Fish Tank (2009 – Andrea Arnold)


The children learn to protect themselves from a young age.

They’re surrounded by chaos and their heads can only cope with so much.  Protect yourself.  Let no one in.  Put up that front.  Attack the nearest person.  They often don’t even know how to respond to kindness, so alien it is to their existence.

The casualness with which neglect is referenced; it shocks you.  You spend a whole day biting your tongue, hiding your privilege.  Watching British movies has been like that, posh boys being tourists on council estates.  The films that break through…are often by women.  The British New Wave is for the most part a blight upon British Cinema (Truffaut was right), but when it works, it works.

Mothers aren’t mothers.  There’s an entire generation of children growing up with parents who want to be their best friend.  Like that’s something to aspire to.  They know too much at too young an age.  Children need protecting.  There are men out there…

Arnold’s camera is often just behind or just in front of Mia, like it’s struggling to catch up the way a toddler runs around an adult.  There is a motion to her life, but it’s the illusion of movement (like her inadequate dancing).  There is no escape her.  Framed in Academy Ratio, Mia is constantly trapped and confined.  Every now and then direct light shines right into the camera, oppressing us even further.

There are animals in the film, dogs, horses, fish, birds.  Every one is trapped.  They flap and flail and cannot escape.  Like the children, their existence is one of rejection as the adults supposed to nurture them destroy them.  Mia herself reverts to an almost feral nature once the horror of her violation becomes apparent.

The statutory rape.  Horrible and calculated.  The false memory loss afterwards (“I’m drunk”).  The perversion of fatherhood.  Every act of sex here is observed by someone else.  By someone younger.  By us.  The sex is as skewed as any notion of family.  It has no honesty to it, instead only giving the impression of being learned from elsewhere – particularly from pornography (he asks Mia if his cock feels big during the rape).  This is the only sex education she’ll ever receive.

There’s a cycle to this.  Mia will grow to neglect as she has been neglected herself.  There is no way out.  She’s been sold a false hope, that her dancing will provide a means to leave this existence.  But she’s not a very good dancer.  There are thousands of young boys living on an estate who think that they will be a footballer.  Maybe one of them will be.  They’ve been mis-sold a hope.  The world will do that to you, convince you that anything is possible.

Arnold made an earlier short film in 2003 called Wasp.  It’s set on a council estate in Dartford called Temple Hill.  The children are second to everything in their mother’s life.  Those children go to school and are expected to learn.  They’re expected to make their lives better when the one (or if they’re lucky, two) adults in their life, who are meant to do this for them, fail.  And so they disengage.  And the fists go up.  And the back chat begins.  Their only hope lies in the creeping gentrification that has spread out from the capital.  This is the lie that they’re sold; that their life will be better because their home is worth more.  But all that will happen is that they’ll be pushed out.  And the children who didn’t have a reasonable childhood, won’t even have a community anymore.

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