'The Legacy of Frida Kahlo': Hot Docs Review

The Legacy of Frida Kahlo Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Hot Docs

The Legacy of Frida Kahlo Still - Publicity - H 2016

This haunting cinematic essay succeeds in bringing Kahlo back to life.

Tadasuke Kotani's documentary chronicles acclaimed Japanese photographer Miyako Ishiuchi's efforts shooting the personal belongings of artist Frida Kahlo that have gone unseen for 58 years.

It's appropriate that Tadasuke Kotani's documentary is bookended by scenes depicting celebrations of Mexico's Day of the Dead. Examining the artist's past literally through the lens of acclaimed Japanese photographer Miyako Ishiuchi, The Legacy of Frida Kahlo hauntingly brings its subject back to life. Recently showcased at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, the film should find appreciative audiences upon a specialty release.

The doc revolves around a historical treasure trove of Kahlo's personal belongings that was discovered 58 years after her death in 1954. The items were located in the bathroom of her husband, artist Diego Rivera, who had ordered that it be sealed upon his demise and was left untouched until the death of his loyal conservator.

Ishiuchi, whose past projects include photographs of artifacts from Hiroshima, traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, to Rivera and Kahlo's former home, the Blue House, now a museum. There she was given access to the long-hidden possessions belonging to Kahlo. The artifacts included shoes, embroideries, her wheelchair, bandages, medicine bottles and a wooden box of Vaseline, which she used to heal her bedsores. There was even a prosthetic leg, and corsets upon which had been painted such symbols as a hammer and sickle.

The intimacy of the objects adds an eeriness to their unveiling, never more so than when Ishiuchi photographs a pair of Kahlo's stockings, seen swaying from the breeze through an open window as if haunted.

Not that there aren't also welcome doses of humor, such as when Ishiuchi, adjusting a flowerpot to get a better angle, mutters to herself, "Let's move this, without permission."

The film does seem a bit padded and unfocused at times, digressing with scenes such as Ishiuchi's visit to the ruins of Teotihuacan that feels like a vacation video and another in which she tearfully breaks down during a phone call when she learns that a close friend committed suicide. And while such attempts to add context to the proceedings as an interview with a contemporary embroiderer are laudable, they go on far too long.

But it's all worth it just to see the finished product, namely Ishiuchi's photographs displayed at a Paris exhibition to great enthusiasm. The poignant images reveal as much about the talented photographer as the legendary artist she's celebrating.

Venue: Hot Docs
Production: Nondelaico
Director-director of photography: Tadasuke Kotani
Producer: Kazuo Osawa
Editor: Takeshi Hata
Composer: Shinichi Isohata

Not rated, 89 minutes