Editor's Note: In each Wild Women with Steak Knives entry, author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas examines a woman-directed horror film that's been largely overlooked or forgotten. Read them all here!
You can watch Blood Tea and Red String in full on YouTube here, or it's available on Amazon Prime in some regions (these links are unsponsored, offered solely in the interest of helping you access the film).
Every now and then, a film comes along that is so original and made with such clear passion that it almost takes you a moment to catch your breath. Christiane Cegavske’s Blood Tea and Red String is precisely such a film – that is, of course, if animation is your thing. Shot in painstaking stop-motion on 16mm, this is an animal fable both dark and explicitly feminist in its mission. It played more than 30 film festivals internationally, including Montreal's Fantasia Fest, where it won silver in the Public's Prize category. Taking thirteen years to make, Blood Tea and Red String gives new meaning to the word "handmade"; Cegavske’s tiny handmade creatures are brought to life in the most intricate detail across the film’s 71-minute run-time. Although dialogue-free, the film is full of emotion, excitement and unambiguous political intent.
Which, frankly, is at first hard to believe, considering how deeply the filmmaker demands we immerse ourselves in the overwhelmingly fantastic world of tiny cute animals and the betrayals, loyalties and obsessions that make up her protagonists’ journey. We are not permitted to understand precisely what kind of animals these characters are – part bird? Part bat? – but the nature of their oppressors is clear: fancily-clad white mice who steal, devour and party like only the true bourgeois can.
When our oak-dwelling heroes create a human-looking girl doll, she becomes their totem and their true love, even more so when they sew an egg into her stomach cavity to give her the appearance of pregnancy. When they refuse the offer of cash for their precious "woman" from the mice, the latter won't take no for an answer and turn to theft, whisking the dream girl away in the dead of night and triggering the pursuit that in large part makes up the film's action.
It is on their journey to rescue their doll-woman that Cegavske’s creative magic explodes on the screen, as we discover a range of different animal characters in a range of different roles. Some are small but notable, such as the tiny turtles that drag the carriage that transports the mice from place to place. Some play a more central role, such as the powerful yet kind frog-wizard who rescues the bird-bats after their decision to indulge in literally forbidden fruit at the mice’s lair sends them into a psychedelic fugue, threatening to derail their rescue mission before it even begins. And, of course, there is the enigmatic she-spider who diligently spins her web, her formidable powers as much as a protection strategy as they are a mode of attack.
But it’s the floppy girl doll herself who lies at the heart of the film – the objectified female commodity to be stolen, fought over, defended, died for. In an animated film, that this central figure is so explicitly lifeless is a remarkable creative decision, existing as she does amongst equally lifeless creatures that Cegavske’s jaw-dropping skills as an animator have brought to life. Trapped in lifelessness, it’s hard to miss the film’s feminist agenda on this front where a woman-shaped bag of cloth becomes the quarry in such a heated battle between dueling factions. And they all dream of her coming to life, pretending in multiple ways that she is a "real" girl, and not just some old fabric and soft cotton wadding.
This is not, for the genre purists amongst you, a clear-cut horror film; it falls into a more poetic space in a way on this front than a purely iconographic one, closer in spirit perhaps to the approach to the horrific of fellow animator, Czech surrealist genius-hero Jan Švankmajer. But that said, if you don’t "get" the nightmare that this film is speaking to, then you have missed the point entirely. That Cegavske identifies as much as an artist as she does a filmmaker thus comes as little surprise; as acclaimed as Blood Tea and Red String is, it is surely her animation work in Asia Argento’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things that is Cegavske’s most visible and well-known work as an animator, even if her name is not automatically associated with that film.
As the 2019 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellows, Cegavske's work as an artist more broadly has been formally acknowledged, not just as a filmmaker, but as a supremely talented creator of puppets and dolls, as well as her work in mixed media and painting. Having studied the latter at the San Francisco Art Institute, beyond her own art practice Cegavske works as an Assistant Professor at the Kansas City Art Institute in their animation department as she mentors emerging talent.
At the core of Cegavske's varied work lies the notion of anthropomorphism, bringing to life objects who lie dehumanized before they are touched by her particular brand of art-magic. This is a dual act, pertaining not merely to the activation of the found materials from which she creates her creatures, but also giving animals stories, journeys and lives worth sharing, as well as insanely cute tiny little clothes.
But as we see so explicitly in the final third of Blood Tea and Red String in particular, this comes with the necessary dark side that the very act of being rendered entails. And in this film, especially, there is some dark, nasty magic at play that seems to put its female characters very much on the losing side of the equation. Men or mice, there are myriad tales to tell about oppression, violence and obsession. Blood Tea and Red String is a masterclass in just how varied those modes of storytelling can be.