Dissertation; Film with Practice - Critical Analysis of The Cracks by Catriona Anne Blackburn


Background & Development


After being raped on the 3rd April 2018 at the age of 32 by a trusted friend I wanted to share my experiences. Rape is often displayed within the media as a violent act, the rapist seen as a monster, however the reality of rape is usually very different. 


Women are usually raped or sexually assaulted by someone they know and trust, the rapists themselves seemingly normal with no particular obvious warning signs of violent behaviour (Chasteen, A., (2001); Pain, R. (1997); Tetreault, P. and Barnett, M. (1987); Muehlenhard, C. and Linton, M. (1987).


The victim is often thought of as a young woman, perhaps putting themselves in a state of vulnerability (Chasteen, A., (2001); Pain, R. (1997); Tetreault, P. and Barnett, M. (1987). This was not my experience; after being raped I was emotionally distraught, self-medicating with alcohol and not able to deal with normal day-to-day life. 


Because of these stereotypes of the rapist and the victim I felt it was important that a truer reality could be showcased. What surprised me after my own experience was that I was not sad or traumatized in a way that I expected, I was angry. I was angry at myself, I was angry at the world that stigmatized me, that blamed me for being drunk, for bringing this man into my home where my son lived. I was angry that I couldn’t truly hate my rapist for a societally induced ‘rape culture’ which made those boundaries blur so faintly (Chasteen, A., (2001); Pain, R. (1997); Tetreault, P. and Barnett, M. (1987); Muehlenhard, C. and Linton, M. (1987). 


I went to see a rape therapist at a local charity Rape Crisis, who dizzied my confusion and self-doubt by further demonizing the man who had raped me, this didn’t help. I wanted to show a truer story than what we are told through media though the connotations of rape within a society effected by a patriarchal ‘rape culture’ (Chasteen, A., (2001); Pain, R. (1997); Tetreault, P. and Barnett, M. (1987); Muehlenhard, C. and Linton, M. (1987).


Having never written a script before, and years since dabbling in any creative writing, this was very new to me so all I could do was reach from my own experiences and envelop myself in the feedback of my peers. 


My ideas revolved around one flash of an image; a bird’s eye shot of a woman with long hair lying in bath water with the water up to her face. This image evokes many things in my mind, the trope of washing of the shame and trauma of sexual assault or rape, the isolated and sensory deprivation of putting one’s head under water, the comfort of being enveloped in water, almost womb like. The innocence of nakedness without sexuality, the vulnerability. The immobilizing moment between life and death, a play with drowning. I did this a lot after my own rape. Mostly to deal with the physical pain and to block out the sounds of reality, bathing up to four times a day. 


My script developed through said feedback and stylizing my own true experience to work for a fiction, to develop the arc and build-up, building a developing crescendo of feeling that implodes slowly before exploding outwardly. 


Changing over the months, the script, always had some kind of symmetry, mirroring or symbology. At points these became too much, this needed to be subtle, I took all feedback on board, working and re-working the script until I felt it was something that I could move on to pre-production preparation. 


I felt I needed to show the anger as the most overwhelming of feelings that any survivor deals with after rape. My ideas developed organically, losing Tio; this happens with my son Luca a lot, although I am less upset by it than Anna. I wanted to blur lines again, letting Anna parent in a way one would not want to, this is the hidden reality of parents with depression, a shameful secret, days of doing the basics and making mistakes because they are preoccupied with their own inner torture. 


The smashing of plates; this came from the love of the Japanese art of kintsugi (Carnazzi, S., 2019) in which broken pottery are fixed back together with gold, making them even more beautiful, celebrating those precious scars, metaphoric and enchanting. 


It is true that our experiences bad or good are what make us who we are. Before I was raped in April I had been in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship for 5 years. After that another for 1 year. My childhood was that of neglect, this meant I suffered mental health problems during my teens and early twenties covering my arms in self harm scars that are too much to hide, 16 years on they are white, and only a mark of my strength, my own kintsugi. 


All of these experiences, damaging as they were have helped me become deeply empathetic and caring to other people, understanding and unafraid of personal conversations. I have learnt that listening and validating without trying to ‘fix’ is incredibly important and these parts of my personality, built upon trauma, have followed me through to document and interview intimate moments of other people relating their experiences to me through film, within my ethnographic documentary projects. 


“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. 

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled you’re your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (1923)


Methodology & Production choices


I wanted the actors to take the experience and make it theirs. For Paul (Paul Richards, playing ‘James’) to embody the character of James and take it from my mind and the page, so it was no longer mine. This was a shared experience, and the moment these characters and experiences became appropriated by someone else, the moment they are alleviated from my own mind, the moment they were no longer damaging my soul. 


Paul took my script and notes on my personal experience as well as doing his own research online, reading personal accounts of the victims of date rape. He created the moment in his mind, and I let him improvise with his actions and performance. 


Katherine (Katherine Hall, playing ‘Anna’) disclosed to me her own, very similar experiences. Again, I wanted this to be Anna’s story and I invited Katherine to take the character and make it her own, to use it as a catharsis as I was. She did just this, often improvising beyond my own explanation of the scene. Using extended takes to let the actors cut when then felt the scene was done was important to me to find an emotional, deepened performance.  


The location I used was my house, which is very small and for this reason I kept my crew to a minimum. I know my strengths lie in camera work particularly and I had a very strong vision which I know often involves improvisation on set. Some of the scenes where in rooms so small only two of us could fit. My crew on set was just myself and Susan (Zengru) Song, who was on sound. This also fit with my own distribution plan which focused on feminist and female film makers’ film festivals. 


The production was stressful but fun, I felt a little flustered running around setting up rooms for very small shots or scenes, but it was worth the extra effort. I felt my sets were seamless, my night time shots (shooting during the day) were effective. The actual production itself was incredibly intimate, a truly shared experience which was emotionally overwhelming at times. 


After editing an initial, lineal rough cut, I started editing the rape scene. It was harrowing and I could only manage to do 4 hours at a time, I took space to speak to the school support officer about my feelings as well as processing what had happened to myself and Katherine, my actress. Editing the scenes was actually more traumatizing than shooting them, as once edited, the scene came together as a linear and logical trail of events. 


After making the rough cut however, it occurs to me that using the flashbacks and rape scenes themselves could be seen as exposition. The performance and the shots themselves are beautiful, the actual rape performance impeccable and Paul’s improvisation and shot afterward equally as stunning. So… may I have to kill my darlings here? (Murch, W., (2001) Because the rough cut has its own arc, its fairly obvious what has happened to Anna without any flashbacks. 


At this point I knew I was too close to the production, in every respect, Anna was ‘raped’ in the same bed, in the same position and in the same way as I was in real life. I needed feedback from those who could truly criticize at this point. 


I consulted with my supervisor, my lead consulting editor Yadiana Sultam-Gibert, as well as gaining feedback from Robin Watson and my friend and neighbour, [redacted] who has experience and education in film making. The feedback surprised me somewhat, they all gave very similar feedback, some of the scenes where not necessarily in the right order or became moot within the order they were in, that there was not enough of the flashbacks to really feel empathy toward how Anna was feeling, this surprised me. 


I took all the feedback and played with adjustments however unnatural they felt to me and found a happy medium where the feedback was given true consideration, but my instinctive editing vision wasn’t quashed. 


A very small moment, but a true revelation came when Yadiana suggested that Anna collecting the broken plates should be placed before any other scenes of her feeling a little better after having her emotional breakdown. A very obvious metaphor but one that felt necessary and didn’t cheapen the end production.  



The Cracks in Context 


Coming from a background in anthropology my influences and education are those of visual anthropology theory, particularly an onus on self-reflexivity. This kind of reflexivity was used more within the reflection of post-production and pre-production, and whilst taking in others’ feedback. Particularly influenced by Sarah Pink (2013; 2015), I am also heavily influenced by Walter Murch’s seminal and poetic book ‘In The Blink of an Eye” (2001). The kind of self-reflexivity I was taught within visual anthropology theory is a little different in context when speaking of reflexivity within film theory. 


This kind of reflexivity is more concerned with an auto-anthropological style of self-analysis. Where are these thoughts and assumptions coming from in relation to subjective experiences and cultural background? This was true not only for me but for my consulting editors and supervisor. Having Yadiana Sultam-Gibert as lead consulting editor was important for this reason. Yadiana comes from Havana in Cuba, a very different cultural insight and is also a woman and so has dealt with rape having had a friend who was raped and eventually took her own life because of it. [redacted] had also been raped in the same way and is my next door neighbour, I saw his body tighten as Anna shouted, “Get out of my house”, exactly as he heard it through the wall last April. 


My filming history is that of documentary and visual anthropology. I have worked for academics making documentaries of research work in dance, embodied practice and teaching. (Petsilas, P., Leigh, J., Brown, N. and Blackburn, C. (2019). When I was first reeling from my own trauma, just two days later I presented a film at a conference at CCCU, I was numb, in shock, I could barely speak. My eyes were plastic and my tongue torn out; I could only be a character of myself. 


I thought about making a documentary of my own experiences, but these didn’t really work in practice, I needed to be in front of, and behind, the camera. This fiction stemmed from a need to tell my story but also to transfer that experience to someone separate from myself. I am not in self-doubt any longer, I am angry and full of love and empathy for Anna, not in torment, no longer sitting with crumbling bones and a sickly stone in my stomach; I am advocating for Anna.


My inspiration in terms of films or the aesthetics of film were more from certain television programmes, I love the clean, stylistic yet semi-realistic aesthetic of some modern BBC programmes such as Dr. Foster, Kiri, Glue(Lovering, J., Vaughan, T., Goodison, B. and Bartlett, M. (2015); Thorne, J. and De-Lahay, R. (2018); Thorne, J. (2014). I have always been haunted by the film Detachment (Kaye, T. and Lund, C. (2011), a harrowing social realism film starring Adrien Brody. My vision, unknown to myself before starting this master’s program, is very much informed by the films of Lynne Ramsey, such as We Need to Talk about Kevin (Ramsay, L., Kinnear, R. and Shriver, L. (2011). I realise in hindsight the repetition of blood and reds was very much influenced by We Need to Talk about Kevin. 


I’ve always loved social realism, my father showed me Kes (Loach, K. (1969) very young, I grew up in the lake district and we saw a lot of kestrels so it was something he wanted to show me, I think this tweaked something inside me though, some love for the gritty, or social realism. 


An 80’s child I was of course very influenced by Trainspotting (Boyle, D., Welsh, I. and Hodge, J., (1996) and then other cult films with hard, real-life topics, whether classed as social realism or not. Dark themes and beautiful haunting imagery have always drawn me; Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby, Gia, Requiem for a Dream… the list could go on (Aronofsky, D. and Selby Jr., H. (2000); Bright, M., (1999); Cristofer, M. and McInerney, J. (1998).


I grew up with a working artist father, and am a visual artist myself, often going back again and again to female nudes, I feel this influenced me within the production and pre-production of The Cracks. 


The symbolism of Anna in the bath had such nuanced connotations, but also the beauty of the female nude in all her imperfect perfect realism is something I truly wanted to show, I asked Katherine to keep her underwear on until the last minute, I wanted to see every real mark a woman holds on her body especially as we get older, the scars, the cellulite, the fat, the stretch marks and those marks from bras and underwear that is never shown in modern popular culture. 


Final Reflections


The Cracks final piece I am very happy with, I particularly love how the flow of the arc of Anna’s feelings came through. I love the music that I chose and how it fills the space while Anna is letting her anger out. 


The image of Anna laying in the bathwater was exactly as I had imagined in my mind. The blood worked well although I would have liked to have more footage of the blood moving through the water. I was really happy with the lighting of some of the shots and I enjoyed dressing the rooms and making the house seamlessly ‘Anna and Tio’s’. This took a lot of work, I have hundreds of photos of myself and my son which I replaced with photos of Katherine and her son Ben (Benjamin Hall playing ‘Tio’). The character Tio and Ben being only 3 I had to source appropriate toys, my son is nearly 7 and no longer plays with things you’d expect to see on the messy floor of a mother with a 3-year-old. 


The limitations lay in the street scene particularly and the grainy blacks which I think is due to my choice of camera. The street scene was difficult and not to my vision, but within the piece itself, much less important that I thought it would be. 


I had not used the camera, sound equipment or editing software before and so my limitations in post productions also meant that editing was slow, and I often asked for help from Daniel Haywood, one of the technicians at the University. 


I learnt a lot within this whole year long process; that I need to ask others for help and trust other people’s talent and competence somewhat. I have learnt practicalities of planning and executing a production in fiction. I also have learnt that I really enjoyed using Final Cut Pro and will be buying it for myself in the future! 


If I were to produce or create another fiction, I would definitely do a walk through on the street with the actress or another person to understand the logistics further. I would also show the actress exactly where her placement and the placement of the child would be. I would be more aware of time planning for outdoor scenes, that I cannot see the screen well enough and use something to help with that. 


I would put lights in every room, rather than moving the light around each time. I would have more crew, a runner, clapper and set dresser separately, although considering the space this still made sense at the time. Sometimes set dressing for a new scene took time and I was the runner and set designer in each situation which always took more time than I had anticipated. When Ben was on set this was a good thing, as he needed more breaks, but when he wasn’t on set it was more wait around for Katherine and Susan (Zengru). 


Having said this, Paul Richards emailed me to tell me it was one of the smoothest first shoots he has ever been to and Katherine was very happy with my level of respect for her and Ben’s needs as well as promptly paying her and keeping her up to date with the editing process. 


Making this film made me realise that the way in which I tell a story through documentary, and the way I assumed the rest of my film making career would evolve is not quite what I thought. Social realism, a stylistic exploration of something real and relatable, this can be a way of showing something I would have assumed I would also tell through organically grown documentation of real life. It has opened me up somewhat, it has given me confidence in my abilities.


I realise that I can be an excellent producer, and excellent marketer and distributor. I have a strong vision, and stronger arms, which also makes my camera work excellent. 


I had prepared a website for The Cracks to promote the film after graduating (Blackburn, C., (2019). After submitting the film on the 1st, I started executing my distribution plan the next day. Within less than a few hours The Cracks had been chosen as a semi-finalist at the Lisbon Film Rendezvous 2019 (2019), one of my priority festivals. 


The next day (the 3rd) I woke to another ‘official selection’ for The Cracks in The Lift-Off Sessions (2019). I was shocked, surprised, but happy. I have a personal production company, Althaia Films (Althaia meaning ‘honest’), a wedding film company Cherish Films and my own public Facebook page and website Catriona Anne Blackburn (Blackburn, C., 2019).


Due to this sudden interest I started to promote the film and its website. Sharing on my personal professional Facebook page and website as well as through my production company. With the encouragement of my actress I added The Cracks to IMDb and made an Instagram account and email address specifically for The Cracks for further promotion and later creating a Facebook page specifically for The Cracks film and re-working the poster (Blackburn, C., 2019). After executing the full distribution plan that I had made for other coursework, I went back to FilmFreeway (2019) and applied for every free relevant film festival and currently have 58 festivals considering the film. 


The next day (the 4th), I wake to yet another ‘Official selection’ for KinoDUEL (2019), one of my priority festivals, the notification date was not to be until early November, I was shocked and flattered. 


I cannot watch the film without instant and pedantic self-criticism, there are things I would go back and change, moments that needed to be frames longer, blending of sounds that needed to be re-worked. But one can never truly appreciate their own art, it is not mine anymore, it is out in the world and I can only guide the final production to people who appreciate and respond to it.



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by Katherine Hall


by Paul Richards


by Benjiman Hall

© 2019 by Catriona Anne Blackburn

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