It is Balls not Heathcliff

But where did he come from the dark little thing? Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë. Inspired by and exploring connections to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Lily Cole’s new short film Balls received its Hull premiere inside the Central Library with Lily and producer Kate Wilson in conversation with literature festival co-curator Bonnie Greer.

Balls by Lily Cole at Humber Mouth Picture Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

Balls was co-commissioned by the Brontë Parsonage and RRU News (Liverpool) and takes the idea of Heathcliff being a foundling then expands upon that and places the concept within an 18th century framework of the Foundling Hospital and the procedural aspects of giving up a child.

The film’s provocative title is derived from the way a lottery decides which babies are to be taken in by the church. The mothers have to draw different coloured balls from a bag. Their whole lives and that of their baby rests on what colour comes out that bag.

Balls is steeped in patriarchic and religious motifs, from the Virgin Mary glimpsed at the beginning of the film in the back of an alley, to the portraiture and panel of decision makers: all of whom are white males with money and power. Lily wanted to drive home the theme of religious judgement, the question over sunday school attendance coupled with the did he force you? How many times? and Did you think he was going to marry you…? leave you in no doubt about the mother’s complete lack of agency and the oppressive nature of the system  The grainy quality and split screen interrogation scenes, add to the oppressive feeling. The touching scenes between mother and child, the fear and confusion, and beaten looks in the eyes of the two mothers make for a poignant film.

For such a short low budget film you might have been surprised at how much discussion took place afterwards. A question from Bonnie playing host: Is there such a thing as a woman filmmaker? opens up the discussion.

It is problematic to define someone in such a way – your gender shouldn’t affect the work you make, responds Kate Wilson. Bonnie reminds us that Emily Brontë was unable to be published under her own name due to the constraints put on women in the 1840s.

The question around where that power lies today reverberates through the film, echoes of the mother and baby scandals in the Catholic church in Scotland and Ireland: children growing up in institutions without a family. They know that everyone else has a mum and maybe a dad, but they have none because their mum, for whatever reason, gave them away. That is a deep pain and sense of shame they will carry for life, likewise for the child.

Choosing to set Balls in the 21st Century drives Lily drives home the idea that these are real people. Often with historical documentary we perceive the people as being apart from us and so are distanced from the subject matter. There was the beginnings of a discussion surrounding gender differences in the emotional response to the film, but none of the men in the audience wanted to step into the ring and offer their thoughts.

There then came a lively discussion between the panel and Dr. Patsy Stoneman Vice-President of the Brontë Society on the rights and wrongs of adaptations, the sanctity of Emily’s text and the academic versus the artistic. Bonnie suggests that artists exist in the space between the text and the reader and if it moves you, if it says something to you, then it has done its job.  ‘That is why it is called Balls and not Heathcliff,’ she concludes. It was refreshing to hear these timely and often controversial concerns being debated in a public space. More of that please.