Viewers are plunged deep into a real-life horror story in A Woman Captured, the tense and moving feature-length debut by Hungarian director Bernadett Tuza-Ritter. More conspiratorial than observational, this nightmarishly claustrophobic documentary about a middle-aged woman trapped in the toils of “modern slavery” gradually takes on the contours of a dramatic thriller as Tuza-Ritter aids her protagonist’s bid to escape a tyrannical employer who is often heard but never seen.
Having competed for top honors at Amsterdam’s non-fiction giant IDFA, this rousing and debate-sparking example of interventionist cinema is likely to strike a chord with audiences in the World Documentary competition at Sundance. Numerous further festival bookings, plus small-screen play, will doubtless follow for a picture which lifts the lid on an example of feudal-era exploitation shockingly persisting into the present day.
The exact circumstances of how 53-year-old Marish (a.k.a. Edit) ended up having to toil 24/7 as an unpaid, live-in housemaid for well-off Eta and her family are never made fully clear, but seem to involve debts and a resulting contract of draconian unfairness. In addition to her domestic duties, Marish also holds down a job in a nearby factory where she earns some €550 ($660) a month, all of which she hands over to Eta. Eta also benefited directly from the filming of A Woman Captured, as it’s specified at the beginning that Tuza-Ritter paid her $360 per month for access to her house, which ended up lasting for some 89 days.
Tuza-Ritter, operating as her own cameraperson, is scrupulous in terms of what does and does not get into her widescreen, handheld images — faces and identifying details of the family are never shown, and some 69 minutes pass before we get a clear look at anyone other than Marish. This occurs when Marish (now preferring to go by Edit) has broken free from Eta’s suffocating constraints, aided and abetted every step of the way by Tuza-Ritter. “I swear, you are the only one I trust,” sobs Marish at one point.
“We love you, Marish!” assures the director, who is of much more use to Marish than the police — the contract between Marish and Eta evidently means that no laws have been broken, although the film makes it clear that Eta’s habitual verbal unpleasantness towards her employee has crossed over into physical abuse.
It seems astonishing that Eta (who we’re told has two other maids employed under similar circumstances) would have allowed Tuza-Ritter and her camera into her home, even taking into account the financial remuneration. But on the other hand, she clearly doesn’t think that her treatment of Marish is anything to be particularly ashamed of, as she blithely points out that she provides her maid with accommodation, food and all the cigarettes she wants to smoke. “It’s not like she’s under control,” sniffs Eta.
The psychological and physical tolls of Marish’s 11-year ordeal are plain to see, however, with the pathetically haggard woman looking well over a decade older than her actual age. Her blossoming into cheerfulness and optimism in the film’s final third is heartening to behold, as she’s belatedly (and, given how widespread this phenomenon may be, very fortunately) able to connect with her adult daughter and her newborn grandson. This is all a consequence of her nocturnal break for liberty (accompanied and encouraged by Tuza-Ritter), which the director shoots, edits and scores like something from a Jason Bourne film. (It’s apt that a Liam Neeson action-picture should be playing on Eta’s television just before this nail-biting set piece.)
Amping up the tension is an understandable ploy, but Tuza-Ritter (whose has considerable experience as an editor and continuity supervisor, little as a director) goes way over the top here, especially in her deployment of Csaba Kalotas‘ score: a crashingly cacophonous crescendo which quickly proves counter-productive. This is the film’s only serious misstep: A Woman Captured is more than promising as a debut, achieving a specially intense intimacy with its subject that pays unquestionable and welcome real-life dividends for all concerned — even the money-grabbing Eta, who, without ever being seen, emerges as one of the year’s most memorable screen villains.
Production companies: Corso Film, Eclipse Film
Director-cinematographer-screenwriter: Bernadett Tuza-Ritter
Producers: Viki Reka Kiss, Julianna Ugrin
Editors: Nora Richter, Bernadett Tuza-Ritter
Composer: Csaba Kalotas
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Syndicado Film Sales, Toronto