Summertime Sadness: How does a child process grief?

SUMMER 1993

A review of SUMMER 1993 ( Estiú 1993 |Dir. Carla Simón | Spain | Drama | 96 mins)

On Sunday I came across an article in The Guardian about children and death. “Should young children go to funerals?” According to a British Social Attitudes survey from 2017, statistics say that 48% believe children under 12 should be shielded from grief and kept away.

My first experience of death occurred when I was five years old. My paternal grandfather had a heart attack while riding his bike through the south of Amsterdam. I remember my parents receiving the call. I was seated on my mum’s lap and turned around to see tears running down my dad’s face. I asked what had happened. “Why is Daddy crying?”. “Because his Daddy died,” my mum answered. I didn’t understand death, but I knew it made people sad. And that made me sad.

I remember my grandfather’s funeral vividly. Driving in the hearse. My grandmother crying. The big hall where the service was held. The open casket. The music they played. That he was cremated and wanted his ashes scattered from a plane. I don’t remember crying. But I remember the feeling. That it was important. It has shaped who I am today.

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I recognised that feeling again when I watched Carla Simón’s semi-autobiographical drama SUMMER 1993 as part of the jury for the International Film Awards at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival this year. I have never seen such an astute, moving and accurate portrayal of a young girl’s grief outside of the documentary genre. Simón captures it all. The weird sense of feeling nothing and everything at the same time. The release of emotion through make-believe or pretending to be the person you lost to keep them close. Being unable to explain when someone asks you what’s wrong. Feeling connected and disconnected at the same time. Wanting others to hurt like you hurt; not out of spite, but out of desperation. Leaving offerings at a grave or shrine. Any way to trying to connect with someone that is gone forever. Feeling guilty when you laugh or move on. The unreal, gut-wrenching loneliness of it all.

After losing both her parents to AIDS, six-year old Frida (Laia Artigas) carries the adult weight of grief on her small sun-tanned shoulders. Not only having to adjust to life without a biological mother, she also has to adapt to living with a new family (her aunt, uncle and younger cousin). Away from the buzz of the city, Frida is dealing with too many things at once and having to grow up much too quickly. Her summer holidays are not filled with innocent play but confused with adjusting to her new surroundings in rural Catalonia, suddenly competing with a new sibling for attention, learning how to navigate the rituals of family life in a family that is hers but not hers at the same time, and having no choice but to cope with it all somehow.

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SUMMER 1993 is an astounding debut accomplishment. Director Simón is clearly in touch with the emotions that shaped her as a human being and as a filmmaker. The ability to convey so much information and emotion with such understated dialogue, and to find actors (especially ones so young) who can express emotions as complex as these on screen so naturally and with such grace is a feat in itself. To succeed in all of the above without a hint of sentimentalism and without relying on overly dramatic moments makes it all the more impressive.

It’s no wonder that the film has picked up multiple awards, including the Generation KPlus prize at the Berlin Film Festival and Best Feature Drama at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, which has now also announced SUMMER 1993 as the winner of its annual Grand Jury Prize. It is without a doubt the film I hope to see win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2018. This gem deserves a wide audience, not only for its stunning visuals and astounding performances, but to give adults a realistic view of how a child’s grief may express itself in unexpected ways.

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Empathy is the feeling I remembered when watching SUMMER 1993. Going to my grandfather’s funeral helped me understand the grief of others, and my own. “Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence,” Tennessee Williams wisely wrote in a fiction script many decades ago. SUMMER 1993 is a film of much fewer words, but it is certainly not silent. Simón deftly carves out to her audience how important it is for a child’s grief to surface, whether it bleeds out in mumbled words, through role-playing games, erratic actions or spouts of tears that seem to spring out of nowhere.

If statistics tell the truth, 48% of readers will disagree with me, but I still encourage you to bring your children to funerals, talk with them about death, and allow them their grief; it will make them empathetic – and it will shape them. If you’re not convinced, and even if you are, I urge you to watch this film. Perhaps it will shape you, too.

SUMMER 1993 screens as part of SMHAF’s 2017 Film programme at the CCA Friday 13th October at 8pm and will be followed by a Q&A with Producer Valérie Delpierre.

Tickets available here.

If you are interested in access to all the SMHAF feature films at the CCA, you can buy a Features Pass for only £15 here.

Read more about the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival and Mental Health Foundation.

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