'In a Whisper (A media voz)': Film Review

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Part cinema, part joint act of interpersonal healing.

Heidi Hassan and Patricia Perez Fernandez's autobiographical documentary won the $22,000 top prize at the Amsterdam non-fiction showcase IDFA.

A double-helix first-person chronicle of friendship, estrangement, creativity and thwarted ambition, Cuban-born duo Heidi Hassan and Patricia Perez Fernandez's In a Whisper (A media voz) emerged from a competitive field to win the top prize at this year's IDFA. Landing such an honor at what's often dubbed the world's biggest documentary festival should inevitably prove a springboard to considerable further exposure on big screens and small, but for intimate-scale productions of this sort such a crown can often prove an expectation-raising burden as much as a boon.

This year's IDFA jury could scarcely have selected a more different laureate than that chosen by their 2018 predecessors, who plumped for Reason, Anand Patwardhan's burningly urgent four-hour polemic surveying multiple decades of India's crazily complex political landscape. Here the canvas is that of a delicate miniature — the running time is 83 minutes, nearly three of which comprise closing credits — and the focus is squarely on the personal and professional, with the political only very occasionally intruding.

This is perhaps a little surprising, given that both Hassan and Perez Fernandez were born and grew up in Fidel Castro's Cuba. "Suffocated by censorship and absurd obstacles," stifled by "claustrophobia," both of them ending up — albeit more than a decade apart — departing their native island for the supposedly greater artistic freedoms to be found in Europe. Hassan settled in Switzerland, Perez Fernandez in Spain. (The film is a co-production between Spain, France, Switzerland and Cuba.)

Best pals during childhood and close collaborators in the early part of their filmmaking careers — where they worked on acclaimed, award-winning shorts — the duo were abruptly sundered in the wake of Perez Fernandez's sudden, impulsive (and technically illegal) emigration. A dozen years later, Hassan "also jumped into the void" by seeking a new home on the other side of the Atlantic. Three further years apparently passed before they resumed communication in the form of video-letters. It isn't actually clear if the duo even physically met during the making of this film, a kaleidoscopic collage of materials from myriad sources and formats.

Home-movie extracts punctuate the narrative, both directors being driven by an irresistible "compulsion" to document themselves on a daily basis. This bone-deep tendency (they "imagine a movie out of every experience") extends to their environments and personal circles, and ultimately proves fatal to Hassan's marriage after she surreptitiously lensed her husband without his knowledge. Even this most dramatic development, however, is recalled in muted, reflective tones; emotion recollected in the tranquility of mature retrospect.

Both prone to introspection, soul-searching and philosophizing, Hassan and Perez Fernandez occasionally veer a little too close to navel-gazing for comfort. This project doubtless yielded considerable therapeutic value for its makers, but more impatient viewers may struggle to remain appropriately engaged throughout. Their editing of the visuals, achieved in tandem with Diana Toucedo — a superbly talented filmmaker in her own right, whose finest work has tended towards the avant-garde end of the spectrum — does, however, sparkle with energy and imagination, even when the pair's (separately recorded) voiceovers risk repetition and monotony.

In A Whisper works best as a protean, hard-to-classify, diaristic-essayistic glimpse into the creative process of sensitive, intelligent women in the 21st century, struggling to live up to their younger selves' grand hopes. "I don't know how to deal with so many broken dreams," comments Heidi towards the end. And of course the film itself, via its success in Amsterdam, has proven a vital step in the belated realization of those goals — a necessary, joint act of reflection, regrouping and transition.

Production companies: Matriuska Producciones, Perspective Films
Directors-screenwriters-cinematographers: Heidi Hassan, Patricia Perez Fernandez
Producers: Daniel Froiz, Delphine Schmit
Editors: Heidi Hassan, Patricia Perez Fernandez, Diana Toucedo
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (competition)
Sales: Habanero, Rio de Janeiro

In Spanish
83 minutes