária, eds. Nový slovenský film. Produkčné, estetické, distribučné a kritické východiská. Bratislava: Vysoká škola múzických umení Bratislava, Filmová a televízna fakulta, 2015.
1 Liová made her feature-length debut as a TV film produced by the Slovak Television.
2 Although of Slovak origin, Fornay is the only one among mentioned female directors who did not graduate from scriptwriting at the Film and Television Faculty at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, but studied film directing at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.
3 Eva Filová, Eros, sexus, gender v slovenskom filme (Bratislava: Slovenský filmový ústav, 2013), p. 199.
4 The female archetype of a woman grounded in and tied to an enclosed rural residence is prominent in films such as The Garden (Záhrada, 1995) by Martin Šulík or Blue Heaven by Eva Borušovičová.
5 See Filová, Eros, p. 206.
6 Kristin Thompson, “Realism in Cinema: Bicycle Thieves,” in: Breaking the Glass Armour. Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 197–217.
7 For detailed narrative and stylistic analysis of the social film drama trend, see Katarína Mišíková, “Hľadanie žánru v súčasnom slovenskom hranom filme,” in: Nový slovenský film. Produkčné, estetické, distribučné a kritické východiská, eds. Katarína Mišíková and Mária Ferenčuhová (Bratislava: Vysoká škola múzických umení, Filmová a televízna fakulta, 2015), pp. 9–36.
8 “Koza” means “goat” in Slovak. It is the nickname of the real-life Roma protagonist of this film, former Olympic boxing champion Peter Baláž.
9 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).