Set in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills during the summer of 1958, Ann Turner’s remarkable 1988 debut feature Celia follows eponymous nine-year old Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart) as she endures a series of profound personal losses and betrayals that begin with the sudden death of her grandmother. Celia’s parents are ill equipped to meet the needs of their traumatised daughter and ultimately contribute to her feelings of isolation and rage as she withdraws into a nightmarish fantasy world of violence, terror and retribution. Turner sets her intimate coming of age portrait against a background of conservative Australian politics where right wing political scapegoating led to the persecution of communists and a devastating rabbit plague in Victoria prompted the state government to confiscate all pet rabbits (including Celia’s beloved bunny, Murgatroyd). Over the course of the film Celia becomes cognizant of the treachery of the adult world and eventually embraces its hypocrisy, brutality and deception.
Critic and BFI editor Samuel Wigley has noted how “several of the greatest films about childhood are directorial debuts” and he includes Celia alongside Les Quatre Cents Coups (Francois Truffaut, 1959), L’Enfance-nue (Maurice Pialat, 1968), Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955), and Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962).1 Despite continued screenings and enthusiastic critical reception at festivals across the globe including the Grand Prix at the 1989 Créteil International Women’s Film Festival, in the United States Celia was released direct to video in 1990 as a horror film that meant its reception in the region has generally been restricted to a niche horror audience. In this interview for Senses of Cinema, Turner reflects on the reception of her film, its categorisation as horror, and some of its less discussed child characters.
It’s been over twenty-five years since you made Celia, which is often described by critics and reviewers as a highly accomplished directorial debut and your best film. Certainly one of the strongest elements of the film is its self-assured openness to interpretative play. Looking back, what stands out most for you about the film now and what sorts of interpretations of the film have you encountered over the years?
What stands out for me most is the depiction of childhood, in all its happiness and horror, played out through suburban, everyday activities, set against a political backdrop. I like the blend of the personal and political.
The main interpretation that I had on the film’s release, and travelling internationally to film festivals, was how universal the experience of childhood is – crossing borders and generations. At the time, that took me a little by surprise, as I’d written so specifically about an Australian childhood. Recently I was at a screening of Celia in Melbourne, and a viewer in his early twenties from the Philippines commented how similar it was to his childhood. That really blew me away. I absolutely loved that comment. Certainly when I watch the film after all this time, it’s that freedom of running around in long summer holidays with gangs of friends, and the intensity of feelings towards people, pets and things you love – and that upset you, sometimes deeply – that resonates with me and takes me back again to my own childhood.
And of course the stand-out of the film is Rebecca Smart’s truly remarkable performance as Celia. She’s just so compelling in the role – a brilliant actress. She completely takes us into Celia’s world. I was very, very lucky to have Rebecca play the role, and I think her interpretation is what gives the film resonance.
A response I remember getting a few times while travelling was that people – particularly Americans – were surprised that we had communist witch hunts in Australia in the 1950s.
People also responded to the strength of Alice Tanner (Victoria Longley), and the gradual politicisation of Celia’s mother Pat, through her passion to protect her daughter. And to the difficult but strong love between Celia and her father, Ray (Nicholas Eadie).
In North America, Celia has been promoted primarily as horror, which arguably has prevented it from reaching a wider audience in that region. Do you think that your film has been misrepresented or harmed by this horror label?
At first I didn’t like that label, at the time of the original release, when the Americans called it Celia: Child of Terror. I thought it missed the political allegory of the film, and didn’t position the movie where I would have liked. The fascinating thing is that over the decades, new audiences can read things differently, and what might once have been an annoying marketing strategy has perhaps ended up being not completely wrong. I was recently invited to lecture in the University of Melbourne’s Screen and Cultural Studies programme for their Film Genres and Auteur subject. The students read Celia far more as a horror movie than a political/historical one. They engaged well with the film – but in a horror genre. I was thrilled they liked the film, and was really interested in being able to talk to them about why they read it that way. The Hobyahs at the start led the journey for their interpretation. Celia also opened a terrific horror festival in Tasmania a few years ago – Stranger With My Face. And it’s had a DVD release in the U.S. as part of Katarina’s Nightmare Theatre.
At the end of the day, Celia is a film that looks at the dark side of childhood and Celia’s corruption into the adult world in a time of stifling politics. One of my influences was The Curse of the Cat People (1944), produced by Val Lewton and co-directed by Robert Wise. It was billed as a horror movie, but is really a wonderful depiction of childhood – the horror, loves, passions, magic – and, like in Celia, there’s loss in the central child Amy’s life that colours her interpretation of her world. I was also a great lover of horror films in my childhood, and of course put voodoo scenes from those films into Celia. So there was always a strong horror element.
With the UK DVD release, a wonderful company, Second Run, picked it up. Second Run primarily releases strong films with political undertones, often from Eastern Europe. Finally, at Second Run, Celia found its home at the political level, which was a joy for me.
At the end of the day I’m happy for people to interpret the film whichever way they want – horror, political, an exploration of childhood, or all three. I studied film at a time when you were encouraged to explore playing with genres, to not need to fit your film into one box. I’m very grateful to my lecturers for that open-mindedness. Fresh from that experience, Celia became its own beast and didn’t fit easily into a particular genre. That certainly didn’t do it any favours at the box office, but it meant that it could be a story that wasn’t beholden to rigid rules, and that’s possibly helped it to have a long life.
Celia has been compared to The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956). Was the monster child character in any way a source of inspiration for Celia? How do you respond to comparisons of Celia to other more explicit monster child narratives like The Bad Seed?
I never felt The Bad Seed was an inspiration for Celia – in fact, quite the opposite. I don’t feel Celia was ‘born bad’. She’s a sensitive child, whose experience of a series of deeply-felt losses that go misunderstood by the adults around her lead her to a state where she tips over the edge, and fantasy and reality for a moment meld in her distress. Her parents underestimate the profound effect of the loss of Celia’s grandmother, and then the loss of her best friends the Tanners when they are driven out because of their political beliefs. When Celia loses her beloved rabbit, it’s too much for her. She’s a vulnerable, intelligent child who becomes psychologically unstable, but she’s not a bad seed. And the repression of Australian society in the 1950s, the sweeping things under the carpet, the nasty witch hunts, prejudice, and also post-Second World War sensibilities – these are the factors that contribute to Celia’s mental state, and subsequent actions. And indeed, the actions of her parents. For me, it’s a long way from The Bad Seed and monster-child narratives where the script is written from the perspective of the child being inherently evil.
Chris Neal’s music box theme is evocative of a carnival. Inherent within many monster child films is a carnivalesque narrative in which the world is turned upside down, reversing adult/child power relations. Do you see a carnivalesque theme active within Celia? What were your intentions for the music in the film?
(Herk Harvey’s) Carnival of Souls, a 1962 American, low-budget horror film, had a great influence on me when I saw it as a child on television; and I’ve always loved fairgrounds, and the somewhat sinister undertone when you go to sideshows. The creepiness of the laughing clowns, the weird faces on a lot of carousel horses; ghost trains, rides to scare you. It’s another dark undertone of childhood – how we’re drawn to these sorts of things as kids. Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens was a strong influence on the type of music I wanted, and Chris Neal came up with that wonderful music box theme. I loved its simplicity and its tonal quality. It felt just right. And I always knew that I wanted the really sad parts of the film to be inspired by Pavane pour une infant défunte by Ravel.
In terms of a carnivalesque narrative, I can’t say I explicitly set out to do that. I wrote from the point-of-view of Celia, and was strongly informed by memories of my own childhood. Because of my passion for fairgrounds, that crept in. But because I don’t see it as a monster-child film, I wasn’t intending to reverse adult/child power relations – and I don’t think that Celia has more power than the adults. She’s trying to forge her own way in understanding what’s going on. And in the end, she’s corrupted into a type of adult tyranny, adult hypocrisy. She starts to play adult power games.
What I did want in the film was a playfulness that wasn’t quite right, a nightmare feel beneath the innocence. I think Chris’s music captured that really well. As did Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography, where the world is depicted as sunny and light and colourful – but emotionally it’s very dark underneath. This sums up an element of the 1950s to me.
In many ways, Stephanie Burke (Amelia Frid) is far more monstrous than Celia but has learned to hide her malice. Will you share some of your thoughts about Stephanie’s character?
Stephanie was loosely based on a few children from my childhood. One particularly memorable girl was a terrible bully, but she hid her behavior from her parents, who thought she was goodness personified. She was very manipulative, and also cruel – I remember a local kid being totally distraught because this girl sent them home from her birthday party when they forgot to bring a present. She was standing at the gate inspecting, checking to make sure that everyone had brought her gifts. Then she claimed to her mother that the kid had never arrived, and was of course believed. She’d also set people up. She’d do really wicked things and blame it on others who were innocent. Often me – I couldn’t escape her because our parents were friends and I was forced to see her. I used to particularly hate how her mother would tell me off for things I hadn’t done.
The children like Stephanie really knew how to manipulate the adult world, and they were, in their own way, quite monstrous. As I wrote Stephanie, I always felt she’d grow up to be very successful, because she had such an intrinsic understanding of the adult world and adult politics – in the worst possible way.
The Hobyahs provide a fascinating parallel narrative about monstrous “others” stealing loved ones away.2 Where did the inspiration to use the Hobyahs come from?
I had the story of the Hobyahs in Grade 2 in a school reader in Adelaide – it was part of a collection of short stories teaching children spelling. As an adult I love that the educators who put the reader together thought that the word ‘Hobyah’ was an essential one for 7-year-olds to learn! It had particularly creepy illustrations of Little Dog Turpie being cut up and put on a shelf because he barked too much. But my friends and I loved that he was handily put back together again when the little old man realised that Little Dog Turpie had been right to sound a warning, after his wife gets taken by the Hobyahs. That theme of not being believed, when your instincts are right, I realise now has run through my work, including in films like Irresistible (2006)3 – a psychological thriller – and my latest novel Out of the Ice (2016), a mystery-thriller. The Hobyah story had a deep influence on me.
For Celia, the Hobyahs seemed to sum up people’s fear of ‘Reds under the bed’ – communists who could snatch your freedom away with their terrifying ideals. And also governments who could steal your beloved pets, using police and family friends as their henchmen.
One of the most intriguing characters in the film is Celia’s friend, Heather Goldman (Clair Couttie), a passive character who spends most of the film as a silent observer. Heather is kind natured, sensitive and painfully shy, and seems far lonelier than Celia. She is caught in the middle of a feud between Stephanie and Celia although it is clear her loyalties lie with Celia. The child figure as witness to the paradoxes of adulthood is a common theme in films focused on childhood and this is true for Celia, although Heather is unique as she also witnesses her young peers shrugging off their childhood and embracing the hypocrisies of adulthood. What was your inspiration for the character of Heather? Why do you privilege her at the end of the film as the last character we see before the closing credits?
The role of Heather as observer was important, to create someone in the children’s world in a space between the rival gangs. My inspiration for her was the type of bright, quiet kid who watches everything. Heather doesn’t fit easily anywhere. As you say, she’s painfully shy, and doesn’t have the confidence either to lead or be a loud presence. But she craves friendship. And she is drawn to Celia, who, although also different from the other children, makes strong friends easily. I always thought Heather was an only child, like Celia, and that gave them a certain bonding. But Heather can also be used as a pawn between rivals, for example after the quarry fight where she goes off with Stephanie. Heather bears witness to things, but she’s unsettled. There’s an honesty to her. Which is why Celia stages an event to terrify her into silence at the very end. I privilege Heather as the last character we see before the closing credits because she has, as a child, now become dragged in to the adult world of secrets, power and subterfuge by Celia. Where Celia once brought Heather with her as an act of kindness, now she has made Heather a controlled pawn in her games to come. And Heather is happy – because after the trial and punishment – she has finally become a full member of the gang. Now she conforms; she fits in.
Since its invention, film has been accused of having both a powerful and negative influence on young and impressionable viewers. In Celia the children use voodoo to strike out at their oppressors after watching a film depicting tribal rituals, and later Celia re-enacts the jewelry theft that she earlier saw in Mike Mayfield and the Great Diamond Heist.4 These scenes of mimicry appear to inspire acts of violence, potentially supporting claims by media effects proponents who argue that screen violence inspires acts of real violence. Where do you sit on this argument and how do you see these scenes from your film?
That’s a really interesting question. When I wrote those scenes, I was writing from my own childhood where we did reenact things we saw in films and on TV. From when I was really young I used to watch shows like Sea Hunt (1958-1961) – an underwater adventure series – and act out the characters. Then in group activities my friends and I would do other scenarios – including voodoo, which we’d seen in movies like I Walked With A Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) on Aweful Movies with Deadly Earnest, which would show fantastic horror movies on television every Friday night. We also saw serials at the cinema, and that influenced my choice to have a serial when Celia goes to the movies. And Mike Mayfield was inspired by Dick Tracy, who we also used to reenact.
But do I think watching films can inspire acts of violence? I think that’s a very simplistic view. In Celia’s case, it’s the politics of the times and her series of losses – her granny, friends, and her beloved rabbit, that tip her into instability – and the adults’ inability to understand, that have the profound effect on her. The movies she sees, and reenacts, give her ideas and an outlet, but they are not the cause.
I generally don’t think screen violence inspires acts of real violence, although in some instances it possibly can, if someone is mentally unstable. But I think the urge for violence comes from other factors, not just from seeing it on screen. There are specificities. As filmmakers I think we need to be aware of how we depict things, because everything adds to how people view the world. As a feminist, the depiction of women is important to me. But I certainly don’t share a blanket view that films can be responsible for violence. It’s complex – the give and take between films and violence. Ultimately the best films hold a mirror to society, that echoes through the decades.
Otherness is a central theme in Celia and is complicated by the various points of view represented. Who do you see as “other” in Celia?
I think in Celia people who are different are seen as “other”, and dangerous. This is why Celia’s father Ray is ashamed of his late mother and her left-wing views, which he has hidden from his family. And why the Tanners, when they are discovered to be communists, are forced to leave. In the 1950s the concept of “otherness” was terrifying. Conformity – how you looked, your politics, class, religion, sexuality – was fundamentally important to Australian society. Difference was perceived as a terrible threat that could undermine and corrupt. Ironically, the Tanners are questioning their belief in the Communist Party after Stalinism and the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. But in the stifling world of conformity, nuances can’t exist. Decisions must be made in black and white. Just as the fearful Hobyahs in the children’s story carry people away and must be killed, the communists must be exiled for the survival of the dominant norm.
And Premier Henry Bolte decides that pet rabbits are “other”. They become the enemy, even though they are far-removed from the real problem, which are the wild rabbit plagues in the country. The rabbits must be rounded up and fenced in/imprisoned, or destroyed. Banned. Like the government wished it could do to the communists.
Alice Tanner is a strong woman – a feminist, self-assured, thinking for herself. That makes her “other” in this world too, and I think is why Celia is drawn to her.
Celia judges people more organically, more clear-eyed. That makes her “other” as well. In the moment of prayer for Stephanie’s father, Celia realises that she must conform if she is to survive. And then in the final scene she has become part of the dominant world – and dominating. She is no longer “other”. She has changed and become powerful – and corrupted into the world of her time. Corrupted into her path to adulthood.
- Samuel Wigley, “10 Great Films About Childhood,” BFI, 27 January 2014, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-films-about-childhood. ↩
- The Hobyahs is a Scottish folktale about a band of monsters that nightly descend on the house of an old man and his wife but are frightened away by the couple’s dog. Exasperated by the barking and unaware it scares off the Hobyahs, the old man cuts off the dog’s head and the next night his wife is stolen away. The folktale made its way to Australia in the 1920s where it was included in the school readers for various states and was one of the most popular and well-remembered stories in the text. In Victoria the story was finally removed from the reader in the early 1950s following reports from parents that it was causing children nightmares. ↩
- Written and directed by Turner, Irresistible tells the story of Sophie (Susan Sarandon) and Craig (Sam Neill), a middle aged couple in a stale marriage with two young daughters. Sophie has been grappling with a shameful secret from her past and starts questioning her sanity when various items begin vanishing from her home. Convinced that Craig’s attractive new co-worker, Mara (Emily Blunt) is responsible, Sophie starts stalking Mara and confronts some painful truths. ↩
- Mike Mayfield and the Great Diamond Heist is a fictional film created for Celia that stars Peter Lindsay in the role of the eponymous police detective. ↩