Reed's and Lean's Oliver films, like Dickens, foreground the time/space dimension of rapidly changing capitalist world.

Oliver transverses wealth and poverty within the wider social reality of capitalist industrialization.

Machuca (Chile, 2004): Youth “tend everywhere to occupy the innovative, uncharted borderlands in which the global meets the local.”

Heddy Honigmann’s 2008 film, Oblivion, documents children’s bodies navigating precarious spaces in Lima, Peru.

The nine-year-old lead of Little Cheung on a delivery run. Innocence is a more easily shattered ideal in the growing gulf between rich and poor.

A classic example of the agentic child: Home Alone (1990)

Slumdog Millionnaire’s plot is premised on the fact that kids know something about the world and will use that knowledge to further their own ends.

Jamal’s goodness is a strength, not a vulnerability.

Jamal’s successful negotiation of the system is not a basis for political critique.

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy is more complex than Slumdog’s Jamal, independent, but here calling for her mama.

Beast's director Benh Zeitlin focuses on the sensual and imaginative ways in which Hushpuppy negotiates the world.

Ballast (US, 2008) refuses to pigeonhole children into idealized images, Victorian victim or postmodern agent.

Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973) is an early example of the Benjaminian sensibilities discussed here.

Treeless Mountain’s Jin uses a stick to create space in the rubble to plant a tree, and transform her world.

Jin, here capturing grasshoppers for sale, does what she can to influence a world she and her sister do not control.

Living in an era of “vagabond” capitalism, Jin and Bin are twice uprooted, reversing the usual migration of countryside to city, and ending up at their grandparent’s farm.

The film makes much of neglected landscapes. The sisters wait here with a full piggy bank for their mother to return.

Chop Shop also tracks siblings surviving in marginal spaces of late capitalism, here in a makeshift home over a Queen’s auto body shop.

Director So Yong Kim contemplates children’s tactile interaction with the world.

A dead branch becomes a living tree; a hill of rubble becomes a mountain of hope.

From Dickens to the “global child” film:
spaces and bodies in history

Depicting how a certain geographical and temporal reality is lived is as much a hallmark of the Dickensian mode of social critique as is his use of the child to comment on it. Thus Oliver’s goodness and innocence only gain meaning in the context of the gritty, mean spaces of an industrializing capitalist society. With his “evocation of the urban labyrinths,” moving the reader “between, among, and through . . . multiple worlds” (Baumgarten, 222, 226), Dickens foregrounds the time/space reality of a modern, rapidly changing world.[9] [open endnotes in new window] Subsequent film versions attempt the same. Lean is perhaps most adept, showing Oliver’s arrival in a loud, confusing London market and tracking him as he follows Dodger up crude, cobwebbed staircases, stepping over sleeping bodies, transversing a rickety bridge that connects London’s rooftops to enter Fagin’s lair. But both Good and Polanski include similar scenes, which are then contrasted with the grandeur and softness of Mr. Brownlow’s bourgeois neighborhood to great effect.

This same attention to lived experience and childhood also animates the more recent “global child” films. Instead of early industrial capitalism, the setting is early 21st century global capitalism. The two periods have much in common. Instability, criminality and state-sanctioned violence mark peoples’ lives as they struggle to survive in a rapidly expanding, rapacious economic system. And in both settings, old lives are uprooted and new ones forged, often through a process of migration from rural to urban centers or from less developed to developed regions of the world.

What is experienced in both periods is a crisis of social reproduction. As Cindi Katz argues, the contradictions of capitalism are enacted as a spatial contradiction between the relatively mobile practices of economic production and the more place-bound practices of social reproduction. Since the 1970s, we’ve witnessed an increasingly intense trans-nationalization of production attended by a neoliberalization of state policy, significantly decreasing capital’s dependency on any given place. But social reproduction—the daily and generational maintenance of individuals, households, and communities—remains largely place-bound. Much of the infrastructure associated with social reproduction (e.g., community housing, transportation, healthcare, education) is secured through capital investment in specific places.[10] But in severing the connection between place and production, the era of “vagabond capitalism” has engendered a profound disinvestment in such resources, resulting in the proliferation of the “neglected and undersupported landscapes”– the current sites of social reproduction (Katz, 715).[11] This dynamic has dramatic consequences for children who are at once subjects and objects of the processes of social reproduction. Youth, as Jean and John Comaroff point out,

“tend everywhere to occupy the innovative, unchartered borderlands in which the global meets the local” (278).

These borderlands are explored in a provocative and wide-ranging “children’s geography” literature that illustrates the ways in which the local culture of children’s everyday lives is bound up with global processes (Holloway and Valentine, Skelton and Valentine, James). Some of this work (to which I return below) deciphers the embodied nature of children’s interaction with their environment as they transform their worlds through (often playful) imitation and improvisation on past practices.[12] It grapples with questions about the nature of children’s agency, the politics of everyday life, and the critical, even revolutionary, possibilities of the local, embodied knowledges that children enact. And the “global child” films implicitly raise all these questions as well through their unique distillations of neglected landscapes and the survival strategies of the children who negotiate them. Depicting the incessant movement of people and the instability of place—places such as a Queens auto-body yard (Chop Shop, 2007), a South Korean neighborhood (Treeless Mountain, 2008), or the streets of Lima (Oblivion, 2008)—these films focus precisely on the everyday acts of social reproduction that are threatened by the expansions and contractions of global capitalism. In cinematically mapping (children’s) bodies as they interact with the materiality of the places they inhabit, they examine “globalization’s sensual flesh” (Berlant, 281), capturing the inherent volatility and insecurity of living in the place and time of crisis.  

Like Dickens, then, these filmmakers foreground the time/space reality of a modern, rapidly changing world, prominently featuring children’s lived experience as they navigate that world. Where they part ways with the Victorian author is in their representation of the child and their approach to positioning her as a lever of social critique. For the current global crisis of social reproduction has also disrupted traditional understandings of childhood. As the infrastructure that supports people’s daily lives fractures and disappears, and the boundaries between public and private realms become less stable, notions that children occupy a natural state of innocence have become less tenable. A new representative child has emerged, a savvy, self-creating child consumer. The recognition that children are perhaps not all that different from adults is partial and shifting to be sure. We seem reluctant to completely forgo the Victorian ideal, which continues to undergird much, often progressive, social criticism (not to mention marketing strategies for everything from financial products to famine relief). But that ideal is also more fragile, more easily shattered in face of the growing gulf between rich and poor that scoops children into both consumer and labor markets, where they exercise their “agency” in seemingly “unchildlike” ways.[13] As a result, writes Stuart Aitken, “the constitution of the global child is unsettled,” (123) its indeterminacy as much a hallmark of our era’s conceptualization of childhood as innocence was of an earlier era’s.

Since the middle of the last century, filmmakers have tried to reconcile the contradictions of modern childhood. They have done so, as Jackson suggests, by complexifying without fully abandoning the innocent child. Polanski’s Oliver, discussed above, is just such an example. Today, however, this trend has been amplified, to the extent that children are commonly depicted as savvy authors of their own (mis)fortune.[14] Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) in Home Alone (1990) is the classic example of the agentic child, as are the children featured in Spy Kids (2001) or even the animated retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, Hoodwinked! (2005), among many others. So is Slumdog Millionaire (2008, directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan), which is of particular interest here for its thematic similarities with the global child films.

Slumdog tells the story of Jamal, an orphan growing up in the slums of Mumbai who becomes a star player on the Indian game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The oppression and cruelty of his life history turn out to be his saving grace, as he uncannily finds the answers to the host’s questions in the lessons he learned on the streets and walks off with the 20-million rupee grand prize. At first glance, Jamal appears to have much in common with Oliver. His essential goodness is established early on when—against the wishes of his older brother Salim—he invites Latika (his soon-to-be childhood love) into their shelter. Indeed, his troubled relationship with the tougher, criminally inclined Salim ensures that viewers fully appreciate Jamal’s strong moral center. And, like Oliver, Jamal does not negotiate the world of poverty and homelessness unaided. Salim is both his tormentor and protector, stepping in at key moments to literally save his life.

Yet Jamal is not a passive victim of circumstance. Neither is he all that innocent. Driven off a train on which they’d been living as stowaways and landing near the Taj Mahal, both boys set gamely to work, profiting from the trust and naivety of the tourists visiting the famed mausoleum. Older and with plenty of cash, they return to Mumbai where due to Jamal’s dogged searching, they rediscover Latika, rescuing her from the crime boss from whom the boys had earlier escaped. But Jamal must leave when Salim asserts his “right” to Latika and turns a gun on his younger brother.[15] After a bold though naïve and unsuccessful bid to save Latika (now beholden to the boss of the rival crime gang), Jamal becomes a contestant on the game show he knows she watches. As his winnings and fame grow, Latika makes her way to Jamal, who meanwhile, suspected of cheating, has withstood the torture tactics of the police and convinced them to let him return to the show to vie for the final prize. Motivated by love not money, Jamal walks away with the girl and the pot of gold.

The question of Jamal’s agency is hardly straightforward. At key points it is Salim, not Jamal, who turns the brothers’ (and Latika’s) fortunes around.[16] It is thus tempting to see Jamal as a Polanski-esque Oliver, a somewhat knowing but ultimately powerless victim of his circumstances. Yet Jamal is not an “updated” Oliver. Not only does he consistently collude with Salim to survive, he drives the plot in important ways: the return to Mumbai, seeking and finding Latika are all his initiative, for example. The goodness and naivety that inspire his actions are his strengths—fortifying him in a corrupt world. This is nowhere more apparent than in the police torture scenes. Neither electrocution nor near-drownings move him, nor prevent him from adopting a mildly cocky attitude with the cops. For Oliver, innocence and saintliness are markers of passivity, which Polanski qualifies in an effort to establish a modicum of agency. For Jamal, these qualities are markers of steadfastness and even manliness. He refuses to compromise them. In this, he is most adult-like, albeit an adult who has not compromised his integrity. Most significantly, though, the film’s plot turns on the premise that children know things about the world and will use that knowledge to further their own ends. In this regard both Salim and Jamal are highly agentic, lifting themselves from the poverty that would otherwise (were they truer to Victorian ideals of childhood) be their fate.

Slumdog thus transcends the Dickensian view of childhood, and instead it offers viewers a more contradictory, “unsettled” image of the child. Jamal is naïve and savvy, a manlike child in many ways (just as he becomes a childlike man). But it is his quintessentially “adult” qualities that fuel the story’s development, making it ultimately impossible to see him as a victim of his circumstances. Whereas Oliver is over-determined by the social and must be saved by adults acting on his behalf, Jamal is an individual with free will, a more fully liberal, autonomous subject acting on his own behalf and saving himself. Slumdog’s creators thus resolve the indeterminacy of the global child in and through the mechanism of childhood agency—and not just any agency, but a liberal individualist agency that has much in common with the child at the centre of the “new” sociology of childhood (James et al).

That new scholarly emphasis on childhood autonomy and participation, on giving children a voice and place in society, has provided a long overdue corrective to the socialization thesis in which children were conceptualized as passive objects of socialization en route to adulthood (Prout). But it also has introduced its own set of conceptual blinkers, often one-sidedly emphasizing children’s creative appropriation of the world as if they were somehow beyond the social, beyond history, substituting one (Victorian) abstract notion of childhood for another (post-modern) ideal. As Vandenbroeck and Bourverne-de-Bie suggest, the “autonomous child . . . [is neither] a breach in history or a page turned,” suggest. Rather, it is

“another historical construction and a dominant discursive regime that expands the repertoire of the possible as much as it narrows it down” (140).

Representing the cinematic child in these terms also narrows the possibilities insofar as it neutralizes the critical potential of childhood. While Slumdog’s images of the Mumbai slums, the motif of money and money-making, and the illegality and crassness of the game show antics may lead viewers to consider the failures of global capitalism, Jamal’s successful negotiation of that system is not a basis for social critique.[17]

“Global child” films, on the other hand, take up the indeterminacy (and agency) of the child differently, in a way that suggests a level of critique unavailable to Slumdog-like treatments. Refusing the sentimentalism of a Dickensian treatment of the child as innocent victim, they reimagine what it means to represent the child as agent. Their child protagonists are first and foremost subjects or more precisely subjective beings. That is, audiences are invited to ponder children's subjectivity—how children experience the world as much or more so than what they achieve in the world. As I demonstrate below, such an approach allows for a more evocative, more powerful cinematic experience than either Slumdog or Oliver because it taps into our shared experiences as embodied subjects under capitalism. It potentially unsettles and possibly inspires viewers —not because they are anxious about the threat to innocence and goodness but because they have (likely) repressed—have had to repress in order to live in a capitalist world—the “childish” feelings and bodily expressions featured in the films’ portrayals of childhood.

Treeless Mountain and
the “Benjaminian” mode of critique

In order for the social criticism Dickens intends to emerge, Oliver has to be cast as an innocent victim. For if his innocence is seriously in doubt or if he is capable of exercising significant control over his destiny, the broader social forces would not be deemed as corrupt and threatening, and the story would lose its “radicalishness.” We see precisely this occurring in Slumdog. Here, the agentic if nonetheless victimized child prevails, leaving viewers to look elsewhere for any political message. Childhood loses its critical edge. It thus appears that just updating the image of childhood on screen leads to a depoliticization of childhood within the text.

Both Oliver Twist and Slumdog Millionaire draw on abstract stereotypes of children, and as such they objectify the child in terms of his presumed core identity. These are not children that we readily recognize in our real social interactions but symbolic children, repositories of adult fears and wishes. The “global child” films, on the other hand, refuse to pigeonhole children into an idealized image—either Victorian victim or postmodern agent. And in so doing, they develop a different filmic approach to childhood, one that focuses on how childhood is subjectively experienced. This approach picks up upon another tradition of filmmaking[18] to update the image of the child in film without sacrificing its potential political meaning. I elaborate here on just one of a number of “global child” films, So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain (South Korea, 2008). I look first at the film’s rejection of the passive/agentic child duality, and then I discuss its focus on children’s embodied experiences in an insecure world and the mimetic qualities of children’s playful interaction with that world. In the final section of the paper, I consider the political implications of this approach to the cinematic child.

Treeless Mountain revolves around six-year-old Jin (played by Hee-yeon Kim) and her four-year-old sister, Bin (played by Song-hee Kim), who are deposited first with an alcoholic aunt and then with grandparents as their mother leaves in search of their father. While Jin and Bin are not technically orphans, they are—as in most of the “global child” films referenced here—children who must nonetheless make their own ways in the world. This is consistent with past and current periods of restructuring, which tend to disrupt familial arrangements, creating “surplus” populations of itinerant or migrant children (see Seabrook’s Landscapes of Poverty and Children of Other Worlds, and Katz). So, as with Oliver, in films featuring “abandoned” children or children left to their own devices to get by, the question of society’s responsibility is arguably more starkly posed.[19]

Economic hardship is a recurring theme in Treeless Mountain, beginning with the family’s initial eviction from their city apartment, through to Big Aunt’s constant complaints about the cost of putting up the girls, to Bin’s nagging hunger and the holes in Grandma’s winter shoes. Although the sisters never lack a house or guardian, they are often left to their own devices. They are also emotionally alone, clearly missing their mother, who has promised to return once they have collected enough coins to fill a plastic piggy bank she gave them before leaving.

Certainly the image of two young girls abandoned by circumstance and flawed adults is reminiscent of Dickens. And on one level, Jin and Bin are victims. They can only follow their elders onto buses that carry them into the next stages of their lives. They are powerless to stop Big Aunt from forgetting or refusing to feed them. They get jostled by passersby, listen soundlessly as adults wrangle over whose responsibility they should be, and most momentously, cannot bring their mother home, despite having filled their piggy bank with coins. Yet, Jin and Bin are actors in the world. When hungry, they go in search of food. When missing their mother, they convince a stranger to call her number on his cellphone. And when she feels so inclined, Jin teaches Bin to read. Moreover, adopting a fully entrepreneurial spirit, the sisters catch and roast grasshoppers—not to eat but to sell for pennies to fill their bank. Their achievements are constantly frustrated by wider circumstances they do not control, but unlike Oliver, they do what they can to influence the situation.

Also, unlike Oliver, the children are neither essentially good (or bad). Jin, tasked with looking after her little sister, is sometimes caring, sometimes neglectful, sometimes resentful. After wetting the bed, she lets Bin take the fall, but then she protectively rushes to join her sister as the younger girl is sent out to beg for salt. Bin largely follows along behind Jin, neither supporting or abandoning her as Jin occasionally stands up to some of the adults in their lives. They often appear calm, watchful and sad, but playful and happy as well at key points in the film. They do not seem all that naïve and are not saccharinely sweet or saintly.

While the girls’ complex characterization is consistent with the modern sense of childhood as indeterminate and somewhat resembles Polanski’s Oliver or Boyle’s and Tandan’s Jamal, there is an important difference: Treeless Mountain offers no resolution in favor of one quality or the other, ending with Jin and Bin still powerlessly awaiting their mother’s return, but nonetheless creating a new life with their grandmother. They find some happiness but must also resign themselves to the circumstances. This more existential outcome suggests that Treeless Mountain is not about the girls’ innocence, victimization, nor achievements. Director So Yong Kim’s cinematic interest in her child actors dissolves any dualistic consideration of agency and passivity. Rather, her focus is on the way children approach, experience and transform the world they inherit. Such a perspective offers us an altogether new way of thinking about agency. And it is in this exploration of Bin’s and Jin’s everyday practices of social reproduction that the film deploys childhood as a critical comment on the social. 

Like Dickens, Kim depicts the lived experience of a certain time/space reality. She captures the instability of place in an era of globalized “vagabond” capitalism in two ways. First, the girls are uprooted twice. From their home in a large urban center (likely Seoul), they move to Big Aunt's house in a smaller city and then to their grandparents’ farm in the countryside. Their travels recall an earlier journey, one presumably made by their mother when she left her home for the city, rehearsing (in reverse) the migratory pattern of global capitalism. Second, the places the girls seek out in their wanderings are borderlands, the sort of “neglected landscapes” to which Katz refers. Most significantly, these include a small hill of construction rubble, the “treeless mountain” overlooking the city street where their mother boarded the bus that took her away, and also an area with tall grass on the edge of their neighborhood where they hunt grasshoppers. Unnamed, neglected, these are the unstable, in-between spaces typical of a neo-liberal capitalist world (Harvey) that are also featured in films such as Manchuca (Chile, 2004), Chop Shop (U.S., 2007), and The Pool (India, 2007). Considered collectively, the neglected landscapes featured in these and other films illustrate the fact of their internal connection within an overarching capitalist system. Distinct local cultures are caught up in the shared global dynamic in which a light-footed capital abandons the spaces of social reproduction (Katz).[20]

It is perhaps because place is so fragile in this era—because one cannot count on sufficiency when it comes to the infrastructure of social reproduction—that some filmmakers are drawn to exploring how children “make do” in these decidedly non-domestic spaces. As with the above-mentioned studies in children’s geographies, these “global child” films often pay close attention to children’s bodies, tracking the sensations of their existence in the spaces they inhabit. In Treeless Mountain, for example, the camera offers close-up scenes of Bin chewing her dinner and picking her teeth; Jin breathing on the bus window and drawing words on the fog; or Jin carefully accepting a sticker from Hyun, a boy the girls befriend. It shows both girls exploring the piggy bank, testing its flexibility by pressing into its smooth plastic shell, peering through a tiny hole to see the coins inside, feeling its weight as the pennies shift. In these small moments, captured with contemplative camera work and a sparse soundtrack, viewers are intimately connected with the sensations and gestures of the girls’ interactions with and within the material substructures of their everyday worlds. (One is reminded here as well of the scenes in Beasts of the Southern Wild, in which the lead child character, Hushpuppy, listens intently to the world around her, real and imagined.)

Yong’s focus on such interactions suggests that if place is unstable, its spatial and temporal coordinates are also incredibly important. Borderland spaces—the hill of rubble and the grasshopper hunting grounds—are places Bin and Jin return to in an effort to creating meaning and comfort in their worlds. After the film’s somber opening half hour, the scene cuts to Jin sitting on the hill of rubble from which she had witnessed her mother’s departure. Bin approaches, carrying a sizable tree branch. The ensuing dialogue gives a sense of the transformation that occurs:

Bin: Sis! I found a tree.
Jin: But it’s dead.
Bin: No it’s not.
Jin: Oh yeah. Let’s try planting it. Hold it up high [as she works to create a cavity in which to lodge the “tree”].
Bin: Here?
Jin: Now get me some rocks.

And then, after a little more work and instructing, Jin says, “We did it. That was hard.”

In this short scene, Yong shows Bin and Jin strenuously rearranging their world as they transform a dead branch into a living tree. Their bodies are hard at play/work, manipulating both nature (the tree branch) and the detritus of human society (construction rubble). At one level this is “just play”—an amusing way to kill time and release some of the tension of their situation. But it is also an act of meaning creation, a small moment in their girls’ process of (re)producing the world in which they live. And like players everywhere, the sisters imitate a world they know (planting a tree in the ground), but they do so imaginatively, mimetically, so that their actions don't simply reproduce old, established, meanings but actually change the world around them, creating something new, meaningful and valuable.[21] Their imaginations infuse the given world to make it other than it is, better than it is: a dead branch becomes a living tree; a hill of rubble becomes a mountain of hope. Not content with the world as it has been handed to them, Bin and Jin strive to make it something else. That the “mountain” is in fact treeless—and thus signifies the reality principle to which they eventually will and must learn to surrender—does not matter for the moment. It is the creative action that absorbs the children, as well as the filmmaker.

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