York film lecturer focuses on the rural in cinema

If you begin to notice a lot of films depicting rural scenes harking back to "better" times, then beware: It could mean the world you’re living in now is pretty grim.

Over the past few years, Gillian Helfield (right), lecturer in film studies in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, has studied "rural" cinema. Now, with co-editor Catherine Fowler, she has gathered 20 scholarly papers on the subject into a book, titled Representing the Rural: Space, Place, and Identity in Films about the Land (2006).

"What we noticed was that urban space in the cinema tends to be associated with ‘change’ and ‘progress’, and becomes a kind of benchmark or symbol for modernity," said Helfield. "However, rural space — meaning the land and its people — is a subject that films tend to return to again and again, depending on what is happening at that time, such as if a nation is under threat or people are undergoing tremendous change.

"For instance, if society regards the rural past in a positive light, then it is portrayed nostalgically as a Golden Age of comparative simplicity and purity; or a magical, mystical time, which appears exotic when viewed from the present. Conversely, if it is regarded in a negative light, then it is portrayed as a Dark Age of ignorance, deprivation etc."

The book is in four sections, said Helfield. Parts One and Two talk about the representation of the land itself in the cinema, and about the peasants who live on the land. Along these lines, one paper examines the images of the land in films based on Thomas Hardy’s novels, such as John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979).

"Another paper examines the representation of peasants, in adaptations of Emile Zola’s novels, such as Andre Antoine’s La Terre (1921), or in films about a rural Bengali community, as in Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder (1973).

"Part Three is about landscape — both as a constructed image of the rural, and as ethnoscape — a place that is key to the cultural survival and social cohesion of its inhabitants," explained Helfield. "Included here are papers that discuss the touristic promotion of the Scottish Highland landscape in films such as Local Hero (1983) or Braveheart (1995), and the semi-rural mining communities of the English north, as in Billy Elliot (2000), or of Iran, as in The Color of Paradise (2000).

Part Four discusses how the rural milieu stands in for nation. One paper, about films set in Iowa (Happy Land, 1943, and The Sullivans, 1944), discusses the mythic significance of the Midwest in Hollywood cinema, particularly during the Second World War. "In such films, the image of the Midwest as a land of wide open spaces and freedom becomes an important patriotic symbol of American national identity," said Helfield.

One chapter in the book features an aspect of Helfield’s own work on Quebecois cinema, in which she specializes. "It is about Albert Tessier, a priest who made silent films in the 1930s in Quebec, at a time when the church was fighting the incursion of cinema in that province. The church felt the cinema was an instrument of the devil and blamed all sorts of moral ills on it, in part because people started to watch films on Sundays instead of going to church.

"So the church encouraged priests to travel around the countryside making films that promoted ecclesiastical doctrine and glorified the traditional way of life in the rural milieu, and at the same time emphasized the close interconnection between spiritual and agrarian values," said Helfield.

"Tessier was a kind of pioneer — part of the travelling picture show tradition, in which people made films in rural areas, did the editing right there, showed the films and provided commentary. They helped promote the development of a local and regional film culture in rural francophone Quebec that consolidated a collective sense of national identity."

Representing the Rural also examines the Rural in Hungarian, Spanish, Peruvian, Belgian, Greek, Thai, Chinese, Moroccan, Tunisian and Brazilian cinema.

For more information about Gillian Helfield, click here.