Raise ravens and they’ll pluck out your eyes

If you’ve seen The Cement Garden, Pan’s Labyrinth or The Others, you are already familiar with some of the pictures which wouldn’t exist without Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos.

“Raise ravens and they’ll pluck out your eyes.” So runs the Spanish proverb which lends Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos (Raise Ravens) its title. This allegory of a country wriggling out of the clutches of a dictatorship (it won the Special Jury Prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival six months after the death of General Franco) operates highly effectively also as a parable of childhood powerlessness, and the resentments that are liable to be fostered therein.

Ana (Ana Torrent) tiptoes through her spooky house late at night and eavesdrops accidentally on the death of her father, a respected military man who expires in the arms of his married lover. Ana’s mother died some months earlier, squirming in her bed and wracked with stomach pains brought on (Ana suspects) by poisoning, though her benevolent ghost is prone to pop up in the middle of the night to chide Ana gently about raiding the fridge. The child blamed her father for this loss, and resolved to poison him in return; when he does actually die, she becomes convinced that it was her doing. 

In an on-stage interview conducted in 2011 and included among the extras on the BFI’s new DVD release of Cría cuervos, Saura reveals that his inspiration for the film was simply the concept of a child who wanted to kill. He couldn’t have found a better conduit for that idea than nine-year-old Ana Torrent, whose face is as unreadable as it is transfixing: looking at her, it’s impossible to know whether she’s contemplating playing with her dolls or sprinkling broken glass in your porridge.

Torrent had given such a hypnotic performance three years earlier as the girl with the Frankenstein fixation in Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. (Erice happened to be one of Saura’s pupils at film school in Madrid.) Her expression in Cría cuervos is blank and beautiful, her gaze unfaltering, and her head just a shade too big for her slender neck, so that it sometimes seems to wobble slightly on its stalk. It’s no exaggeration to say, as Saura has done, that there would be no movie without her: so much of the characterisation is embedded in her stillness (which never seems starker than when she is listening to Jeanette’s naggingly chirpy pop song, “Because You’re Leaving”). And it’s such a shock when her impassive expression is broken, especially in one upsetting scene in which Ana is reprimanded by her aunt during another instance of tiptoeing around amorous adults, or when she watches her mother writhing on her death bed and gasping her verdict on the subject of an impending afterlife: “It’s all a lie. There’s nothing. Nothing! They lied to me.”

When we think of revolutionary approaches to casting, it is usually Luis Buñuel’s last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, which springs to mind for the daring conceit of having the part of an unknowable woman shared between two performers. But a year earlier in Cría cuervos, Saura had used one actor, his then-partner Geraldine Chaplin, to play both Ana’s dead mother and the adult Ana herself, who narrates the events of her childhood from decades later, a choice which is just as insightful and unsettling. Those adjectives will do nicely for the film itself. If you’ve seen The Cement Garden, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Others, or Pablo Larrain’s first two films about Chile under Pinochet, Tony Manero and Post Mortem, you will already be familiar with some of the pictures which wouldn’t exist, at least not in the shape they do now, without Cría cuervos.

Cría cuervos is released on DVD on Monday.

Ana Torrent and Geraldine Chaplin in Cría cuervos (Raise Ravens). Photograph: BFI.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit