Violence and Sisterhood – Top of the Lake, Volver, and The Bletchley Circle

I grew up in rural Alaska.

In some ways, it was a charmed life. By the time I had much awareness, my dad was a teacher and, while we weren’t rich by any stretch, we never really wanted for much. And for all it’s hardships, life in the Alaska bush is filled with it’s own beauty. That, coupled with the arrogance of childhood, and viewed through the lens of a faith that, for me at least, shielded me from hard truths, led to a particular kind of blindness. I was largely blind to the struggles of those around me, most specifically to those of the Native Alaskan community.

Due to a number of factors, Native villages struggle with horrible rates of substance abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, depression, and suicide. This certainly isn’t restricted to Alaskan Native villages alone, but it is closest to my experience, especially now as I work with many teens from rural villages, and see the effects firsthand. I can’t help but see it.

The issue of violence against women and children has become steadily more important to me, partially because I am the father of two daughters, but also because I work with adolescent drug addicts, a population at a much higher risk of experiencing sexual trauma.

Two TV miniseries and one movie brought this to mind recently; “Top of the Lake”, “The Bletchley Circle”, and Volver.

Top of the Lake

I had heard that Top of the Lake was good.

Turns out it was great, maybe some of the finest television to ever cross these eyeballs.

That’s not to say it’s a rollicking fun time at the movies; although there are moments of humor, it is overwhelmingly dark, a jungle of patriarchy, and deals, among other things, with rape, incest, murder, and the CSEC (the commercial sexual exploitation of children). That, coupled with its pulpy roots, could make it a hot mess or an ungainly polemic, but it avoids those pitfalls through its admirable commitment to letting its characters be actual people, particularly Det. Robin Griffin (played by Elizabeth Moss). She is allowed to be competent, smart, and sexual, while also being messy, impulsive, and selfish. She is a Chinatown-esqe protagonist, absorbing an incredible amount of abuse in the pursuit of the truth. But unlike J. J. Gittes’ ghoulishly bleak ending, Det. Robin Griffin emerges changed, but vindicated.

One of the most distinctive elements of the show is a community of women that gather to attempt to collectively heal from their wounds, both seen as unseen. They create a community on the shores of the titular lake, on a piece of land named (oddly enough) Paradise. Throughout the 7 episodes of the series, many characters, male and female, come to them to be healed, but this usually happens in unexpected ways.  The fact that it is a group of women that serves as a place of healing would be distinctive enough. That it does so without idolizing or sanitizing them is even more powerful still.

Let me reiterate; this is very, very hard to watch. Here be dragons. But what marvelous dragons they are.

The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley Circle was a delightful surprise, but it really shouldn’t have been.

Many of my favorite shows over the past 3 years have been from the BBC (See Luther, Sherlock, The IT Crowd, Downton Abbey, etc.). But again what takes this from a fairly standard plot (albeit with the fantastic twist of the characters using the skills they learned in a code breaking unit during WWII to catch a serial killer) to something that has stuck with me days afterwards is the wonderful portrayal of women uniting together, caring for each other, and discovering that they are stronger together than they are apart.

This is seen most strongly between Lucy (Sophie Rundle) and Millie (Rachel Stirling), where Lucy has been severely beaten by her husband, and Millie takes her in, nurses her back to health, and the make a new home and a new life together.

As a whole, The Bletchley Circle presents its male characters as less monochromatically evil than Top of the Lake, rendering them as shades of callous or clueless, unable to think of the women in their lives as more than homemakers, secretaries or waitresses.

Volver

Pedro Almadovar is an unqualified master of the cinematic form… so naturally I didn’t see any of his films until the age of 31. Luckily for me, I decided to break my streak with Volver, starring Penelope Cruz.

The point should be made; I never understood what people saw in Penelope Cruz as an actress.

Now I do. I never actively disliked her in other movies, but acting in her native tongue, she is luminously, beautifully, ferociously alive.

The most striking element of this movie, for me, was that, unlike the others on this list, men are almost wholly absent from the plot, aside from the initial event that sends the plot in motion. The event, where Cruz’s daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), accidentally stabs her stepfather when he attempts to rape her, is shocking and horrifying, but quickly fades into the background (literally, as they put the body into a chest freezer until they can find a better way to dispose of it).

From that moment on, the film seems less concerned about the (very real) sins of men, and more concerned about the ways in which women connect; as sisters, daughters, grandmothers, neighbors and friends. There are so many wonderful scenes of connection, particularly in the context of the village where they all live, and they all highlight that even when women are not perfect, they are still vitally important to each other.

The film is not realistic, in a strict sense; it is highly melodramatic, and seems to draw its sensibilities from magical realism (while still drawing just short of it). But in a very real sense it is true. It offers a window into a reality based in dignity, honesty and love. That is the kind of movie that sticks with me.

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