Camera Obscura (2008) is an Argentinian film directed by Maria Victoria Menis. It is not about an old woman but I thought that this unknown film is well worth watching and studying for its multimedia form, its outdoor lyrical shots, its ambiguities, and the gap between the director’s intentions and the viewer’s response.
Eight of us, 3 men and 5 women watched the film together in a private home and we talked about it on different levels. One man and one woman did not like the film. The others loved it. What interested me is that we had different views of the ending. There was also disagreement on the difficult subject of interpreting the film as being feminist.
Researching I found that this difference of opinions is easily explained by the gap between the director’s intentions and what we see on-screen.
In an extended interview with Susan Starkman, of FilmMatters and programmer of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival* Menis says: We all need in some way a loving look in our childhood. It can be from our parents, grandparents or anyone who gives us their love. We can even get sick or die if we don’t get that look. The look of Gertrudis’ mother sentences her to a life of feeling ugly… A discriminated person can discriminate too…Jean Baptiste’s look is one that values her and builds a bridge so that she can look at herself in a new way. Gertrudis looks at herself in the mirror for the first time and she is pleased with what she sees.
It’s a film about the human look and that concept was very liberating. It gave me a freedom that I never had. I thought, I’m a filmmaker, why do I have to stick to only one technique? Besides, this is a film about the infinite ways of seeing. Why not a Surrealist movie?…People have embraced this multi-media approach with a great deal of enthusiasm (luckily!!!)
Lastly, I was attracted to the idea of showing the integration of the Jews and the gauchos, the natives of the interior of Argentina.
About the ending: We tried to ensure that the film was filled with subtle details. We aimed for a Chekhovian atmosphere where things that don’t appear to be meaningful, are. Much of what happens occurs behind the scenes. That is how we worked the ending of the film. But for me, there is a sum of small details that would indicate with certain clarity the ending of the film.
However, it is true that there are people who see the ending to be open to multiple possibilities. And it’s true that some people have the opposite view and think that the end is absolutely clear and concrete. It’s amazing the surprises you can have with an audience, and I am not saying that just for this film. All of a sudden, people tell me interpretations that I would never come up with. Some of them are really creative and marvelous and reveal to me, almost as if it were psychoanalytic therapy, aspects that wouldn’t have occurred to me in the creation of this film but that perhaps I had included unconsciously.
What interests me is what assumptions the viewer makes about Gertrudis’ character that permit the three different answers of our group to the question ? what happened at the end? :
the romantic one: she left her family to go away with the French photographer
the tragic one: she committed suicide
the realist one: she carries on with her life with a different consciousness.
For me the first response assumes that Gertrudis is foolish enough to believe that a life on the road with a documentary maker surrealist photographer will fulfil her. The second response makes meaningless all Gertrudis’ creativity and satisfaction in home making, gardening delight in nature and her inner life that the director establishes so well. Why not just accept that there is a change in G’s consciousness due to the photographer’s visit without fabricating a future for her?
Is it a feminist film? For a woman to exchange the gaze of one man to be rescued by the gaze of another is problematic for me. I found the film feminist in that the first part of the film made me more understanding of women for whom home making is creative and fulfilling.
There is such a lot of stimulating issues in this beautiful film that I am surprised that it is unknown and neglected.
The film can be obtained from The National Centre for Jewish Film.