Where did the children go?

An analysis to accompany SO1EO1 by Dr Zahra Tavassoli Zea

Child abandonment is a theme, which, at first sight, can easily slip out of our grasp. What does it mean to be abandoned? Should we examine such notion from a factual perspective, or should we engage with it more subjectively? Maurice Pialat is categorical: he chooses the former. He leaves no room for self-pity or autobiographical hints and, blimey, that’s refreshing! 

His first feature length, L’Enfance nue (1968), addresses one of the most universal and ever-present problems of our societies by drawing inspiration from a concrete, social reality, taking place at the premises of departmental Child Welfare authorities, and at foster family homes in France. Unlike François Truffaut, who drew, in 400 Blows (1959), from his strained relationship with his mother and subsequent personal experience at the Observation Centre for Delinquent Minors, Pialat opts for a documentary and parsimonious eye, with no frills, if it’s not a few necessary seconds of Wagner. His camera interferes, with utmost restraint, in the kitchens and bedrooms of his non-professional actors who, like Mémère and Pépère, are intimately linked to the shooting locations, for the simple fact that they are foster parents and grandparents residing in Pas-de-Calais. I have no doubt that some spectators would even want to accuse Pialat of not going far enough, of not exploring all the dramatic possibilities of such copious and political topic. Pialat, however, is too conscientious and sensitive to fall into the facile trap of pathos. 

In the 15th sequence of the film [19’34–22’19], for instance, the audience witnesses a conversation between two social workers on a train in the same way a distracted passenger overhears the chatter of his seat companions. Surrounded by a dozen kids of different ages, one of the women lifts the silver medallions some of them wear over their neck. These lockets, which, from a distance, look more like christening jewels than anything else, are actually tags that classify them through an “abandoned child” inscription. While this transition scene, which depicts François’ itinerary from the Childhood Centre in Paris to the Adoption Office in Arras, could be regarded as entirely documentary, Pialat preserved the anonymity of boys and girls looking for adoptive families, and replaced them with what people would call “ordinary” children. Thus, young actors like François and Raoul were able to learn, throughout the filming, about the living conditions and misfortunes of those who may as well have become – or who already were – their schoolmates, friends and neighbours.

Surely, some might consider that such strategy is detrimental to Pialat’s realism, and in particular, to its inherent quest for truthfulness. However, the absence in situ of children seeking adoption reveals Pialat’s necessity of establishing moral imperatives within his artistic practice. Indeed, he is not pretending to film the burdensome adoption process in its entirety, and with all its issues and complexities, as it existed more than 50 years ago. His film merely tries to capture a few elements evoking the institutional, administrative and departmental functioning of the numerous shelters, placement and training centres for youth all over the country. Therefore, the story of François, which is based on adopted children’s testimonies, could be seen as the tip of the iceberg of an uncomfortable truth, made of unspoken tragedies, as intimated in this particular scene. When explaining a few of the challenges of her profession to her novice colleague, the social worker shares a brief anecdote about the time she went up North to present a little boy to foster parents. Ultimately, they turned him down due to his skin colour.  

The real number of abandoned, neglected and abused children during and after the colonial era remains a dark and overlooked facet in the history of our first world countries. Pialat’s camera shows that rural and provincial French manners and customs didn’t change much throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet, the shadow of childhood misery darkens the picture of what we thought were, at first, quaint and quiet dining rooms. Where did the children go? L’Enfance nue continues to ask, today. Despite his taste for sobriety, Pialat hands over the keys of hope to older generations, by calling upon their wisdom, teachings and, most of all, compassion. And, if I may prolong this thought… shouldn’t we all try, one day, to live up to Pépère and Mémère’s level of grace and dignity?  

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