Monday, February 2, 2015

The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore

The Secret of Kells
Irish (English), 2009
75 min, animated, children's, faery tale
Directed by Tomm Moore

Brendan has grown up within the walls of the abbey where his uncle is abbot, taught to fear the outside and, in particular, the inevitable attack of the northmen. The coming of Brother Aidan, a famous manuscript illuminator, gives Brendan the opportunity to express his creativity - if, that is, his uncle will let him spend time away from the construction of the walls meant to shelter the community from attack. 

On his first expedition into the forest, Brendan meets a faery who shows him the wonders of the natural world. With the help of his friends, he works to promote beauty and knowledge by working on a brilliant manuscript that will "turn darkness into light."

The beauty of nature

One of the major successes of this film is in its depiction of nature, expressed in a stunning animation style reminiscent of celtic designs (like those found in the real-life Book of Kells). For example, this tree is composed of a celtic knot design at the base and repetitive curlicues for branches, both common patterns found in celtic designs.

But nature is not only beautiful in The Book of Kells - it is also friendly (as personified by Aisling), and a source for wisdom and learning. Brendan learns more in his few hours exploring the forest than he ever could from a book or from other people.

As Brother Aidan makes clear, the Book represents learning and creativity. Nature, as inspiration for the book, provides an opportunity to explore outside of the bounds of everyday life. This is a wonderful message for children (and adults) who spend most of their time inside or in the city - a whole new world is waiting for them outside their walls.

Problematic representations

While I love this movie overall, there are two images that I found extremely problematic in terms of the depiction of race. First was the character design of one of the monks who assist Brendan:

I do not have any issues with a monk of African (or Italian) origin appearing in an Irish monastery in 800 AD. In fact, monks and other religious people travelled widely during the middle ages, so the population of monasteries was probably much more diverse than commonly believed. 

No, my problem is that this character design is a clear example of blackface, a common way of simplifying the personality of Black characters in media representations. Often, these depictions conform to (negative) stereotypes regarding Black characters' intelligence, desires, or needs. You can read more about blackface here. I was disappointed that this character design conforms to blackface stereotypes when it could just as easily have done something different (such as: no giant red lips). 

The second representation was that of the Northmen, or Vikings, who are depicted as a mass of inhuman murderous creatures with no individuality. 

While this is probably the way that the Irish victims would have seen their attackers, it is not the best way to depict a group of people. These warriors are individuals, with their own thoughts and desires, and probably their own opinions on the morality of their actions. In this film, they take the place of a natural disaster: unavoidable, unreasonable, and completely incapable of mercy. 

This one-dimensional depiction of the villains surprised me in comparison to the care taken with the rest of the film. The only explanation I can give is that the filmmakers were attempting to show only the monks' perspective. 

Despite these flaws, I highly recommend this beautiful movie to everyone who has an opportunity to watch it. The celtic-inspired animation is a treat for the eyes, and Brendan's exploration of nature will make the young and old want to go for a walk outside. 

Further Reading: 

See the entire Book of Kells manuscript online from Trinity College Dublin
"Monasticism in Western Medieval Europe" from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"The Making of a Medieval Book" from The J. Paul Getty Museum 

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  1. Just found this post and appreciate that you didn't ignore the "blackface" character. As a white person, I wasn't sure if I was being overly sensitive, but his presence took me out of an otherwise beautiful film.

  2. What a fucking joke. African Americans didn't even exist in Ireland till the early 18th century.

    1. Mate.. for one thing the presence of black people in Ireland prior to the 18th century is not extensively documented but also not unlikely. For another, it’s called narrative licence. Last, dumbfounded that this even needs explaining, ‘African American’ is completely incorrect. You’re referring to a black character who has nothing to do with the USA and in fact predates the foundation of the USA as a country and the entire legacy of the Atlantic slave trade by a good 700 years. You can just say ‘black’ or ‘person of colour’ or ‘person of African descent’.

      Also the OP is completely correct, it’s a sad oversight in the animation and the film was criticised for it in Ireland as well. The producers openly addressed it and said they regretted not seeing the problem during production. Tomm Moore’s more recent film Song of the Sea made an active effort to avoid repeating the mistake.