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Impossible subjects? In search of the maternal subject in Stories we tell (Polley 2012) and The arbor (Barnard 2010)

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-07, 07:04 authored by Sue Thornham
In 1977 Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘It is hard to write about my own mother. Whatever I do write, it is my own story I am telling’. Two years later, Michelle’s Citron’s film Daughter Rite, struggled with the same problem. It was, she later wrote, a daughter’s film, ‘incapable of imagining the mother’s story’. The difficulty of imagining and conceptualizing a specifically maternal subject is an issue that has continued to preoccupy feminist scholarship, becoming in the past ten years once more an urgent political and theoretical topic. At the same time a number of female filmmakers have returned to the issues raised by Citron’s film, using techniques which, like hers, also ask us to question the relationship between narrative, memory, and the various forms through which their claims to truth are made. Here I discuss two: Stories We Tell (Polley, 2012) and The Arbor (Barnard 2010). Both concern quests to recover the mother as subject, very different from the nurturing and devouring figure of Citron’s film. Both manipulate and question footage that claims a direct, indexical relation to ‘truth’; both construct a story which employs techniques of narrative fiction, yet operate through processes which challenge the authority of such narratives. In this article I explore the two films, to ask how far they succeed in bringing the maternal subject into view, and in so doing successfully challenge conventional notions of what a subject is and can be.


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Women: A Cultural Review




Taylor & Francis





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