A couple of days ago, I watched a German report about a couple that called themselves pedophiles. The report sought to depict a neutral point of view on this topic, showing interviews with the couple in which they described their experience and handling of their sexual preference. While watching it, my feelings were quite divided: On the one hand, I could see the couple’s struggle of being confronted with prejudices, hate, and their inner fight against pedophilia. But on the other side, it was very difficult listening to their recounts without feeling repelled. This conflict is also reflected in the Belgian short film Troubled Waters (original title l’eau à la bouche ) by Emmanuelle Huynh, which has been selected for Best Fiction Film for Minikino Film Week 2022.
Troubled waters cover a difficult and conflictual topic that is charged with an immense taboo in society: the sexual preference toward children. When looking at usual representations of pedophilia in fiction films, these are usually tied to images of perpetrators that commit terrible sexual crimes, arousing feelings of hate in us. By introducing the film with the quote “We all have our particular devil that straddles and torments us and that we have to end up fighting against”, Troubled waters tries to convert this representation. From the point of view of the protagonist Bruno, the film takes us into the emotional world and personal fight of a man suffering from his own pedophilia. In doing so, it urges us to reflect on the usual perception of this topic in society. However, it also creates some disturbing moments that can be questioned.
Bruno works as a swimming instructor at a municipal swimming pool. He has a difficult relationship with his family and emotional struggles that he carries with him. When he is asked to take care of his girlfriend’s young daughter called Leila, we start to recognize the source of it: Feeling attracted to the young girl, we witness his fight against these feelings and his reluctance of admitting their existence. His friend Joëlle recognizes the problem and urges him to face it. In the end, Bruno crouches weeping in the shower of the swimming pool. Saying that he doesn’t want to hurt Leila and end up like his father, he bursts into despair.
As we witness the suffering of Bruno, the film offers us moments of empathy for the protagonist. Especially when learning about his past with his father, I started to feel some pity for him. However, this feeling of empathy conflicts with other disturbing moments in the film in which we experience his affection towards the girl. In one scene, we see Bruno holding Leila’s vulnerable and small body while she floats in the pool. Here, close-up shots depict different parts of her body, distorting in front of our eyes. This scene is quite difficult to watch, as the camera recreates the voyeuristic perspective of Bruno on Leila and thus establishes unsettling proximity to the child’s body that forces us to look at it in a way that feels quite wrong.
As it shows, the film does not shy away from discomfort and it could be questioned if these scenes are really needed to depict the inner disruption of the protagonist. However, as difficult as it was for me to watch, it also showed me an important perspective on pedophilia: Not every pedophile is equal to a pedo-criminal. The fight that these people carry in themselves is buried under the stigmatization that surrounds this topic. While watching the report that was mentioned at the beginning of this article, there was one specific answer of the interviewee that got stuck in my mind. To the question, if she sees a risk of harming a child due to her sexual preference, she answered: “Would you ever harm a woman against her will, because her gender corresponds to your sexual preference?”.
Saying this, my intention is not to minimize any danger that comes with pedophilia. There is definitely something problematic to me in this answer, as she equates an oppressed sexual desire with any other sexual preference. But Troubled waters showed me that only talking about the topic after a pedo-sexual crime happened will not reduce it. It’s a film that certainly leaves a bitter aftertaste and will cause much discussion.