Challenges in Representing 'Anyone'

By Nancy Thumim

small-town-girl-jill-daniels.jpgSmall Town Girl, 2007

Small Town Girl, directed by Jill Daniels, follows Sian, Charlotte and Joanne from 12 to 16, from 2001 to 2005. Sian lives in Frome, in the west of England, Charlotte and Joanne live in Nelson in the North West of England. They live at home, they go to school, and they spend a lot of time in their bedrooms. They become teenagers.

The events of the world mostly feel remote as we wind through this documentary portrait of three girls and their preoccupations with friendships; family relations; boys. In an era in which the ubiquity of Reality TV means that so-called ‘ordinary people’ surround us, it remains the case that the lives depicted here feel like ones we rarely see.

There is space in this 82 minute documentary to hear from the girls and small town life really does feel small when they talk about where they will go and what they will do in their imagined futures. Is it living in a small town or perhaps simply being aged 12, 13, or 14 that makes life small?

Occasionally world events break through, for instance when Joanne speaks of a row at school between a ‘white and an Asian lad’; about Osama Bin Laden: ‘Something that happened in a totally different country, it, like, started something in Edge End High School’. Joanne’s comments bring 9/11 closer and at the same time make it seem even more remote; almost as a transatlantic phone call connects yet makes you aware of the distance at the same time. Mostly the world occasionally intrudes through the television as when the Queen Mother’s funeral is in the background and the only comment in Sian’s house is her dad’s speculation as to how much the funeral would have cost.

At the beginning of the film a title tells us it’s 2005. The camera holds on a girl (Joanne) and a small boy, she stands, smiles and squirms. These ‘moving portraits’ punctuate the film. And there is something special about these; they capture the artificiality of the documentary process, the discomfort; the reality. The same girl (Joanne) speaks to camera about her religious beliefs. She is on her bed against a wall with pop posters in the background: the familiar teenage girl space is surprising against the earnest to camera discussion about religion. We can tell she is responding to a question. We don’t see Daniels, the interviewer; we never do.

small-town-girl-jill-daniels-2.jpgSmall Town Girl, 2007

We hear Daniels sometimes; hear her questions. But then we see that the girls’ responses are to these questions, leaving us able to judge this interaction for ourselves. But the questions are probing: ‘Tell me about your real mum’; ‘So did you have sex with this boy, and what was that like’. This could be a comment on how intrusive documentary actually is; these questions are discomforting, but then what does that say about us for watching? And what does that imply about all the representations intruding on people’s lives, which we consume.

At times the film is gripping, at times painful, at times painfully slow, at times grating. As when a relative of Joanne in what might be the most uncomfortable family meal on film, scrapes and scrapes the gravy from his plate. It’s too intimate this, we shouldn’t be watching. Are they excruciatingly uncomfortable because of the camera or because of their pain having just lost a family member?

This film begs questions it doesn’t answer: what is these girls’ relationship to Daniels? I want to see the filmmaker, not just hear her disembodied voice. I want more of Joanne and Charlotte; as the film progresses we get more of Sian and less of the other two girls. What do the girls think of this process, why have they agreed to it, have they, as 15 year olds, seen the footage of their earlier selves? These are ethical questions as well as questions about the style of the film. Of course these are questions facing documentary more generally especially in the era of so-called ‘user-generated content’. How would these girls represent themselves if they were filming themselves, not being filmed, framed, and edited by Daniels? As it is it’s claustrophobic and it’s melancholic. Black and white stills of the streets where these girls live punctuate the film and, a strange, dark music overlays this. The feeling is dystopic; Daniels’ view of England in the years 2001-2005?

small-town-girl-jill-daniels-3.jpgSmall Town Girl, 2007

From 2001-2005 we return again and again to Charlotte, Joanne and Sian in their interior spaces, their homes – their bedrooms. We return to Charlotte's make-up and intense break-ups and re-groupings with girl friends. Timeless teenage girl concerns – Daniels comments on the DVD box that ‘Joanne, Charlotte and Sian are not stars, they are anyone’. Of course they are and they aren’t, for example, to anyone not familiar with church, Joanne’s religiosity is strange, not ‘anyone’, then, but ‘other’. Of course her painfully earnest to camera talk of relationships with her biological and foster mother will strike chords for anyone who has had such experiences, and it particularises stories of adoption, of mental illness, of mother love. But it is precisely Daniels’ point that these girls are not ‘anyone’ – because of the time and space she gives them here.

Small Town Girl delivers a strange combination of the timelessness and insularity of teenage girlhood in England, combined with intimate details from these girls’ lives. Odd then, that I came away unsure I had got to know Charlotte, Joanne or Sian at all, wondering at the gaps in what I now knew of them, but perhaps that was the object of the film – pointing to the artifice of portraits, their inherent limitations as much as their ability to deliver any kind of truth.

Small Town Girl will be shown at the Swansea Life film festival in May 2008 and the International Film Festival, England in June 2008.

Nancy Thumim is a Research Fellow in Mediatized Stories/Intermedia at the University of Oslo (based in the dept. of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics)