by Jarrah Hodge
(Spoiler alert. Trigger Warning: discussions of depictions of child abuse, violence against women)
It’s been another great summer of film fests here in Vancouver and I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks seeing some fantastic movies at the Vancouver International Film Festival. My first pick was H&G, a film by Canadian director Danishka Esterhazy and a majority female creative team.
H&G is a “modern, neorealist twist” on the classic fairy tale Hansel & Gretel. In this modern version 8-year-old Gemma and 6-year-old Harley are children growing up in poverty in Winnipeg. Their mother, Krysstal, clearly loves them but is unable to get things together enough to properly feed or take care of them, leaving a ton of responsibility on Gemma. One night Krysstal takes the kids along on a car trip with her new, clearly manipulative boyfriend and a fight leads to him pulling her out of the car, and later abandoning the kids in the forest far from home.
The added complexity given to the mother is the first major twist on the tale. In her statement on the film website, director Danishka Esterhazy writes:
“I have always been struck by this fable’s portrayal of adult women. The stepmother and the witch are portrayed as heartless villains. Whereas the father, although also complicit in the abandonment of the children, is portrayed as caring and loveable. In reading about the history of the tale, I discovered that Wilhelm Grimm revised the traditional tale several times. He changed the mother character into a stepmother and he also made her less sympathetic. According to folklorist Jack Zipes, Wilhelm Grimm “deepened the characterization of the father and stepmother so that he becomes much more caring and concerned about the children and she becomes more coldhearted and cruel.” This sharp gender dichotomy, this demonization of the adult female characters, was an element of the story that I wanted to explore and challenge. This was my starting place for writing H&G.”
The house they eventually come across is owned by a pig farmer, Brendan, who at first starts by being kind and feeding them delicious food. He lets Gemma try to call home several times but her mother doesn’t answer. Time is given to show a range of Gemma and Harley’s activities and emotions as they settle into life with Brendan. But things change when Brendan’s brother shows up, drunk, and starts insinuating the kids should be scared of Brendan. The filmmakers do a great job creating audience uncertainty here so it takes quite a while before we know whether Brendan or his brother is the real danger (or both).
That the danger is very real becomes apparent near the end when Gemma finds Brendan’s scrapbook of pictures of young boys cut out of catalogues. Not long after, Brendan’s brother brings over some male friends and a “date”, Martini, (I read this as her being a sex worker but it’s not explicitly stated). After being teased by his friends that he can’t control the children, Brendan drags them out and locks them in a shed in the yard. There they find a bucket of bones and something horrifying (we’re never shown what) in a freezer. A bit later in the evening, Martini comes running out of the house, screaming that she’s leaving and that the men are “a bunch of psychos”. Gemma and Harley watch as she climbs into her car and Brendan drags her out and back into the house, with her screaming.
Even though the children escape the ending is uncertain and not necessarily optimistic. Like pretty much everything else in the movie, it’s complex.
The two child actors, Breazy Diduck-Wilson (Gemma) and Annika Elyse Irving (Harley) are outstanding. They communicated so much in their eyes and facial expressions and made this modern fairy tale entirely believable. The script is also impressive. One commenter in the Q&A after the film noted how hard it is to have a movie that tells a story through the eyes of a child, especially one where the subject matter is so adult. The writing certainly laid the foundation for that to happen as well as it did.
You might have noticed there’s a bit of a similarity in the plot to the cases of the women who were murdered by Robert Pickton. Right off the bat when I saw Brendan was a pig farmer, I drew that connection. And Esterhazy acknowledged it in the Q&A: “We were trying to think of modern-day bogeyman,” she said. She clarified that the story wasn’t based on the Pickton case but that “certainly the imagery from the crimes” made it into the film.
I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about this. It didn’t come across as crass, like some other versions of the Pickton cases have (I advise never watching the derivative two-part episode of Criminal Minds), but it was clearly triggering to a few people in the audience. One woman sitting near me left the theatre in tears when she had it confirmed that Pickton’s murders were an inspiration. To a lot of people, especially around Vancouver, it’s still very raw to talk about the many women – mostly Aboriginal, mostly sex workers – who lost their lives. And, to a large extent, the systemic issues that allowed the women’s disappearances to go unaddressed for so long are unresolved. I don’t think there was any ill intent but it didn’t quite sit right with me to draw on that, especially when there were depictions of class difference but no acknowledgement of the dynamics of race/colonialism that played into the Pickton cases (Martini, the “date” and presumed murder victim in the movie, is white, as are the two children).
If it weren’t for that, I would have no qualms recommending H&G. If you’ve read this far and are interested in checking it out for yourself, H&G is playing one more time at VIFF on October 1..