The execution of creating a reality through the consideration of film strategies is one of the many expertise a good filmmaker possesses. Their capability in provoking feelings through manipulation of editing is a talent and a skill. But, keeping attention on the point they are making is of the utmost importance for their final production. Immediately, rendering the ideas of childhood and sexual intimacy in unison tends to make even the strongest of stomach feel uneasy. However, in our culture there is a common widespread sexualization of innocence, and misunderstanding of family related interactions. While this varies in severity, Peggy Awesh, the 63 year old experimental filmmaker, calls this to our attention with no escape of the elephant in the room. Her careful curation of the film “Martina’s Playhouse” (1988) is a twenty minute film, recorded on a super 8 then blown up to 16mm.
The film’s basis is primarily set on two individuals, Martina Torr, a playful toddler who has featured in two more of Anwesha’s films (i.e.Scary Movie), and Nanette. Alongside Martina Torr is Jennifer Montgomery, perceived through the lens as a playful young women. Ahwesh’s film voice is usually through the feminist lens and speaks of female relations. “Martina’s Playhouse” emphasizes female relationships, specifically pertaining to sexuality and family. Bouncing between the two characters, Ahwesh begins with shots of young Martina spelling her name out, followed with her own introduction, “I am M-A-R-T-I-N-A. What’s that spell?”. We then see Martina, nude, attempting to put on her own diaper and then mimicking her mother’s breastfeeding. What becomes most concerning in the scene is her mother attempts to fake feed from her daughters nippIe, creating an obvious self questioning of “is this ok?”, with an unsettling follow up of questions relating to child exploitation. Because of the relationships presented, we are left a question rather than a finite answer as to what the outcome if the other partner within the role play had not actually been Martina’s mother. While it is obvious for childrens’ infatuation with adulthood, and wanting to play “pretend”, we often hear of children asking to play house usually in a role reversal of a parent and child. For obvious reasons, it is difficult to get past our immediate response to this scene, while attempting to analyse the film.
It is to be noted that these clips do not follow each other, but rather, are sequenced in between other footage taken of Jennifer Montgomery. During her air time, Montgomery playfully suggests and then debates using her microphone as a dildo, referring to it as “the perfect shape”, then removing her pants. She also makes a remark about pleading on her knees to have Awesh, who is recording, to go to bed with her, “Getting down on my knees and begging you to go to bed with me,”. Being aware of Jennifer Montgomery’s mature age we do not find this nudity or sexual suggestiveness to be that of morally disturbed but rather humorous or erotic.
When spoken of separately, there is a different conceptual narrative followed, that would likely be perceived as speaking of age and sexuality as a comparison rather than a emphasis for the other. The placement shots of a woman referring to erotic acts, followed by a toddler naked, and there is a feeling beyond cringe worthy to be acknowledged. Awesh’s footage of young Martina is not that of exploiting the girl, but rather showing parts of growing up that commonly remain in the privacy of a home or amongst family, such as, seeing a younger sibling, or younger niece/nephew, strip down. It is a natural curiosity about the body that is exercised during childhood, but rarely discussed beyond the confines of that childs family. Yet, when confronted with this type of child nudity, positioned within the context of sexualized clips, the nudity becomes perverse.
The controversy between subjects like child nudity, is not new to the art world. Already a presented moral debate is the work of Sally Mann. Causing a stir over moral entities, Mann has not only been praised for her work, but also heavily criticized for the sexualizing children, specifically, her own children. In rebuttal, many say the work is far from that of a sexually perverse nature, but rather the purest form of childhood documentation. Chances are, there are nude baby photos of you as well, taken by parents in a bathtub with a humorous bubble beard, or running around outside with siblings. So while it is a common form of documentation, the consideration of context and intent is what matters when walking the line of innocence and perversity.
What is the purpose of Ahwesh’s choice in leaving the male figure absent in this film?
Do you feel showing the footage of Martina role playing with her mother was to explicit to be shown?