Some Thoughts on Michelle Mohabeer’s Child-Play (1997)

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TW: Description of a film that deals with child abuse

Some Thoughts on Child-Play: a self indulgent rant by an over-eager cinema student

We’ve been struggling to make our digital exhibition on SAVAC’s Not a Place on the Map Desh Pardesh oral history project more visual. The oral history interviews are riveting, but as an audience, it’d be hard to stay interested in around 36 hours of raw tapes. I was surprised and excited to come across Michelle Mohabeer’s work, especially Child-Play (1997). Mohabeer is one of the artists interviewed for the oral history project, and her work is a touchstone for many other interviewed artists who were involved in Desh.

Child-Play was a well-received film that depicts a girl who is terrorized by a Dutch man, who becomes a symbol for colonialism through the film. What struck me, aside from the way Mohabeer expertly crafts mood and space through manipulation of light and depth, was the way she portrayed violence to a child, on-screen.

Caption: Stills from Child-Play (1997), dir. Michelle Mohabeer. In the first still, the Dutch man steals the girl’s soul. In the second, she confronts him as an old woman, and eventually banishes him from her mind.

Stills from Child-Play (1997), dir. Michelle Mohabeer. In the first still, the Dutch man steals the girl’s soul. In the second, she confronts him as an old woman, and eventually banishes him from her mind.

This kind of representation interests me (I’ve seen Mysterious Skin (Araki, 2004) too many times). I must say at the outset that the strongest argument against portraying violence against children is that one must hire a child to act that scene and of course, this is not something I condone. The other, more persistent argument is that portraying child abuse – especially sexual abuse – makes the viewer complicit in the act. That is, to be interested in viewing this material, one gains as much pleasure as the perpetrator. I find this argument less convincing for many reasons, but the first still from this film approaches this in a unique way. By forcing us to view the child’s soul being taken away from above, Mohabeer emphasizes our role as a spectator. We can see everything, but do nothing.

Of course, Mohabeer is restricted in what she can film and the violence is only implied, but its effects are the same – we’re helpless and bound to our voyeurism. What makes this scene important is the redemption which comes at the end. Because Mohabeer could portray this moment, we’re able to follow the woman on her journey to confront her demons. She can give me, as a racialized subject, the feeling of power and closure. This argument is similar to the argument for depictions of (implied) child abuse. Filmic representation is a way to heal.

I initially came to this digital collections project wanting to look into film and representation, to complement my cinema studies degree. I enjoyed Child-Play because it reminded me of why I took this project on in the first place. As a racialized child, a film like this would’ve helped me to put words to the powerlessness I felt. Even the indication that there were others who felt the same way would’ve helped. I hope our digital collection can help others access this kind of history and to create the kind of resources I wish were around when I was growing up.