Retro Review: Celia

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Celia has never been as well regarded as it ought to be, especially given the lack of recognised Australian films about children that aren’t children’s films.”

Written by David Morgan-Brown

Along with Newsfront and The Devil’s Playground, Celia is another superb directorial debut from an Australian filmmaker, showing a very mature vision through the film’s style down to its politically aware core, emulating the defiance for true democracy from Newsfront and the unafraid and uncompromising portrayal of childhood from The Devil’s Playground. Ann Turner, who has made four feature films and now works as a novelist, was only 29 years old when Celia was released in cinemas near the tail-end of the Australian New Wave in 1989 and this national gem has never been as well regarded as it ought to be, especially given the lack of recognised Australian films about children that aren’t children’s films.

Celia has been labelled a horror film over the years (especially during its international release), but Turner believes that although it has horror elements, it isn’t entirely a horror film and shouldn’t be billed as one (like it was when released in America, under the title Celia: Child of Terror). These horror elements reveal themselves in the opening pre-credits scenes, when young Celia (Rebecca Smart) is the first to discover her deceased grandmother, the first of many tragedies for the young girl, and later that night the fairytale creatures, the Hobyah monsters, appear at a distraught Celia’s room. This scene, as well as the opening credits it leads into, are evocative of horror maestro Dario Argento through the mystical quality and the childlike Goblin-esque music-box score that adds to the eeriness. But apart from this sequence, and a few other brief moments in the film (especially the dark tonal shift in the drama towards the end), there are hardly many other horror scenes as the film focuses mostly on the coming-of-age story of Celia.

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There are very few other films I’ve seen that tap into the lives of children so honestly like this one. These children of the ‘50s are free to roam around in abandoned quarries, sometimes even camping out there at night, and are even shown in two different scenes to hold rather bizarre and impassioned rituals, such as a voodoo doll burnings of their parents around a bonfire at night and then during the day a (metaphorical and unfatal) hanging of one of the friends to symbolise her unity with the gang. There’s even a scene that shows what appears to be the most brutal child fight ever put to film, with large rocks being pelted at each other and proper child blows being delivered. Turner has done an extraordinary job in portraying what life was like for this specific generation of kids and shows not only the dynamic range of emotions that go through these children bordering on adolescence, but also their peculiar relations with each other and the quirkiness of some of their past-times.

Through the perspective of these children, Turner introduces political elements that are revealing of conservative Australia’s prejudice towards not just communists living within the democracy, but also rabbits, both of which were discouraged and abused by the Bolte government. Celia sees little point in these two prejudices, revealing her mature side by pointing out the ways her communist friends and her pet rabbit aren’t harmful in the ways the government (and ergo her conservative father) believe they are – she sees that her friend’s family aren’t influential with their passively held communist beliefs, and her pet rabbit isn’t a diseased threat like the feral ones that instigated the rabbit ban. Through a pure perspective not diluted by political alliances, she is able to identify the nuances in these unfair generalisations that not even the government officials were willing to recognise.

Turner made the connection between communists and rabbits after she first heard about the rabbit ban when it stopped in 1980. She recollected on how one of her own childhood friends moved after her communist father was blacklisted, which she thought of as scapegoating towards individuals who weren’t doing any wrong or causing any harm. Turner’s script, which she wrote in 1984, won an AWGIE Award for Best Unproduced Screenplay, and just years later she took the helm for this impressive directorial debut of hers.

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Despite the film’s initial mismarketing, Celia has over the years since its release become renowned more for its focus on childhood and politics, rather than its brief (but affective) associations with horror. Its political side became more prevalent when it was given a DVD release from Second Run, who often distribute political films, and British horror aficionado Kim Newman claimed it was his favourite film in the series, saying it is “one of the great movies about the terrors, wonders and strangeness of childhood, and a still-undervalued classic of Australian cinema.”

Celia’s release throughout the years may’ve been stifled by confusion over its categorisation, as it seems to be a coming-of-age story, a horror, and a political film all in one, but these three genres work together to strengthen the emotional impact. This is a highly involving film that succeeds in getting into the perspective of this young girl and showing her pains and oppositions towards the atrocities that occur around her due to the oppressive powers of the adults, who she then demonises, antagonises, and turns into the fairytale monsters she thought may not have been real. Celia is a special kind of kid-orientated film, one that Tuner says is “aimed towards adults and some teenagers” who will see a dark, ambitious genre-melding masterpiece of Australian cinema from the late ‘80s.

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