Two recent films, produced collaboratively with groups of young people, raise some interesting questions about representation. A discussion of Sarah Gavron’s Rocks (2020) and Fred Baillif’s La Mif (The Fam, 2021).
Last year, between the lockdowns, I published a book drawing together some of my writing about representations of youth in film and television. After a good deal of deliberation, I decided to call the book ‘Youth On Screen’ rather than anything like ‘Youth Film’ or ‘Teen TV’. In practice, I had been writing largely about adults’ representations or constructions of ‘youth’, which were (by definition) retrospective. Indeed, it seemed to me that the idea of ‘youth film’ or ‘teen TV’ (or whatever) was something of a contradiction in terms. As I wrote in the introduction:
… to state the obvious, representations of youth in film and television are rarely produced by young people themselves. Of course, young people do make their own films; and while there is a long (and partly hidden) history here, the advent of digital media has significantly extended the opportunities for young film-makers. Even so, almost all commercially produced movies about young people – the films that reach cinemas, commercial streaming services and broadcast television – are produced by adults. The same is true for ‘youth television’, and indeed for most novels about youth.
In the last few years, however, some of this ground may have begun to shift. In this post I want to focus on two recent films that have been produced, if not by, then at least to some significant degree with young people. They’re not the only ones: there are certainly elements of the same phenomenon in films like Celine Sciamma’s Bande de Filles (Girlhood, 2014) or Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016). Taken together, they raise some interesting questions about how young people might choose to represent themselves.
Rocks, released in cinemas in 2020 and currently showing on Netflix, tells the story of a young Black British teenager called Olushola, also known as Rocks (played by Bukky Bakray). The official trailer can be seen here.
The film is set in east London. The narrative begins when Rocks is abandoned by her single mother, leaving only a note of apology and some money. Rocks has to look after her younger brother, Emmanuel (played by D’angelou Osei Kissiedu); and much of the film is concerned with her struggle to avoid him being taken into care by the authorities.
Rocks is frequently seen with her culturally diverse group of girlfriends, both in and out of school. Probably the closest is Sumaya, a Somali Muslim girl (played by Kosar Ali). After her mother disappears, Rocks doesn’t tell anyone apart from Sumaya, and the pressure on her starts to mount. She begins to lose faith that her mother will return; and when a neighbour alerts the social services, Rocks abandons their flat, and (along with her brother) checks into a hotel, pretending Emmanuel is her son. Meanwhile, she is getting into conflicts at school and becomes friendly with a troublesome new girl in the class, Roshé. One day, she bunks off from school with Roshé, from whom she steals some money to pay for the hotel.
Eventually, Rocks is evicted from the hotel when the manager realises she is under-age, and she takes refuge with a more middle-class white friend, Agnes. Attempting to help, Agnes contacts the social services for advice; and the following morning, they turn up and take Rocks and her brother into care. Rocks is housed with foster parents in London, but Emmanuel is taken to live in the seaside town of Hastings, some 60 miles away. Rocks returns to school, and later, with her group of friends, travels to Hastings to visit Emmanuel. From behind a wire fence, Rocks watches him playing in the school playground and decides not to approach him.
Rocks was developed by the director Sarah Gavron (probably best known for her 2015 film Suffragette) through improvised drama workshops which took place over many months in inner London. The film was partly funded by the social/medical research charity, Wellcome Trust, as well as Film 4 and the BFI. The cast – who are mostly non-actors making their debuts here – was assembled before the script was written by a professional scriptwriter. According to Screen Daily:
The team narrowed down the search area to east London to keep it moderately contained, although casting director and researcher Lucy Pardee still saw 1,000 girls during open casting calls.
From a pool of 30 potential girls, the group was whittled down to 12 during workshops in which they were encouraged to talk openly about their home lives, friendships, boys, social media and cultural identities. That group all appear in the final film, with a knot of six forming the key protagonists.
Despite having an outline script, much of the dialogue was improvised; apparently 150 hours of footage was filmed. Although the production team (director, scriptwriter, editors etc.) were adult professionals, it’s fair to see the film as – to some extent at least – the result of a collaboration with young people. As the closing credit says:
The cast and many other young Londoners collaborated with the writers and filmmakers to create the characters and world of our film.
Rocks has received numerous prize nominations and several awards, as well as widespread critical acclaim. It was named Best Film at the 2021 British Independent Film awards.
To some extent, the narrative follows a fairly conventional structure. Rocks’s life is disrupted, and she gets into ever deeper difficulty as the story proceeds; she can’t manage on the money her mother has left, the electricity is cut off, the appearance of the social workers means that she can’t return home. The scenes alternate between home and school, with the latter providing almost a refuge; but Rocks clearly cannot escape forever. She stays briefly with Sumaya, and then at the hotel, but she has to keep moving; reality is steadily closing in. Essentially, this a tale of fugitives on the run.
Yet several aspects of the film provide a degree of authenticity. At least for me as a Londoner, the settings are recognisably those of working-class London (as opposed to the tourist London so often seen on screen). This is a world of unglamorous council estates, down-at-heel shops and litter-strewn streets: it’s not EastEnders, but nor is it ‘poverty porn’. The brief escape to the seaside at the very end is a familiar trope of such ‘gritty urban realism’ films (London to Brighton, Quadrophenia, Top Boy, This is England, The Last Resort…) – although (as in this case), such a move is often seen in quite ambivalent terms.
Especially in its semi-improvised sequences, the film effectively captures key aspects of teenage experience: hanging out with peers, mucking around, having a laugh, getting bored, eating junk food, rapping and dancing, looking for things to do, bantering. These sequences often seem like interludes between the action: the plot doesn’t advance, and the characters are able to escape (on a couple of notable occasions to a rooftop overlooking the city). As well as a fair amount of misery, there is also joy – most strikingly, in a school dance class, where girls of all shapes and sizes perform. Many of these scenes also feature mobile phone footage that might have been captured by the participants at the time – and indeed the centrality of the mobile phone (which is essentially Rocks’s lifeline) is well captured. Throughout, there is a strong sense of the dynamics of the peer group: there are occasional tensions in the girls’ friendships, but they always have each other’s backs.
The fact that the dialogue was developed through group improvisation is frequently very evident. In general, the performances are quite low-key, even offhand – notably in the case of D’angelou Osei Kissiedu (who plays Emmanuel), winner of a well-deserved best Supporting Actor award. Despite the intense emotions at stake, there are no amateur dramatics or melodrama here. Likewise, much of the filming is documentary-style, with hand-held cameras. The sound is not always distinct, even to those familiar with the accents. Incidental music is used, often to convey Rocks’s mood (a sense of melancholy or impending threat), but very sparingly.
To some extent, there is a ‘message’ here, which is essentially about childhood and youth identities. In one scene, we see the girls in an art lesson, where they are introduced to Picasso and cubism, and this is used as a springboard for them to create identity collages. As they cut-and-paste, the girls discuss the question of who they are: Agnes (the white girl) says that her Englishness feels like ‘nothing’, unlike her peers who (like Sumaya) are Muslim or (like Rocks) of African heritage, or Jewish.
The resulting collages are displayed in the closing credits, accompanied by a music track:
Too young to feel this pressure…
Too young to be this grown up…
Can’t we rewind the clocks to when I was a kid?
To some extent, as the song suggests, Rocks has adult responsibility thrust upon her: she has to grow up very quickly. She steps up as Emmanuel’s mother, imposing discipline, teaching and reassuring him, and tolerating his childishness. This concern about ‘growing up too soon’ isn’t entirely negative; and the song also emphasises resilience – I’m not cryin’, no, I’m gonna shine… Knock me down, I get up again… Meanwhile, the collages themselves suggest that identity is multiple, fragmented and changeable.
On the other hand, another scene set in school features the girls discussing future careers. Their teacher is broadly supportive of their aspirations, but equally assures one of them that she will need good grades if she wants to become a lawyer, for example. Rocks has a talent for doing make-up, and at one point even makes some money from this. But as the film closes, with the diverse peer group larking about on the beach, and then the closing song, it’s hard not to wonder what will become of them. The film celebrates their resilience and agency, and their collective solidarity: the girls are clever, funny, resourceful and full of energy. But this is by no means a simplistic assertion of ‘girl power’ – nor indeed a reassuring story of ‘coming of age’.
La Mif (the Fam)
La Mif, which translates to the English slang ‘The Fam’ (family), was released in cinemas in 2021, and is currently streaming on BFI Player in the UK. The official trailer can be seen here.
The film focuses on a period of crisis over a few days in a residential care home for troubled adolescents in Geneva, Switzerland. As the story unfolds, new girls are inducted into the home, as well as new members of staff. We are shown the staff in meetings, as well as supervising the girls; and we see the girls hanging out, playing table football and truth or dare, going swimming, and absconding to town. The stories of several of the girls, and of Lora the director of the home, are told in separate named ‘chapters’, eventually coming together in longer penultimate chapter (entitled La Mif). These are stories of abuse and neglect, but also of accidents (the parents of one girl have been killed in a car crash, while another is partly responsible for her younger sister’s death from drowning in the bath).
Early in the film, one of the girls, Audrée, is caught having sex with one of the boys in the home, who is under-age: she is removed by the police, although she eventually returns. The director Lora (played by Claudia Grob), who has only just returned from a period of sick leave, is sent before a disciplinary panel and accused of ‘slack management’. She is told that the home will be girls-only in future; she resists the criticisms, and is eventually dismissed. Later, we discover that Lora has been on leave because her own daughter has killed herself (at the age of 40), having never fully recovered from childhood abuse at the hands of her grandfather (Lora’s father). After being dismissed, Lora returns to the home, smashes up her office, and drives off with a group of the girls for a final truth-telling session around a bonfire.
La Mif was directed by former social worker Fred Baillif; and like Rocks, evolved from improvised workshops with the cast of girls, who are all non-professionals. According to Baillif:
The material for the film is provided by the girls. We worked together for two years in workshops to transform this emotional material. I have had discussions with educators and what interested me most was the way in which the topic of sexuality is dealt with in [such] institutions…
All the girls were told to think about their own background for the characters they played. They are not telling their real story, but one inspired by their experience. They weren’t allowed to tell each other about their story, it was a secret until the start of the shooting…
Everything is improvisation. I didn’t write any dialogue. There were a few punchlines I fixed. It was clear that the director had a secret and that at some point it would be revealed. But for the rest, I followed their energy. I wanted them not to play a role, but rather to be as authentic as possible, and to react to their environment and co-actors. They needed to use their own words.
The film has been well reviewed, and won numerous awards, including several best film and best director awards at international festivals.
The narrative of La Mif is more immediately challenging than that of Rocks. As a viewer, it is initially quite hard to orientate yourself: there are lots of characters, it’s not always clear what’s happening, and the uneven camerawork and sound reflect the loose improvisational feel. As Baillif describes: ‘I wanted the camera to depict the claustrophobic atmosphere that I resented in these institutions, by being very close to the actors. These buildings are not prisons, but they are quite similar to them.’
For much of its length, the film alternates between moments of chaos (shouting, swearing and fighting) and moments of silent reflection, where we are invited to infer the characters’ unspoken suffering, regret and pain. There is a recurring tension between freedom (with the girls running free through the city, or chasing chickens in the yard) and constraint (particularly in the repeated scenes of the police arresting Audrée); and yet the outside world, and in some cases the girls’ home families, are also seen as risky, as compared with the safety of the institution. Non-diegetic music is often used to ironic effect: the anarchy of events on screen contrasts with the highly ordered, calm and somehow innocent atmosphere of excerpts from Bach and Scarlatti, and even more strikingly with the carefree and celestial (but also somewhat cheesy) voices of the Swingle Singers.
Rather than developing sequentially, the film keeps returning to the same scenes (the arrest of Audrée, Lora’s return to work, and so on), sometimes shot from different points of view, or with additional information. We go back (and sometimes seemingly forwards) in time, cutting across the different storylines even though they are in separate ‘chapters’. In the process, we become aware of how different characters bring different kinds of knowledge (and different emotional states) to key moments, and hence why they react in the sometimes volatile way they do. This recursive, multi-perspectival structure becomes much clearer on a second viewing, especially once the various threads recap and twist together (or perhaps unravel) in the last twenty minutes or so.
Of course, it’s in the nature of the characters’ experiences that a lot is not immediately revealed: personal stories are partly withheld, both by the participants, and by the film itself. This is particularly the case with what Baillif refers to as the director’s ‘secret’ – the story of Lora’s daughter. As the film implies, the past impacts on the present in unpredictable ways, and over long periods of time: it can’t be easily put away. Despite its distressing content, this means that the film avoids veering into melodrama: nothing is ‘milked’ for its emotional effect.
While the girls’ stories are quite diverse, the issue of sexual abuse is the film’s most abiding concern. As ever, the issue of sex raises broader questions about the boundaries that exist (rightly or wrongly) between children and adults. On the one hand, the girls are playful and child-like: to the accompaniment of the Swingle Singers, they play hide and seek in the changing rooms at the swimming pool, they are afraid of spiders, they run around in the yard chasing chickens, they are rude to random adults in the street. But on the other hand, they are also unnervingly ‘adult’ – foul-mouthed, sexually experienced, argumentative and prone to violence.
Audrée in particular crosses that boundary, sometimes in full knowledge that she is deliberately challenging this distinction. The potential for sex with the adult staff is a particularly fraught issue in this respect: the girls imagine having sex with the handsome new staff member Oumar, while Audrée tries to kiss one of the older workers. The girls are awkwardly positioned between childhood and adulthood in this respect. Audrée is arrested because she has sex with a 14-year-old boy who is living in the home: the law says he is a child, but she is not because she is over sixteen. When it’s decided that the home will become girls only, the girls talk about this as a kind of licence for sexuality: they’ll be walking around in thongs with their breasts hanging out. Yet in a later scene they worry about the fact that they are talking frankly about sex in front of Precieuse, who is only 13: they fear she might be ‘learning things too fast’.
These tensions are always evident in youth work, and indeed in education (both in the film and in reality!). Striking the balance between adult authority (or protection, or discipline) and the need to give children care and support, and for children to express themselves, is difficult. The film shows that, despite official rules, the operation of adult authority is always contested and negotiated. The adults turn a blind eye to some things: smoking weed, for example. But the girls frequently challenge adult authority directly – and in a notable late scene, one of them accuses Lora of failing to protect her own child, and hence as not having the authority to make the best choices for them.
In response to the disciplinary board, Lora asserts that the home is not a prison: it needs to be a place of safety, although she agrees that the law has to be obeyed. As she argues, young people will experience sexual desires and fantasies: sex is not a crime, it’s a right – although for the members of the disciplinary board, it is an ‘abomination’. To this extent, Lora says, the system makes her task ‘impossible’.
Nevertheless, the film’s position is not simply ‘child-centred’. Adults have to listen to children, it implies; but the case of Precieuse, one of the last new entrants to the home, shows that children don’t always speak the truth; and some of the other stories are more about accidents than neglect or abuse. Youth work is bound to operate within constraints: it is an imperfect system, but for the moment, it’s the only one there is. The ritual of Lora removing the sheets from the beds of girls who have departed – a practice she says was taken over from the nuns who used to run the home – represents a kind of cleansing, a washing of hands: there’s only so much the adults can do.
Ultimately, Lora is dismissed for her failure to prevent something she could not possibly have prevented, and for standing up to criticism. Although she remains angry, she accepts that she has to close this chapter of her life. She recognises that others will still struggle for a system that is at least good enough; although when she returns to the home (against the instructions of the disciplinary board) at the very end, the staff squabble and fight like children. Somewhat sentimentally perhaps, Lora appears to find her family in the bonfire scene, even as she admits that she failed to listen to her own daughter, or to believe her. Yet in the final ‘chapter’, we see that she has separated from her husband, and is moving into a flat on her own: her family is gone.
As this implies, the consequences of abuse can pass from one generation to the next. At the very end of the film, we see the arrival at the home of Zoe, a much younger child: the final shot shows four of the girls silently thinking, as the child cries in the background. This is, to say the least, hardly an optimistic ending.
A brief conclusion
Despite their similarities, there are several key differences between these two films. Most obviously, La Mif is concerned with older young people; and its focus is more centrally on the issue of sex and sexual abuse – an issue that is (perhaps curiously) absent in Rocks. The adult (Lora) also plays a more central role: as it proceeds, the film is increasingly concerned with her struggle with the system – whereas adults are almost entirely missing from Rocks.
However, both films achieve an unusual degree of authenticity in their representations of young people. Anybody who knows teenagers, or has worked with them, is likely to find both films very recognisable. This is partly because of the way they were made, to a greater or lesser degree in collaboration with their young performers. But it is also about the improvisational feel, and in the case of La Mif, the complex narrative style. Both films refuse the easy consolations of the ‘coming of age’ film, which inevitably tends to represent youth from an adult perspective. They make an interesting contrast with more conventional images of youth on screen.