Sarah Thomas first saw Carlos Saura’s 1975 Cría cuervos in a Spanish film course during her freshman year at Harvard. Filmed from the perspective of an 8-year-old girl whose father is a Fascist military man in Franco’s Spain, the film made a lasting impression. Fast forward to 2013, and Thomas, now an expert in contemporary Spanish cinema and a new assistant professor of Hispanic studies at Brown, is showing the film in her own undergraduate film survey this fall.
“I still remember how much I loved Cría cuervos when I saw it for the first time. I hope to convey that same excitement and enthusiasm to students in my Spanish cinema class,” says Thomas, who graduated from Harvard magna cum laude with a B.A. in Spanish and English literature and earned a Ph.D., with distinction, in Spanish and Portuguese at New York University last May.
Thomas, whose expertise extends beyond film to the novel and “cultural production in general” in 20th- and 21st-century Spain, is especially interested in representations of children and childhood in films made during the last years of the 1939-1975 Franco dictatorship and the period of transition to democracy. “The viewpoint of child protagonists calls into question how we remember the violent past and offers alternative ways to understand it,” she says.
“At the same time, these films create especially nuanced and haunting representations of child subjectivity,” Thomas says. “Children are not simply the pure and innocent creatures so often idealized in the tradition of Romanticism, for example. They are more multifaceted than we give them credit for, and these screen representations explore that complexity.”
In her book, she plans to expand the scope of her research to include Latin American cinema, particularly films set during the military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s. “Looking at Latin American films made in these political contexts will complement and enrich my observations about children and childhood in the Spanish films I analyzed in my dissertation,” she says. The point of entry for her comparative work will be the well-known film La historia oficial, made by Argentinian director Luis Puenzo in 1985. In this film, the protagonist suspects that her military husband stole their adopted child from a political prisoner, one of the “disappeared” of the dirty war. And, in an interesting twist, the military man is portrayed by the same actor as his Spanish counterpart in Cría cuervos.
Cultural studies has increasingly turned to the figure of the child, Thomas says, approaching the child as a kind of “other” who is fundamentally different from the adult. “But what is interesting is that the child is not excluded in the same way as the ‘others’ we might see in gender, sexuality, or postcolonial studies because all adults were once children,” Thomas says. “This duality is one of the most challenging aspects of approaching the figure of the child. The middle-aged protagonist remembering childhood during the Spanish Civil War both can and cannot access the child she once was. In a similar way, the nation both can and can’t understand its own past.”
“We are really, really excited to have hired Sarah,” says Laura Bass, associate professor and chair of Hispanic studies. “She is wonderfully trained by Jo Labanyi, who is the leader if not the founding figure of 20th-century Spanish cultural studies. In addition, it is a boon to the department to have a specialist in Spanish film — one of the most dynamic fields within Hispanic Studies. We expect Sarah will draw students to her classes and, more generally, to our newly revised concentration.”
Thomas will be teaching her courses — including “Spain on Screen: 80 years of Spanish Cinema” and “Entre nosotros: La Familia en la literatura y el cine españoles, 1942-2009” this fall — in Spanish, a requirement for all courses offered by Hispanic studies at Brown.
This won’t be a problem for Thomas. Her Spanish is excellent, thanks to many years of study, time spent living and traveling in Spain and Latin America, and life with her husband Daniel, a freelance graphic designer and filmmaker and native of Venezuela, with whom she speaks Spanish at home.
What is appealing about working at Brown? “What isn’t appealing about working at Brown?” Thomas says. “It’s the best of both worlds, a great research university with the feel of a liberal arts college. It feels accommodating and warm. And Brown undergraduates are some of the best students you could teach. It is a fantastic place to start my career — I still can’t believe I’m actually here!”