The unity of fantasy and action in Treeless Mountain: the sisters work and play not to reproduce what already exists but to create a more hopeful world.
In Beasts of the Southern Wild (as in Treeless Mountain), survival and fantasy appear as “indistinguishable affects.”
In Little Cheung, the children’s practical joke upends the given order on the streets of Hong Kong, as the gangster drinks the urine-laced “tea” they deliver.
Freed from the restrictions of representing children as an abstract other, Yong and other filmmakers present the child as embodied subject.
Cultivating the imaginary and living life as a fantasy, Hushpuppy highlights a different — but nonetheless human — mode of being in the world.
The Dickensian child is to be pitied, helped, and possibly empowered – but remains “other,” and does not represent our common humanity.
“Film can portray the materiality of bodily experience...[in a way that] takes the viewer... to a more visceral” encounter with the world.
Children’s sensual appropriation of the world is revolutionary, says Benjamin, because it ties action to imagination.
Films that explore children’s being in the world can function as social critique without moralism or nostalgia.
In the grasshopper hunting grounds, Jin and Bin play/work in much the same way. They wander through the tall grasses looking for grasshoppers. The hunt is purposeful, but not all-absorbing. Jin, for instance, pauses to hold her prey between her fingers, playfully flicking its legs. Bin and Hyun wander off, distracted by a nearby stream. Later, crouching by the makeshift barbecue, a boy offers (possibly silly) advice about skewering and roasting the grasshoppers. Bin admonishes the others to “stop goofing around” before commenting on the smells: “Wow, it stinks.” The sisters wrap their delicacies in newspaper, and sell them in the streets to older children for 10 cents a package. Later, dropping their earnings in the piggy bank, they sing, “One, two, three, Grasshopper,” while jumping and playing a hand-clapping game. [open endnotes in new window]
While the grasshopper venture more closely resembles the social reproductive practices of adults, it too involves infusing the given world with new possibilities, an imaginative refashioning of the world. True, Jin and Bin are not play-acting in this case, They don’t imitate, they are hunters, cooks and sellers. Though instrumental and this-worldly, their quest is nonetheless an act of imaginative transformation. Their play/work has a practical outcome certainly: the girls are producing food and exchanging it for money. But they don’t spend their earnings; they save them, using them to fuel a fantasy about their mother's return. As with the tree-planting scene, the sisters appropriate what is at hand not to reproduce what already exists but to create a more hopeful world. Moreover, the playfulness of their purposeful activity—which mirrors the purposefulness (recall Jin’s exclamation, “We did it. That was hard”) of their playful tree-planting—suggests a unity of fantasy and action that distinguishes the girls’ reproductive activities from that which adults understand work to be. Survival and fantasy appear as “indistinguishable affects” (Berlant, 289) for these children.
In foregrounding children’s sensual, imaginative, exploratory relation to the world, Treeless Mountain and films like it reject conventional modes of representing children. While Jin and Bin may be more similar to Jamal than Oliver—representing an “unsettled” image of childhood and exercising some meaningful agency in their lives—there’s plenty to distinguish them from the postmodern portrayal of childhood. With Jamal, the distinction between adult and child blurs. Despite his sometimes playful antics and naivety, Jamal is morally stable, mature and sure of himself—qualities which guide him back to Mumbai, onto the game show, and allow him to survive the torture. It’s difficult to imagine Jin and Bin in such solid control of their fate. Furthermore, Jamal’s and Salim’s “work” at the Taj Mahal also shades into play. They clearly take some delight in stealing tourists’ shoes and duping them into believing the stories they concoct as ostensible tour guides. But its purpose is not to reimagine their world. Rather, it has a highly unplaylike purpose: getting money to survive and (in Jamal's case) return to Mumbai to find Latika. What Salim and Jamal produce, they sell. What Jin and Bin produce they save in order to work magic.
Bin and Jin cannot be contained by an abstraction, the agentic or passive child, the savvy or innocent. They exercise significant agency and are wise (and become wiser) to the ways of the world, but their identities are not reduced to these qualities. This is because rather than treating them as fully realized individuals, unchanging beings with stable “characters” or “identities,” the film captures the children coming-into-being. Bin and Jin are depicted as “becoming” (over “being”), but in a dialectical, non-telelogical way. The end is not prescribed, as it is in those sociologies of childhood that position children as “becoming adult” (Curti and Moreno, Prout). Rather, the process is open-ended, shifting constantly and with great subtlety in relation to their actions and physical/sensual engagement with the socio-material substructure of their world.
Freed from the need to see the children as representative of an abstract other, Yong and other filmmakers concentrate on capturing and portraying the child as embodied subject. In Jin and Bin, Yong captures much the same sort of thing that Katz describes in her comparative study of the ways in which children in the Sudanese village of Howa and Harlem negotiate the effects of economic restructuring in their daily lives. Katz documents children's “playful practices of social reproduction” (240) through which they learn and survive in the unstable time/space of neo-liberal governance and global capital mobility. In Howa, for example, she documents children “reclaiming the debris of geography” in their play, using “china money” (258), currency constructed out of found bits of crockery, to imaginatively enact the marketplace relations that are becoming more central to their everyday lives, while at the same time creating a world of abundance that is distinct from—and better than—their lived reality. Similarly, she notes that in playing house, girls will fetch water, traditionally a job reserved for boys and men. Here again children are imitating their worlds, but adding to them, shaping them in ways that align with their needs and wishes—much the way Jin ad Bin do in Treeless Mountain.
Others are similarly struck by the ways in which children subjectively experience their world and the things in it. Whether observing street children of Ethiopia (Abebe) or Indonesia (Beazley), British school children (James, Thomson and Philo), the children of Calcutta's sex workers (Sircar and Dutta) or of drug-addicted parents in San Diego (Curti and Moreno), field studies bring to light the texture of children’s subjective engagement with the world—its sensual, imaginative and exploratory nature. This is agency, but of a different kind: it is
In Benjaminian terms, it is a sense of agency that attends to the mimetic qualities of children’s way of being in the world—their capacity to bring imagination and action together, to create a world that fits with their ideas and ideals, to refuse the accepted given reality and way of being. In the final section of the paper, I explore the political meanings that can be attached to such observations.
The critical potential of childhood
One way to approach the political possibilities of children’s subjective engagement with the world is to ask how the filmic apprehension of children in Treeless Mountain and similar “global child” films inspire a radical critique of the societies they depict. Children on screen, suggests Mecchia (following Deleuze),
As a result, child characters are uniquely capable of evoking “an erased past” and their “gaze” denaturalizes the adult world, invoking standards of innocence to judge it by and hold adults accountable to. That power, however, can take different forms. Insofar as it recalls an idealized, objectified childhood triggering sympathy and moral outrage, the power can end up being as trivial as the sentimentalization it banks on. At the same time that they remind adults of their (idealized) childhood, such characterizations also fix and naturalize the separation between adulthood and childhood as if adult and child were two distinct forms of humanity—as if the child were natural and the adult not. Thus, while the Dickensian child can indeed suggest a social critique, it does so at the cost of reaffirming an essential difference between “them” (children) and “us” (adults). As such it inspires sympathy, not solidarity, philanthropic paternalism, not radical transformation. One need think only of famine relief appeals featuring soulful, dark-skinned children with distended bellies and wide eyes. These are creatures to be pitied and helped, possibly even empowered, but they are not the “us” to whom the messages are addressed; they do not represent our common humanity. They are (only) innocent children.
Yet when the child on screen is not an abstraction but a complex and contradictory being whose sensual and transformative relation to the world is foregrounded, children’s cinematic presence evokes an “erased past” of a different order. Instead of relying on nostalgia, which is as much if not more about forgetting as it is about remembering, these representations bank on the power of memory as they connect with viewers’ one-time but now largely repressed experiences of their bodies in the world. Karen Lury makes this point in her discussion of certain war-time films:
The “global child” films, I’m suggesting, take viewers to a visceral encounter with the violence of neo-liberal capitalism. In foregrounding children’s embodied subjectivities, they potentially put viewers in touch with their earlier selves, with a form of subjectivity and often non-instrumental mode of knowing that they experienced as a child but have likely lost or devalued since. Rather than distance childhood from adulthood, such a portrayal emphasizes the shared humanity of adult and child, grounded in a pleasurable and imaginative embodied interaction with the world.
The radical possibilities of ascertaining such interaction turn on two key points, both developed by Walter Benjamin in his observations of children’s play. First, as he emphasizes in his essays “The Cultural History of Toys” and “On the Mimetic Faculty,” the “mimetic faculty” that guides this mode of existence—the capacity to rehearse and invent the everyday world in line with one’s imaginings—draws attention to the socially constructed nature of the given world (Benjamin, 115, 720). Quite simply, as Katz puts it, “immanent in making the everyday world is the knowledge that it is made” (257) and thus can be unmade or remade differently. Accepted meanings are challenged, as are the boundaries of what is deemed possible.
In other words, a playful mode of existence potentially releases the sort of historical consciousness essential to the development of revolutionary consciousness. Moreover, that mode of existence is of a two-sided nature, and this is the second point Benjamin develops about the radical possibilities of foregrounding children’s subjectivities. Play or mimesis brings thought and action together: it is both physical/material/sensual on the one hand, and abstract/ideal/fantastical on the other. The fantastical aspect of play has been widely noted by others. The “imagined world,” writes Christensen, “represents the simple, spontaneous, unconditional and infinite dimensions of social relations, unconstrained by conventional restrictions or limitations” (43). And what Marcuse refers to as play’s “refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by the reality principle . . . its refusal to forget what can be” (135). But for Benjamin,
Thus, it is not only the capacity to fantasize new worlds and ways of being that will be the foundation of a new and better society, it is also the sensuous, active element of play—the physically creative element emerging from the meeting of fantasy and reality—that must be mobilized for such a project. As adults, we have lost touch with that pre-contemplative way of knowing (see Benjamin’s essays, “The Lamp” and “A Berlin Chronicle”), as we strive to get along in an instrumentalist, individualist world. But it is not lost to us completely, and engaging with children, Benjamin posits, is a bridge to those buried feelings.
This emphasis on praxis—this insistence on the two-sidedness of life—is precisely what Marx emphasizes in his discussion of alienation. To be a free (nonalienated) subject is to be a conscious, creative being interacting freely with nature and other free subjects. But interacting how? Marx states: “human relations to the world” consist of “seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving—in short, all the organs of his individual beings” (138-9). And it is through the exercise of these faculties that we appropriate “human reality.” Private property and acquisition, by prioritizing having over being thwart these senses. The state of alienation, then is as much about “chang[ing] the worker into an insensible being” (149, emphasis added), or engendering a “dulled” subjectivity as one commentator (Henricks, 41) puts it, as it is about workers’ lack of control over the fruits of their labor.
Thus, while capital inexorably denies, disrupts and negates the praxic element of life activity in and through labor for capital, following Benjamin we can appreciate how play or childish existence is one of the few experiences in which alienation (as Marx describes it) is at least temporarily suspended. Play’s simultaneous and integrally related conscious (intellectual) and physical (practical) nature makes it a forceful space of critique, but not only in the sense of a rational critique. In relearning the cognitive mode associated with play, an alternative, bodily relation to the world comes into view—one that privileges sensibility/feeling and being over owning/having and getting.
While this discussion has taken us a long way from the issues associated with the cinematic treatment of children and childhood, the route back is relatively straightforward. I want to suggest that the sort of filmic apprehension of children that Yong and similar filmmakers offer—the foregrounding of children’s subjective interaction with the in-between spaces of the neo-liberal, global capitalist world—contains these radical political possibilities. Like Benjamin’s observations about children playing, in providing a glimpse at what it means to “be” in the world differently (imaginatively, sensually), these “global child” films have the potential to awaken a part of us that we do not generally associate with political critique. The films evoke feelings about the ways in which we do, and might possibly, interact with the world, feelings about what it means to be a subject in the world, while also they also remind us of the constructed nature of that world. Here the cinematic child certainly evokes an “erased past” as Mecchia suggests, but it does so on a more visceral, less rational level than the Dickensian screen-child effects. And it does so without collapsing children or childhood into an abstract, value-laden category of existence or positioning them as mere objects of our desire.
Of course, the radical political meanings of these films are not self-evident. A revolutionary consciousness does not spring forth from the mere act of watching Treeless Mountain or Chop Shop or Sin Nombre. But the films are politically significant insofar as they draw attention to the difficult question of political consciousness, and specifically to the important, though often—in political practice at least—ignored questions of the revolutionary imagination. As such, they allow us to see how childhood can function as social critique without the moralism and nostalgia associated with the Victorian child-as-victim trope. And importantly, they provide a means of rediscovering the corporeality of that life activity as a basis for imagining another world—one that will be forged not out of dialogue alone but out of struggle, experience and that bodies, not ideas alone, will create.