'Belinda': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlinale
Touching and frustrating.

French documentary filmmaker Marie Dumora’s latest work follows two decades in the life of a young and troubled French woman.

Like the family movies of a very problematic family, Belinda tracks several years in the life of its titular — a French girl of Yenish origins who has a knack for getting into trouble. Not that we can’t see why, and in this tough yet loving portrait by documentary filmmaker Marie Dumora, we witness Belinda’s evolution from a girl thrown into a group home and separated from her sister at a young age, to a teenager and adult who can’t quite escape the criminal tendencies of her clan. Premiering in Berlin’s Panorama section, this intimate character study could see more festival play.

Not unlike Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the film spans nearly two decades, starting out when Belinda is a feisty 9-year-old with a father in prison and a mother unable to care for her. She and her older sister, Sabrina, are placed into separate institutions by the state, and they react to the decision as young girls with no real power can: They’re pissed off but know there’s not much they can do about it. And they’re perhaps unaware at this point how such events will impact the rest of their lives.

Dumora picks up Belinda when she’s 16 and living with her mom in Mulhouse, a rather grim-looking French city on the border of Germany. At this point she’s grown into a rough street chick with dreams of becoming a car mechanic (Sabrina, who is 17, already has a baby), though she seems to have a hard time getting her act together. The fact that she’s also one of five kids and has to take care of her younger siblings doesn’t help, especially with a dad who only comes back into her life much later on.

At first it looks like Belinda will hop around in time to follow its heroine at different stages, but the lengthy second half of the film concentrates on the period when she’s in her 20s and plans to marry Thierry, a local kid with problems of his own. In fact, their big wedding day has to be postponed when the two are arrested for impersonating police officers and larceny. They're clearly no Bonnie & Clyde, and the ridiculous crime lands them in jail, with Belinda forced to marry behind prison walls, then to wait for her husband’s release.

The filmmaker offers zero commentary on what we’re seeing and lets Belinda's actions speak for themselves, though we never see her talking directly to the camera. It’s much more of a fly-on-the-wall approach, granting us access to the lives of people who seem to have a hard time escaping their social and ethnic situation (we learn at one point that members of Belinda’s Yenish family were deported by the Nazis during the Second World War).

Rather than explaining things or offering any context, Dumora basically presents us with footage and asks us to read into it — a method that can prove frustrating, especially with a running time that feels stretched at 107 minutes and could definitely be cut down. In the end, she does however manage to paint the picture of a touching character who has been dealt several low blows, making us wonder how it would have been if Belinda had grown up under different circumstances. Unfortunately that’s not the reality, although there’s some solace to be found in the fact that Belinda always seems to get by.

Director: Marie Dumora
Producer: Laurent Lavole
Editor: Catherine Gouze

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente)
Sales: Be for Films

107 minutes