Top of the Docs #24 – She Puppet

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. The theme for this month is video games!

Of all the video game characters produced throughout the past forty or so years, Lara Croft is undoubtedly the one that has made the biggest impact in terms of critical theory and cultural debate. Both a feminist icon and at times a perfect example of problems within the industry, Lara Croft has come under the microscope since her first appearance in 1996’s Tomb Raider. She has appeared in 16 games total throughout her iconic career, as well as three official films, which have each been directed by men, with one more in the pipeline also to be directed by a man. This week we’re looking to propose an unofficial entry into the Tomb Raider film canon, Peggy Ahwesh’s She Puppet.

She Puppet is a film comprised of found footage captured throughout hours of playing Tomb Raider. Ahwesh uses Lara’s avatar to explore the environments of the game, and how militarised they are. The landscapes, regimented as they are, have a beautiful, nostalgic feel to them. All those who can remember playing games of this era are familiar with the jagged aesthetic charms of these images, however, it is rare we are given the chance to enjoy them, as they are marred either through sexualisation or the animosity of the environment. Ahwesh explores Lara’s place in this landscape and how hostile it is towards her and her body.

The film also explores Lara’s movements, her isolation, and her purpose. At its heart, it is a film about morality and symbols. These quite elusive messages are conveyed to us through readings that explore the themes of the alien, the clone, and the orphan. These come from Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, The Female Man by Joanna Russ, and words from Sun Ra. Through these pieces of narration, She-Puppet manages to give in 15 minutes a better examination of the character Lara Croft than any of the multimillion-dollar films produced to convey her. The gentle pace of the film gives us time to digest and interrogate what we are seeing. Ahwesh delivers a masterclass in pop culture dissection and an experimental documentary that is fun to watch and engage with.

She Puppet may not be the first piece of serious critical analysis on Tomb Raider, it is a game that has quite rightly received a wealth of works produced on the back of its themes and its iconic central character. However, I do believe that when we talk about Tomb Raider in terms of cinema, few films capture the true feeling of what Lara was like to play in those early games. It allows those who did experience that feeling and those who simply know of Lara Croft, to really delve into her character from a variety of angles. Ahwesh has created a Tomb Raider film for all those who wanted to know more about Lara Croft, not in terms of her legend, but instead her experience in the game and the rules of engagement placed upon her.

Peggy Ahwesh’s She Puppet is available to stream here on the artist’s Vimeo page. (Available as of July 9th 2020).