Venice 2023 review: Malqueridas (Tana Gilbert)

“A powerful statement about not only the penal aspect and the personal trauma of women being separated from their children, but also about their denunciation because they don’t live up to the ‘perfect mother’ image.”

One of the more remarkable facts of this year’s Venice Film Festival is the amount of documentaries in the sidebars, with some of them even taking home awards. Whether this is an after-effect of last year’s Golden Lion win for Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is unclear, but two winning documentaries this year were even more political and definitely more difficult to make than Poitras’ feature. In the Giornate degli Autori sidebar the hybrid Photophobia by Ivan Ostrochovský and Pavol Pekarcik was filmed almost entirely in a Kharkiv metro station while up top Russian bombs were falling. And in Malqueridas (which translates to ‘Ill-loved’), the feature debut by Chilean director Tana Gilbert, the people handling the cameras were doing so illegally while serving their sentence in one of Chile’s largest women’s prisons. A film that gives women who are at best disregarded a piece of humanity back, as well as re-establishing the bond between mothers and their children, Malqueridas was the big winner of the Settimana della Critica, the Venice sidebar that showcases debut features.

The film’s throughline is for the most part narrated by former inmate Karina Sánchez, although her story is comprised of the experiences of around twenty women who were or are still incarcerated. It’s a story about motherhood, sisterhood, comradery, love, and the hardship of being separated from your children. The film opens with photos and videos of children, all born in prison. Chilean law allows these children to grow up with their mothers until the age of two, after which they are taken away. The most positive possible outcome is that these children end up with family, though even that can be a traumatic experience because of drug or other abuse. (In one video a young girl films her new home for her mother. “I hate my uncle,” she says, a hesitation in her words hinting at possible child abuse.)

Once the children are taken away the film segues into the bonds between the women, either romantic or more platonic. Surrogate ‘mother/daughter’ relationships between the older women and younger inmates are formed, in some cases relationships of a more sexual nature. Women seek a sense of security in direct human contact or in the group safety of their respective wards. Images of the women enjoying a makeshift swimming pool or having dance parties show community and a certain amount of fun, despite their situation. What lingers though is their longing for contact with their children, which makes the happiness that they attempt to create for themselves inside the prison walls tinged with sadness about the (partial) loss of connection with those outside.

To some extent Malqueridas is reminiscent of 107 Mothers, an Orizzonti title from two years ago that dealt with the same subject matter of women and their young children in prison, albeit that time in Odesa; coincidentally that film was also co-written by Ostrochovský, who seems to have a knack for films with difficult subject matter. Even though 107 Mothers was a fictional story, thematically there is a lot that Malqueridas shares with it, but the latter deals with stories of real women and is visualized in a completely different and very powerful way. The film is comprised of photos and videos, exchanged between the incarcerated women and the filmmakers through Facebook accounts, then printed and re-digitized to preserve the images. Although a blind eye is often turned, the use of cell phones is prohibited; phones could get confiscated at any time, so saving the images for posterity is an important function of the film. If Gilbert hadn’t started the project, these women would have lost all mementos they had of the bond with their children. This alone makes Malqueridas an important document.

What really makes this documentary worthwhile though is its visual approach. By their very nature most of the images are vertical. The effect of this is that on a movie screen, or any sort of landscape screen, the image feels really closed off, which is totally apt for the subject matter in Malqueridas. Especially because the parts of the screen to the left and right are generally black, which isolates the image even more. This is an interesting metaphor for the situation of these women, a cleverness that came almost out of necessity. Add to that the low quality of the images, which may have been enhanced by the complex re-digitizing process, and the film takes on a dreamy yet sometimes nightmarish quality. This does not take away from what the film is trying to convey (it enhances it, really), but it elevates Malqueridas from being ‘just’ a collection of phone videos. Combined with the fact that the film is made up of essentially illegal material with an insistent and hard-hitting narration on life in the prison, it becomes a powerful statement about not only the penal aspect and the personal trauma of women being separated from their children, but also about their denunciation because they don’t live up to the ‘perfect mother’ image that is held in such high regard, particularly in Latin American cultures.