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Let me tell you a story

What is it about fairytales that continue to fascinate and inspire artists, writers and filmmakers? A new documentary project, initiated within UTS, is revealing the adult meanings, symbolism and psychology behind the Disney cotton-candy versions and proving fairytales aren’t just for children.

In the world of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, we’re all familiar with the ‘big bad wolf’. But could he also reveal something more, such as our pleasure for devouring or our fascination with food?

Sarah Gibson, photo by Digby DuncanSarah Gibson, photo by Digby Duncan

It’s a question that Senior Lecturer Sarah Gibson wants us to consider with Re-enchantment – a multi-platform documentary project produced as part of UTS’s Centre for Media Arts Innovation.

“You think you’ve got a handle on what fairytales are about, then you look at them from a slightly different angle and get a completely new take on them.”

Three years in the making and launched last month, the interactive website and accompanying documentaries thread together various interpretations and versions of fairytales from the perspectives of psychology, social history and popular culture.

As Re-enchantment’s Writer and Director, Gibson says part of a fairytale’s power is in its capacity to maintain some mystery and fascination.

“You can’t say this equals that with a fairytale. You have to enter into the story and then get a sense as to how this might relate to you as an individual.

“Fairytales are like cultural snapshots – they can tell us about the culture at the time of the story being told, or they can reflect back on our own individual anxieties, fears and concerns.”

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur RackhamHansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham

Spurred by a documentary series she made, Myths of Childhood, Gibson began questioning whether fairytales can tell us more about the real complexity of childhood as well as the experience of being an adult. Her friend, and Producer of Re-enchantment, Sue Maslin suggested it would make a great interactive documentary, and this enabled Gibson to draw her ideas together in a new and accessible way.

With seed money from UTS, Gibson, assisted by fellow UTS Senior Lecturer Megan Heyward, began exploring the familiar stories of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Rapunzel and Snow White. Gibson’s experience as a therapist (a part-time Jungian analyst role she has undertaken for the last 15 years) fuelled her thinking that a fairytale’s darker themes echo our own experiences.

“In the therapy rooms I see the value of people connecting their own experience to stories, in the same way I saw filmmakers increasing the depth of their own filmmaking practice by connecting to a more poetic, resonant story – an old story being retold.

“Fairytales have different resonance when we’re five, 15, 25, or 55. There’s no doubt they express children’s anxieties and fears and help them deal with conflicting emotions.

Artist unknownArtist unknown

“But as adults we can ask if Cinderella is just a rags to riches story? Or does it tell us what it’s like to lose your mother? What it’s like to be the object of envy by other women? Does it tell us about our internal stepmother who we’re obeying rather than our own desires? I think you can start to look at fairytales as being sort of parts of us.”

Re-enchantement’s interactive website takes a multilayered approach. Animation, design and soundscapes take the user on an immersive and engaging journey through themes that are at the heart of understanding traditional fairytales. These include Ever After, If The Shoe Fits, Wicked Stepmother, Into The Woods and Beastly Husbands.

The themes were carefully chosen based on Gibson’s belief that fairytales are woven into our cultural fabric. Wider questions that emerge ask why is cosmetic surgery of the foot on the rise? Why are older women demonised? And why are so many women caught up in the princess fantasy (which is timely in the lead-up to the fairytale wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton this month)?

“Under Red Riding Hood, you can find some ideas about sexuality. The wolf can be seen as a seducer of young women or as a paedophile stalking and preying on young girls. The story can also be seen not just about sex, but as an invitation to psychological change – perhaps it is time for the well-behaved girl to move away from mother and take her own path of personal development. Is the wolf dressed in granny’s clothes both a mother-father figure and perhaps in some ways erotic?

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur RackhamHansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham

“What I’m trying to do is pull together a lot of different interpretations. Being able to weave ideas from social history, cultural studies and psychology is really interesting to me. You can also find resources to undertake more research. But most importantly, users can add their own ideas via an interactive gallery where they can upload their own images, videos and artwork.”

Gibson and Maslin also produced 10 three-minute animated documentaries for ABC Television. Shot and edited by Lecturer Greg Ferris and narrated by former communication student Gretel Killeen, each documentary poses a question such as ‘Why are fairytales set in forests?’. Gibson hopes these will encourage viewers to visit the site and learn more about how traditional fairytales have a powerful hold on our cultural imagination.

“Fairytales can help us make sense of inner and outer life experiences. We can imagine ourselves as the fairytale’s figures and gain new psychological insights into sibling rivalry, overwhelming envy, poisonous and devouring love and murderous hatred. We are introduced to the ways in which difficult life experiences can be endured and even overcome.

“For me, this project is a whole new way of working creatively, but it’s also opening up this sort of issue of the interpretations of fairytales in a multilayer, interdisciplinary way. I think that’s the strength coming out of the university, that it can foster the research side of a project like this."

Find out more about Re-enchantment at

Katia Sanfilippo

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