CE Year in Review 2022: Capturing the inheritance of trauma on screen
As 2022 comes to an end, let's take a look at this organic emergence of a curious trend that portrayed generational trauma in at least five films this year
While the film industry is notorious for observing successful films, cherry-picking elements from them, concocting a formula with said elements and milking the trend dry until any competent attempt outside of that becomes a subversive masterpiece, every once in a while we see a list of concurrent releases that seemingly follow a thematic pattern. While the films themselves may or may not have mainstream appeal, the themes tend to have no intrinsic mainstream value and ergo have no sleazy marketing motives behind them (or so we assume), sometimes a trend in storytelling emerges organically, almost by accident.
There was a time when the theme of questioning the nature of one's own reality reverberated across films released in similar times like The Matrix(1999), Dark City(1998), and The Truman Show(1998). The year 2013 had films like Gravity, Oblivion, Captain Phillips, Olympus has Fallen, White House Down, After Earth, Snowpiercer, and Oldboy where the protagonist was physically trapped in a location and had to free themselves through sheer will and perseverance. Closer home, Tamil cinema had films like Jigarthanda, Mundasupatti, Kaaviyathalaivan, and Jiva in 2013 where the protagonist and their undying passion—whether it is for cinema, photography, acting, or cricket—goes on to change the trajectories of their lives.
For reasons known only to social psychologists, filmmakers seem to be enamoured with the concept of generational trauma this year. While almost every film ever released shows some traces of a dysfunctional family or a dysfunctional relationship, the concept of generational trauma is a theme least explored. Generational trauma (or) Intergenerational trauma is a pattern of trauma-inducing behaviour experienced by a child from their parent, which then goes on to adversely affect how the child behaves with its own offspring when it grows up. One could even argue that all dysfunctional families suffer from trauma inherited from their forebears, which only further strengthens the need to explore generational trauma, which is exactly what 2022 inadvertently ended up doing.
Everything Everywhere All At Once
The absurdist comedy-drama was perhaps the biggest surprise hit in Hollywood this year. Packed with themes like Nihilism, Existentialism, and Identity crisis, the film talked about the broken relationship between a mother and daughter. While the film throws us one absurd, chaotic moment after another, it briefly takes a deep breath and slows down to take us back to Evelyn’s past, before she eloped to the US with Waymond, before she fell in love with him, back to the moment when she was born, fresh out of the womb, looking up at a father who is clearly not pleased with having a girl-child. And suddenly it makes sense how Evelyn has internalised her father’s disappointment in her, which has then gone on to feed her discontent attitude towards life. Evelyn’s unhappiness further pulls her apart from her daughter Joy, the lack of emotional support then grows into a nihilistic black hole within Joy, pulling everything and everyone around her into its cycle of destruction across multiverses. How Evelyn arrives at a counter-argument to Joy’s fatalist approach to life is where the heart-warming core of the film lies.
The Disney animated adventure film has the most conspicuous display of generational trauma on this list. At the beginning of the film, we see famous explorer Jaeger Clade who abandons his son Searcher Clade in pursuit of higher glory. Years later, we find Searcher as a loving father but he is struggling to come to terms with the adventurous nature of his son Ethan who reminds him of his father. The trauma induced by his father’s abandonment is aggravated once again when Jeager Clade comes back into Searcher’s life and encourages Ethan to follow his adventurous spirit. Towards the end, we see Searcher reconciling with his father and breaking the chain of generational trauma. He does so by letting go of the expectations he levied upon his child, which he rightly recognised as something that grew out of his abandonment issues.
Seldom do we get Tamil films where the relationship between the men in a family is explored, let alone three generations of them. In Thiruchitrambalam, the rocky relationship between Thiru(Dhanush) and his father Neelakandan(Prakash Raj) forms the bedrock of Thiru’s personality. He is shown as someone with low confidence, a low sense of self-worth, and levels of courage severely crippled by the death of his mother, a traumatic incident shared by his father who refuses to acknowledge and help his son get over it. The dynamic is further complicated by Neelakandan’s broken relationship with his own father Sr. Thiruchitrambalam (Bharathiraja). The lack of emotional reciprocity between Neelakandan and his father is mirrored and further amplified in the relationship between Neelakandan and his son Thiru. Even though Neelakandan's accident ends up nudging Thiru to make amends with his father, it is ultimately the grandfather’s love and care, along with his perspective that helps Thiru find empathy for and reconnect with his father.
Unlike other films in the list, Naane Varuvean does not deliberately delve into generational trauma but the theme is nevertheless present. The film toggles between being a supernatural horror film and a psychological case study on parental abuse and psychotic personalities. Dhanush plays twin brothers in the film, the backstory tells us how both of them lived through starkly different childhoods. While one of them is shown as an obedient child (Prabhu), the other twin (Kathir) is shown to have psychotic tendencies with a disturbing lack of empathy. While psychotic behaviour might be innate, Kathir’s troubling behaviour is shown to be further aggravated by an overbearing father. We see Kathir growing up and managing to hide his dark side from his wife and kids until a triggering point pushes him over the edge and he ends up traumatising his child. While the trauma that pervades the story does not originate from the oldest member of the family (like in most cases with this theme), the trauma could have been averted if Kathir’s father had helped him deal with his inner demons instead of punishing him for it.
Kantara is a story that ripples across several generations and speaks about the collective experience of a group of people through several years. What begins as an amicable deal between god and men is warped, sullied, and then trickles down as a means for the privileged to oppress the landless minority. Kantara talks about the generational transfer of money, power, traditions, wealth, and of course trauma in the broadest, layered, and most rooted form than most of the other films that handle generational trauma.
What does it mean when a theme emerges again and again in films? Does it say something about our society as a collective? Or is the giant thieving cook known as Cinema stealing our own inner conflicts, cooking trends out of them so it can feed us and make us forget about the inner conflicts it took out of us in the first place? Is it a healthy meal? Most importantly, should we care? As a Jungian psychologist might say: What is unconscious must be made conscious, so in a way, it might be a healthy way to deal with our innermost feelings, but is Cinema the way to go about it? It might not be the ideal way, but since art is currently the most accessible and colourful form of collective therapy out there, our only concern should be to let Cinema do its thing and explore as many themes about the human condition in as many ways as possible.