Reading Group Report on Children of Men

On the evening of the 1st of April, we met at 43 Gordon Square, Birkbeck, to watch and discuss the film Children of Men (2006). We began in the cinema for two hours, and then made our way to a seminar room on the first floor for a discussion.

The film follows the travails of Theo Faron, in a future dystopian UK, in which the sudden ceasing of human fertility has led to a repressive, racist, and decaying state. Theo finds himself embroiled in a plot to overthrow the government and is tasked with looking after a young woman, who holds particular political currency.

I was not able to join the discussion afterwards due to work. All I can say, and I have also corroborated with others who attended the screening, that it was certainly a highly affecting experience. This was the third time I have watched the film and I don’t remember being quite so moved, or the film hitting so many nerves.

As I was not present for the discussion, I have reconstructed the themes that were explored, from the notes of fellow LSFRC organiser Katie Stone.

Themes:

Context

When the film first came out, the immediate context for the militaristic and repressive state represented in the film, was the Iraq war and New Labour. However, it was pointed out that within our own context, the film is becoming more, not less, familiar. Firstly, the shabby and decaying infrastructure is more recognizable now than during the still economically buoyant landscape of 2006. Mark Fisher presciently used the film at the opening of Capitalist Realism (2009) in order to explore the continuation of capitalism without the ability to imagine an alternative. Secondly, the ongoing persecution and vilification of migrants in our political moment (for example the ‘migrant crisis’, the Windrush scandal, Theresa May’s ‘migrant’s go home vans’, the large increase in immigration enforcement over the decade), attended by both state and street violence, makes the harrowing internment of migrants within the film much closer to our lived experience. It was noted also, that the UK has a long history of internment camps and that currently many people are being held at detention centres around the UK (for example Yarl’s Wood).

Character

Theo’s character was seen to be very much a blank page or cypher for other people’s impressions and ideas. He also becomes a Christ like figure or a white saviour at the end of the film, when he sacrifices himself.  Kee, the young pregnant woman, was felt to have a lack of agency and also that her naked body was exploited to produce the Madonna image in the cow shed. Finally, there was debate over whether the hippy aesthetic of Theo’s friend Jasper was reactionary or revolutionary.  It is hinted that Jasper was once a political cartoonist, who critiqued the government. However, now Jasper is the very image of the 1960s drop out, and sells weed to detainment camp guards.

Adaptation

The film emphasizes the militaristic and totalitarian state, whereas the society depicted in the book by P.D. James The Children of Men (1992) shows society in a general decline in a similar manner to Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964). The book is analysed in Lee Edleman’s No Future (2005) as an example of queer erasure in favour of the potential child (more on this in a second).  Several people felt that the theme of the corruption of power was a highlighted in the book, and downplayed in the film adaptation. There was some reflection on the ethical implication in the film of having the freedom fighters be as corrupt and violent as the government.

Animals

There is quite a lot of animal imagery in the film. Firstly there is the background burning of animals, evoking mad cow disease or foot and mouth, and has similarities to Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003). Secondly, all animals seem to love Theo, and are treated as pseudo child replacements. Finally the labour of cows is directly linked to Kee’s pregnancy in the Madonna scene.

The Image of the Child

This point has perhaps been covered in other themes, but the image of the child is a very important symbol for the film (as indeed it is for the book as well). Kee’s child becomes the symbol of hope and of the future, for which adults must sacrifice themselves. There is one fantastic scene where the fighting between the military forces and the rebels is stopped by the appearance of the baby. The part shot in the derelict school is both a representation of a world haunted by a lack of children and a glimpse of a hopeful post-human future.

Art/Institutions

The scene set in Battersea Power Station brought up questions around the preservation and presentation of art in institutions. Theo asks his relative what the point is in collecting art now that there are no future generations to see it.  The idea that there is some future audience that might see it merely defers the question about the reason and function of collecting art. This was then connected with the idea of Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’, when Theo mentions that his mother had a plastic ‘David’ that was also a lamp. The lamp might very well be more whole than the original, that has now lost a leg. There are also two shots in which we see Picasso’s Guernica, which was thought to be significant (ironic relation of art to reality? The violence and pain of the society depicted?)

Labour

There are not many jobs left in the Britain depicted in the film, and they are mostly connected with security (both police and military). Other jobs that seemed viable were advertising (there is a lot of advertising used to great effect in the film) and gambling (Theo goes to the dog races). Of course there is also the labour of child-birth, so that paradoxically, in a film highlighting the absence of children, reproductive labour is raised up to an almost religious experience, perhaps mystifying its reality.

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