Cinema & Beyond
Latest Essays by Ela Bittencourt
In Colombian filmmaker Laura Huertas Millán’s short, La Libertad (2017), the image of colorful yarns repeatedly crosses the screen. The yarns are part of a pre-Hispanic weaving technique, introduced by indigenous peoples, and still practiced by Mexican women. The yarns fill the screen like lines in an abstract expressionist painting. At other times they sway gently, like power lines. There is sensuality to their movement; the tactile dimension so present in Huertas Millán’s work seamlessly joins her documentary, ethnographic interests with an aesthete’s sensibility—attuned to both the factual basis of her investigations as well as to the formal aspect of film as art.
Huertas Millán’s portraiture is like a painting on many levels, as it foregrounds textures and surfaces. More importantly, this painterly dimension, frequently present in cinema, is wedded to a conceptual framework, more frequent in essay film, or video art. In her latest short, Jenny (2018), the titular protagonist’s arm comes into view: A close-up of a florid tattoo, as Jenny tells us, “I am a victim and a criminal,” alluding to her struggle with addiction, but also to the fact that she has taken advantage of the men she used to pick up for sex and then mug with the help of her boyfriend. Jenny acted the victim in her criminal stunts, a part that delights her as much as it causes faint qualms. But Jenny also views herself as performer at large: She embodies multiple aspects of gender, which she annunciates sensually, detailing men’s attracting to her scent, their curiosity about her penis, their urge to touch her thighs. It’s this performativity—of gender roles, of doer and passive receiver, of slipping in and out of act—recalled, replayed, re-imagined on film, with deep psychological resonance—that forms the most potent part of Huertas Millán’s oeuvre.
To re-imagine womanhood, to talk back and thus redefine its sinuous dimensions, makes it seem that nothing is set, nothing is inescapable. Even in the midst of severest depression, as is the case in Huertas Millán’s masterful, Sol Negro (Black Sun, 2016), in which she casts her own aunt, a former Colombian lyrical singer, as a fictional Antonia Marín. In her interview with me for Kinoscope, Huertas Millán’s explained her use of fictional elements in psychoanalytic terms: “The psychoanalytic process and tools that I discovered— for example, the willingness to create new narratives about oneself, through immersion and introspection—have inspired me, though not consciously. The film had to be a place where we could see ourselves in a new light, hence the use of fiction, in order to abandon our position of victims.”
This brings us back to Libertad (Liberty), the title a playful subversion, hardly obvious for a film about ancient craft, labor traditionally associated with rural tradition and female domesticity. Weaving is mainly women’s work (though as the film makes clear, not exclusively), and as such constricting, but here, as we soon learn, it figures as the basis of one’s economic independence. A Room of One’s Own, of sorts: One of the main protagonists speaks of her need to always be her own person, to possess the freedom to move, to act, without requiring a partner’s permission. Although “we should never say never,” she adds, leaving open the possibility of intermediate space, in which marriage and self-definition are equally possible.
La Libertad is a poignant encapsulation of the fluidity particular to Huertas Millán’s work—she moves from the section on women and craftwork to one in which a male painter presents folkloric images of sexual scenes, featuring ribald group sex and bestiality—thus again emphasizing the unexpectedly subversive aspects of traditional arts—and then just as fluidly, to a part in which museum conservators examine a 19th century post-colonial textile, hinting at the duality that crafts inhabit in our world, between the more humble traditionally women’s crafts, and the male-dominated museum space that privileges formal discourse. Just as in Sol Negro Huertas Millán’s looked for a space beyond the lockdown of her own family’s tragic stories—the recurring theme of mental illness and emotional fragility—so in Libertad she opens up the possibility of the domestic work, and the voices and bodies that produce it, to enter into our field of vision with full creative force, the apogee of freedom.