Reflections on Teaching and Regional Criticism

This spring quarter I’ve been teaching what is a new class for me: an upper-division course on “Film Criticism.” For the first assignment, I asked the students to collaborate on a review of the second annual Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival, which took place in early April in Bellingham. The review is now online at the Pacific Northwest Media Research Consortium.

For the review, the students divvied up the festival so that at least one of them attended every screening and event. Cascadia’s executive director also visited our class a week before the festival began. The students wrote individual reviews of the portion of the festival each of them attended and then collaborated to create one collective review. The final piece documents the events and screenings of the festival, praises if for its successes and valuable contributions to the community, and critiques the things the students found troubling or unsuccessful. Cascadia is one of the only festivals in the U.S. to present exclusively films made by women directors. April’s festival made an important stand against stark and long-standing gender inequality in the film industry, and at a time when supporting women filmmakers has become even more important in the context of the Trump Presidency and the #metoo movement. At the same time, the festival reflected some of the ongoing problems of Bellingham, which is a disproportionately white, midsized city near the Canadian border. There was a clear class and racial bias to the programming, even as it sought to foreground diversity, as well as an unwillingness to make space for real political discussion. Cascadia’s organizers are even shy about using the term “feminist.” These are all things the students picked up on in their review.

Had the Cascadia festival not fallen right at the start of spring quarter, I would have stuck to my original plan for the first assignment: individually written pieces of media criticism, on an open topic, from each student. (The second assignment was a piece of creative critical writing, which for most of the students took the form of a hybrid work of media criticism and personal essay, and the third assignment is a work of videographic criticism.) Certainly, individually written pieces would have been less of a bear logistically. I sacrificed a lot of class time to group work, including much of the time I had set aside to discuss classics of criticism by such greats as Bazin, Sontag, Kael, Sarris, and Farber. But I found the students needed more time than I had anticipated to trim and merge their individual reviews into something coherent, and that they needed to do it face to face. A Google doc with twenty-one editors wasn’t cutting it.

In addition to the difficulty of getting students to chop up and edit each other’s writing, there was the challenge of how to create one document they would all be comfortable signing their names to. There was, naturally, a range of responses to the festival among them. For example, a number of students attended the Indigenous Filmmaker Program on the last day of the festival, and they did not reach consensus in their assessment of either the films or the festival’s handling of them. The solution was to make this diversity and non-alignment of critical responses explicit at that point in the writing. It’s clear the collective review came out differently than it would have if written by any one individual in the class. But then, no one individual would have been able to attend everything and get the full picture in the way we were able to when we worked together.

The logistical challenges of the assignment tempt me to go back to my original plan of individual pieces of criticism on an open topic the next time I teach the class. But I know that assignment wouldn’t have gotten us, myself included, thinking so deeply about the relationship between criticism and local media cultures. Many of the students had never been to a festival before. A lot of them seemed comfortable snarking out over the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie but hadn’t thought before about the ethics and potential impact of writing criticism that local filmmakers and festival organizers might actually read.

The challenges one faces as a regionally-engaged critic are similar to the challenges one faces as a teacher (and the latter is something I’ve been reflecting upon a lot lately in relation to a longer essay I’m working on). How does one give “constructive criticism” to a student or a filmmaker or a cultural organizer that will lead to further construction instead of to wall-building or demolition? I know some things about the fragility of the creative process from having made videos in the past and still today from being a writer who is branching from academic prose into more creative terrain. As a teacher, I recognize that I am under far less critical scrutiny than my students; likewise, though I write and publish fairly regularly, I do not submit assignments on an almost weekly basis within an institutional context for point-system evaluation as they do. Writing criticism can often feel as out of balance: I criticize; the filmmaker (or creative writer, or festival organizer) takes it.

My fear when I write criticism is that, far worse than defensiveness or lack of receptivity to the criticism, the recipient may take it all in and stop producing. Sometimes the most important thing to do is simply to encourage writers and artists and students to keep making work: not getting them to fix their first project with painful awareness of its flaws, but getting them to move with joy and confidence to the second project, and then the third, and then the fourth.

In this respect, I sympathize with Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,000 hours of practice is what matters most to becoming great at something, as well with photographer Linn Underhill’s advice to young artists that the most important thing is: “Finding out what you want to do and doing that. Just stick with it. Everyone has to struggle, people who stick with it are the ones who succeed. It’s more important than talent, just stick with it.” I agree too with Beth Pickens’s insistence in her new book, Your Art Will Save Your Life, that artists “need to be active creatively in order to be alive, processing the world and other people… Making art is an essential form of self-care in their lives.” These are three different emphases—craft-building, persistence, and quality of life—but they all suggest that the best thing we can do to support artists, filmmakers, and writers is to get them back into their studios, behind the camera, and at their desks making work.

At the same time, criticism is valuable. It can stimulate an evolutionary leap in the quality of an artist’s work. It can be a third term toward growth, alongside Gladwell’s time and practice. More than that, writing and reading criticism can sharpen and heighten the quality of a spectator’s engagement with art, and, in the case of film, move us out of the passive form of media consumption we’ve been trained into by corporations. Criticism, at its best, helps to democratize culture. And, despite everything I said in the previous paragraph, it breaks us out of overly individualistic understandings of the creative process and protects us from the danger of reducing art to art therapy.

When my students had completed their review of the Cascadia festival, I searched high and low for a suitable place to publish it. I discovered (or, more honestly, confirmed what I already suspected) that there is a dearth of venues for this kind of media criticism in the area, which is to say writing that goes beyond the thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie review or the press release disguised as journalism. I ended up contacting one of my colleagues where I teach, Professor Mary Erickson in the Communications department, about the possibility of reviving the Pacific Northwest Media Research Consortium, which is a site she founded in 2014 as a space to showcase and archive scholarship, criticism, and interviews pertaining to the region’s media. The site had lain dormant for a couple of years after a few of the founding members left for jobs on the East Coast. I’m thrilled to see it back in action. I hope for the site the same thing I hope for the Cascadia Festival: that it will thrive, grow, and change, and enter into a productive feedback loop with the community it’s a part of.

Short Animations by Sierra Tucker

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Amy’s Walk (2014)

I remember when my partner Chris first told me, a year and a half ago, about the enormously talented queer animator taking his Time-Based Art class. Sierra Tucker seems to have arrived at our university already skilled in various techniques and technologies of animation and in possession of a fresh and distinctive artistic sensibility. Since then she has continued to work closely with Chris, including now as the TA for his course in Experimental 2D Animation, and I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know her as well through two of my courses in film studies.

Sierra is entirely self-motivated; in other words, she doesn’t seem to need the structure of assignments and deadlines to make work. With a student like her, the role of a “teacher” is to give her the support she needs and then get out of the way. Next month she will graduate from Western with a BA in Studio Art, and I have no doubt that great things lie in store for her after graduation.

On Tuesday, February 20, at 6:30pm, Chris and I will present a program of Short Animations by Sierra Tucker as part of our monthly queer film series, the Queens’ Vernacular, at Pickford Film Center. What follows is an overview of the six videos featured in the program followed by an interview with Sierra about her background and influences and about the methods and ideas behind her work.

Sierra’s art is trippy, dazzling, funny, and humane. Her style of animation is stunningly eclectic, though a strong current of 1990s fashion, video-game, anime, and rave iconography runs throughout. The first three videos in the program feature one of her alter egos, Amy. In Amy’s Walk (2014), we watch the heroine’s sidescroll journey with her pet bear trap through a number of distinctly drawn environments. It’s a great introduction to the artist’s stylistic diversity and her prodigious range of inspirations and influences. The pleasure continues with Sleeve Fray (made in spring 2013, when Sierra was still in high school) and Synesthesia Light Show (2017), where Amy’s journey crosses over into psychedelic dreamscapes and kaleidoscopic abstract animations. Sierra is also a talented musician. With the exception of Sleeve Fray, which uses Radiohead’s song “Treefingers,” all the videos in the program are set to her own compositions.

The fourth video, TRANS FAIRY’S MOVIE (2016), brings the queer sensibility behind Sierra’s other work to the foreground. The hilarious piece sends up some of the more stultifying aspects of queer life on a college campus, including the policing of other people’s identities, the demand and expectation of certain kinds of self-narratives from trans people but not others, and the often-blanketing earnestness of university-sanctioned safe spaces and talent shows. Another explicitly queer work, though one that is not included in the program, is the layered found-footage piece that Sierra made for my spring 2017 Trans Film and Media Studies course in which she explores the abuse speedrunner Narcissa Wright has faced in online forums after coming out as a trans woman. In general, though, Sierra’s queer sensibility moves away from explicitness and into her play with visual forms, her music, and (as she describes in the interview below) her voice and character work. The fifth video in the program, The Core (2017), is probably the best showcase of the latter.

Many of Sierra’s animations explore personal visions and feelings. Watching them, one often has the sense of a brilliant artist and musician working long hours on her own with a computer. Recently, though, she created a more outward-facing and longer-form work: the thirty-minute animated documentary Names (2017). In the video, an avatar of Sierra navigates a 2D video-game space where she engages in conversations with other avatars based on her classmates and teachers at Western. With each conversation, a differently animated space opens up to represent the other person’s story and experiences. It’s a beautiful piece about interpersonal communication, the risks of self-exposure, and the process of building a community. It also represents a new direction in Sierra’s work. For these reasons, it ends and anchors the program.

The following interview was conducted on Friday, February 2. I sat down with Sierra to ask her five questions I had devised with Chris and to listen as she expanded on key aspects of her practice. She and I then collaborated over email to get the transcript into a more succinct and readable shape.

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Sleeve Fray (2013)

Could you tell us a bit about your background? Where are you from and when did you start making art?

I’m from Walla Walla, Washington, which is a small town in eastern Washington. My parents had a really big influence on the art that I did growing up because they were supportive and they provided a lot of resources and encouragement for me. My dad showed me how to do a lot of things on the computer and showed me how to draw various things on paper and just trained me in many different types of skills. My siblings and I would also make little movies. I would usually be directing and they would be acting. We would film them on an old camera and they would go onto little cassette-tape-sized videotapes.

Another big influence on the type of art I do is that my parents have the habit of keeping everything. So old clothes, or schoolwork, or letters, or pictures that I’d drawn—anything like that would go into storage. A lot of my art has this same desire behind it: to capture things and store them so that I can come back to them later and still have them even after they’re gone.

The first animations I did were on the computer in a 3D modeling software. That’s something my dad showed me how to do when I was about seven or eight years old. Around the same time, he showed me how to do stop motion, and I did that with Legos. My drawings didn’t go into animation for a long time because it seemed hard to me.

Later I was in a digital media class in high school and they taught us Flash animation as one of the units. I did a short little animated video called A Day in the Life of Brownbird. Also, about a year or two after that class, a teacher I had was holding a film festival and I wanted to make an animation for it but had no idea what to do. I had been doing a lot of writing but wasn’t drawing much at the time, so the animation I made mostly drew from my writings. I used tracing paper so that I’d be able to see through to previous frames while drawing. I drew it in pen and then scanned it into the computer and assembled it digitally.

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Synesthesia Light Show (2017)

The animation styles in your videos are very diverse. Video game iconography is clearly a major influence. Can you talk about its significance to you and about what else inspires you?

Well, I’ll start with the easy part. My video game influences mostly come from the era that I grew up playing games, which was 1996 to the mid-2000s, and it was on the Nintendo 64, which was the first 3D gaming system. Nintendo is a Japanese company and a lot of the games are made in Japan, so a lot of Japanese culture comes through in them. The games are not exactly a one-to-one stylistic inspiration for my animations because mine are mostly in 2D, but a lot of the types of movement and subject matter and special effects and that kind of stuff come from that era in video games. Japanese anime is also a big influence. I haven’t seen a ton, but I’ve seen just enough to where I’m influenced by it, including a few that I’ve gotten really into like Serial Experiments Lain and a couple of others.

One of my favorite games when I was little was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, just because it was so mysterious to me. I was playing it when I was really young, so I still hadn’t figured out what a lot of things meant and I also couldn’t read. There would be times when I was playing that game when I had no idea who people were and what was going on, which made it really surreal for me. I’m inspired by that feeling of surrealness, of mystery, and of seeing a bunch of things that make it look like something is going on but you’re not familiar with it.

I get some visual influence from animations and video games and movies and stuff like that, but my art is always driven by a desire to show things in the way that I see them. It comes from real life experiences where I’m blown away by something and want to capture the feeling that it gives me. What goes into that isn’t necessarily about creating a sense of realism. Instead it’s about creating the same sensation that I get when I see things, and I take a lot of effort to figure out the best way of doing that. That’s how the abstraction and surreal parts come out in my art, because I want to accurately capture experiences and feelings and those are not always reflective of the physical world. That’s a huge driving force behind everything that I do.

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TRANS FAIRY’S MOVIE (2016)

A few of your pieces engage explicitly with trans identity and experience, but a lot of your work doesn’t, or at least doesn’t do so overtly. To what extent is your identity as a trans person important to your art? How does it come into the work for you?

I would say it’s a very large part, even though I don’t touch on it in the content of the work. It’s a large part because it dictates how my life is to an extent, in that I have to face a lot of things that other people are not familiar with, and so it makes me an outsider in a way.

Being trans also affects a lot of the decisions that I make regarding characters. My main characters, and all my characters really, are just different parts of me. It might be a part of me that someone else has influenced, so a piece of someone else might be in there, but it’s always a part of me.

Amy’s an interesting case because I started doing stuff with Amy before I’d even thought about the possibility of being transgender. Amy was just a female character that I had and I was drawing her when I considered myself a boy, but she was still doing the exact same things that I had done in my life. So it was still a stand-in for me, but I didn’t make a one-to-one connection with it. But now I’ve grown into thinking of Amy as more of a literal version of myself, and it has affected the way I grow my hair and stuff like that. So I think I use characters to express my identity.

And sometimes I use them as an avenue for identity empowerment too. In The Core I had this woman character, Sylvia Deadfish, and through her I tried to exercise my voice, my physical voice, and sing in a different way. I used the character to present my voice as belonging to a woman and to help me grow into this new role that I was living. I drew her with breasts and really long glowing hair and really feminine qualities—things that I felt were an expression of my gender identity in a way. I did give her big feet though, because I also wanted to push the idea that women can have non-ladylike physical qualities and still be women.

Through the process of trying to change my voice, I get a sense of what my voice is and isn’t capable of. I get a sense of the range that my voice has and the different character voices I can do. It gave me an opportunity to become more serious about voice acting, because in a way I was trying to voice-act my own life because I wanted to will my voice into becoming something else. So I became a lot more serious about the physical aspects of my voice and how to harness them.

For a while, when I first started transitioning, I was really opposed to the idea of ever doing anything masculine or having any masculine characters represent me. But my attitude towards it has changed over time. I have this really butch side to myself, and I embrace it now. And when I’m voicing male characters, it doesn’t mean anything different to me about my gender. I used to worry about things like that, but I don’t any more. I like having that aspect of me. I like being able to shape-shift what kind of characters I’m doing.

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Names (2017)

At the end of Names, a scrolling text seems to present your philosophy about human communication. It talks about people being vehicles, and how each person has so much inside of them that can never get out adequately or completely; and how when things do come out, they often come out in unpredictable or unorthodox ways that are liable to be misread. Part of the text reads, “Talking about it is messy because communication happens through symbols, which are simplified versions of things. A circle with two smaller circles and a line equals a face. The problem is that the things to be communicated are a river and we’re trying to drink it with cups.” Can you talk a bit about Names and its emphasis on communication and community-building? Where did the idea for the video come from and what were your goals in making it?

I always felt, growing up in public school, that other people knew how to talk but I didn’t, and it was confusing to me. I think there were a couple of big reasons why I was isolated, and I think they’re related to the project so I’ll bring them up. One was because I was really emotionally sensitive, and sometimes people don’t know how to deal with that. Because, you know, people get mad or they cry and then you don’t know how to react—and I would get mad and cry a lot when I was little. The other thing is I believed in myself and sometimes that would manifest as having a big ego. People with a big ego don’t always mix well with other people. So I spent a lot of time feeling like I didn’t fit in.

Names draws from those feelings and issues that I’ve dealt with throughout my life. But it also draws from working long hours. I think this is the practical, immediate thing that caused the project, because at that point I had done all these animation projects in college and put so much work into them and spent so much time alone and no time socializing. So I told myself that because this is what I’m doing, I have to bring people into my animations if I want to have people in my life. So that was a motivation for the project.

The original idea for Names was to capture quirks that people have. So anything someone does that’s a repetitious movement that they do all the time, or something that they say that’s funny, or something that they focus on, I had a big interest in that. Originally a lot of it was for humorous value, but there was a more serious investment in it too.

I wanted to learn how to focus on other people as opposed to myself. I had done a lot of introspection in my animations leading up to Names, and I was looking back at them and thinking I needed to broaden my horizons, that I have a responsibility to the world and also to myself to get some new perspectives. A big part of Names was learning a new skill, which was listening. I wanted to learn how to listen to people and ask them questions that were spontaneous, questions that would go off of things they had said in order to hone in on what’s important to them. It’s a process of learning about people by paying attention to the things they say and letting that guide my questions. I was trying to hone that skill in myself.

At the end of everyone else’s interviews, I wanted to put a piece of myself in the video, so that my thoughts could be seen as well. So the collection of paragraphs that scroll by at the end was my interview. The idea about things being inaccurately expressed comes from the experience I talked about of being little and feeling like everything I said was a little off and I didn’t know how to speak. And I think that that’s true for a lot of people, to a degree, because words are a vehicle for our thoughts, and they’re not the thoughts themselves all the time. Sometimes people think in words, and sometimes they just have reactions and they try and put words to them. I’ve been misunderstood a lot for things that I’ve said and done, and I think that that’s a really sad thing to happen to someone. So by pointing out the limited nature of words, I hope to get people to see past the words and ask, what is the intent of the person saying them, and where’s that person coming from? Why would they be saying this?

At the same time, I don’t personally have a goal for the video anymore. I think it’s great to show it to people because people seem to like it, but it was kind of a first step for me into something bigger.

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The Core (2017)

So what’s next then? Now that you’re about to graduate, what do you envision for your next artistic projects and for your future as an artist?

I am currently on an art hiatus, though I have plans for my next animation, which I’m going to start working on after I get out of school. I’m already kind of working on it because I’m organizing people who are going to help me. The project is called Flatworld. It’s going to take some of the technical things I started experimenting with in my earlier animations and really expand on them, like the idea of merging two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects and spaces and having them coexist throughout, and also the idea of merging flat digital-looking things with painterly things. It’s also going to have a much more fleshed-out film score, one that’s really cinematic and has a lot of orchestral elements.

I’m also expanding on the idea of having other people do things for the animation. In a way I did that with Names when I used other people’s voices, and I also did it in The Core when I had my friends and family draw robots for me for the very last segment of the video. So I’m focusing on finding talented people and putting them to work and not paying them. (Laughs.) A theater teacher I know at Western helped me send out an audition request to all the theater majors, and my inbox was flooded with people wanting to audition for this thing, and I can only choose one of them so it’s going to be fierce competition to see who gets it. The role that I’m auditioning for is for the narrator in the opening section. I want to get to know the people who are auditioning, so I’m going to try and do the same type of thing that I did when I was making Names and was interviewing people, where my goal was to learn as much about them as I can in a short period of time. It’s going to be mostly about getting to know who they are, and then also getting a sample of how they sound when they’re reading from a script.

I also have a couple of artist friends who are helping me with the project. Hunter Long, who is a musician and a multimedia artist here at Western, is doing a musical piece that’s going to be in the middle of it. He’s also voicing one of the characters. And Keara Mulvihill, who’s a painter here at Western, is going to paint forest creatures and spirits, and I’m going to take those different disjointed pieces and put them together and animate them. I’m thinking too of having people contribute 3D models or other character drawings, just to build a community around the project and make something collaborative. Because the best things happen when you have a wide variety of sources.

That’s part of where my diverse styles come from. I like to have as wide a range of source material as possible, because I think when a lot of very distinct things are put together it makes something that is very unique. So I’m going to focus on figuring out ways that I can have other people do a lot of the work in this project. Because I’ve established that I can make good animations on my own, but I want to make stuff that’s bigger and involves more people.

The Maid

I. Upstairs Downstairs

1. Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) looks straight at the camera at the start of the film

Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) looks straight at the camera at the start of the film.

The Maid (La Nana) is a claustrophobic film. Almost all of it takes place inside a fenced and gated family home where we are trapped with the servants. And though they carry their vacuums and dusters into every corner when the family is away, their true domain is the narrow kitchen and the two tiny maids’ rooms just off of it.

The jerky, handheld camera sticks close to Raquel, the title character, and the three maids who come in, one by one, to try to work with her. Raquel has been suffering from fainting spells and migraines, caused by fumes from the cleaning products she uses and exacerbated by insufficient exposure to the outdoors. The Valdés family, led by mother Pilar, wants to bring in another maid to assist Raquel and split her duties. But Raquel sees a second maid as a threat and a sign of her encroaching obsolescence, so she launches petty warfare on all contenders for the position.

For the first hour of the film, things mount toward a boiling point with no relief in sight. Raquel can’t or won’t quit. Having served the family for more than twenty years, her entire adult life, she not only needs the job but it’s all she has ever known. And Pilar can’t or won’t fire her. As she explains to her eldest daughter, Raquel is a member of the family.

II. An Embedded Film

2. Director Sebastián Silva

Director Sebastián Silva

The Maid was the second and breakthrough film of young Chilean director Sebastián Silva, who turned thirty in 2009, the year of its release. While a few of his other films draw on autobiographical elements (La Vida Me Mata and Nasty Baby, for instance), The Maid is particularly rooted in his own experience. It was based on his childhood growing up in a wealthy home in Santiago with live-in maids. And not just any home, but the exact one shown in the movie.

In this way, the film is not only autobiographical but embedded. As Silva explains in an interview:

The movie takes place in my parents’ house, where I grew up. Raquel is inspired by a maid who lived and worked at our house for over 25 years. The movie maids slept in the real maids’ rooms. We used the same photo albums, the same TV set, decoration, everything. […] My youngest brother played me in the movie. My sister did art direction. It was a family enterprise. […] The real-life character who inspired Lucy, the second maid, worked at the house while we were filming. She wore an apron and served everybody. While she worked as a maid she coached Mariana Loyola, the actress. They became really good friends.

Silva characterizes the shooting as “kind of incestuous,” while describing the film as “quite a reality check for my family.”

I’ve probably seen The Maid five times now. And while the first time I saw it I enjoyed it in ignorance of its production details, I keep returning to it because of its embeddedness. I am fascinated and provoked by the way the real bleeds into the fiction, and by the knowledge that its young director crafted the story out of real-life elements in order to, as he put it in that same interview, “exorcise his demons” about the practice of live-in maids into which he was born.

III. Shared Lifeworld 

3. Lucas (Agustín Silva) looks at Raquel with concern

Lucas (Agustín Silva) looks at Raquel with concern.

A number of film critics and theorists believe we watch documentaries differently from how we watch fiction films. Film phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack argues that “[d]ocumentary space is indexically constituted as the perceived conjunction of the viewer’s lifeworld and the visible space represented in the text, and it is activated by the viewer’s gaze at the filmmaker’s gaze, both subjectively judged as ethical action” (Carnal Thoughts, 247–48). In other words, when we watch a film that we know or deem to be real, we understand that the filmmaker and the people onscreen exist in the same world as we do; and because of this, we judge the ethics of the filmmaker’s gaze and actions vis-à-vis the people onscreen in a way we wouldn’t with a fiction film.

The Maid is not a documentary, but knowing what I know about the inspiration and making of the film, I find myself entering into a similarly fraught and ethically-charged space every time I view it. The “real Raquel” isn’t onscreen, but I know she’s out there, somewhere behind and before, but also beyond and after, Catalina Saavedra’s incredible performance.

Likewise, the character of Lucas, played by Silva’s brother Agustín as a stand-in for the director, has far more significance to me than the small size of the part would seem to merit. About thirteen years old, Lucas is the golden boy of the family, and we watch his gilded adolescence become tarnished by his growing awareness of the working and living conditions of the woman who serves him. But we know too that in a few years he will escape the family home and become a celebrated, award-winning filmmaker with the freedom and privilege to range across nation-states and languages—a destiny world’s away from what can be imagined for Raquel.

IV. Projections

4. Raquel tries on the kids' gorilla mask in the mirror

Raquel tries on the kids’ gorilla mask in the mirror.

But again, I didn’t know any of this on my first viewing of The Maid, when I stumbled across it on a streaming service three or four years ago. I was probably drawn in by the laurels attached to the film: a World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic category at Sundance, as well as a Special Jury Prize for Saavedra’s acting.

The Maid has more than enough to commend it as a work of fiction, but I believe I also sensed, even on that first viewing, a charge of the real in the film. Somehow I knew it was more than just a terrific character study shot in a handheld, documentary style.

I think I thought I was seeing a work of neorealism.

Since its beginnings in post-WWII Italian cinema, neorealism has been characterized by the use of nonprofessional actors, location shooting, and stories about poor and working-class people. These things are bound up together: neorealist filmmakers seek out real people, often in the very places the films will be shot, and cast them for type, with the understanding that they will bring authenticity to the roles in a way professional actors never could.

So if I perceived The Maid to be a work of neorealism, I must have sensed something authentic in the casting and performance of the film’s working-class roles, and particularly that of Raquel.

It’s true the film is a far cry from Hollywood. Saavedra is no J.Lo, and we realize very quickly that hers will not be a Cinderella story like Maid in Manhattan (2002). Raquel is thick and lumbering, with frizzy bangs, a severe ponytail, and sunken eyes. She has a funny way of running, like a stunted child who grew up chained to a chair in a darkened room and never learned to stretch her legs in an open field. Saavedra and Silva take the portrayal very far, verging often, especially in the first hour, on the grotesque.

But that hardly makes it real. My desire to read authenticity into the casting of Saavedra, or to assume that the role of Raquel is in any way more inhabited than acted, is disturbing. It brings the ethics of my own gaze, not the director’s, round for judgment.

Yet it seems I wasn’t alone in viewing the film this way. Reviewers and interviewers often mention the term “neorealism” in their discussions of The Maid. Silva, though, doesn’t seem to have been versed in the tradition when he made it. In the already-cited interview, when he is asked if the film is neorealist, he responds, “It’s realistic, and it was made now, so neorealism makes sense.” The conversation soon veers elsewhere.

Regardless of whether Silva saw the film as “neorealist,” and even regardless of whether the film merits the label, neorealism remains the most established cinematic tradition for the blurring of the real and the fictive in stories about working-class people. So it may, in the end, be worth holding on to as an analytical tool for The Maid.

V. Seeming versus Being

Raquel goes shopping in the fancy part of town

Raquel goes shopping in the fancy part of town and sticks out like a sore thumb.

There was a grace and dignity to neorealist casting in the early Italian films, such as Vittorio De Sica’s use of Lamberto Maggiorani as the lead in Bicycle Thieves (1948). Andre Bazin wrote passionately about De Sica’s “tenderness,” “love,” and “inexhaustible affection for his characters” (“De Sica: Metteur en Scène”).

In later neorealist films, though, the love can be hard to find. In Carlos Reygada’s Battle in Heaven (2005), the two nonprofessional leads move through the film like corpulent zombies, appearing naked and having sex in front the camera in what feel like gratuitously long takes. The point of Reygada’s casting and the insistence on nudity seems to be to show us how class oppression and social restriction materialize on and as poor people’s bodies. (A similar point is made in Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, also from 2005.)

In Silva’s film, we see three of the four maids naked from the waist up while showering. While this nudity does not feel as gratuitous or excessive as in Reygada’s film, I suspect the purpose behind the shots was similar. Raquel and Sonia, the two characters who have been working as servants all their lives, have stouter bodies than the other two maids and especially the thin parents and reed-like children of the Valdés family.

Professional actors appear in neorealist films too, but they usually play the roles of grasping and corrupt landlords, bosses, and aristocrats, as with Lina Gennari’s performance in De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952). As a result, the upper-class characters seem to possess a deep interiority that the poorer characters, played by nonprofessional actors, often lack, and this interiority is corrupt: it is where the rich devise their strategies for exploiting the poor and their self-justifications for maintaining the system of oppression. Poor and working-class people, by contrast, are simple and true. They are devoid of inconstancy and any surface-depth discrepancy.

I’m painting the neorealist tradition in overly broad strokes, but it should be clear that a main current of it, at least, is caught up in a classed sense of the Cartesian mind-body split. The rich have mind while the poor have body. Air versus earth. Thinking versus feeling. Seeming versus being.

For this reason, as a viewer I’m suspicious of neorealist films even though I often love them. I’m wary of any film that evacuates psychological depth from poor and working-class characters, even as I’m attracted to storylines about oppressed ingenues who triumph over their duplicitous and conniving overlords. I try to keep an aesthetic distance from these films, even as the ethical conundrum of their use of real-life poor people keeps pulling me in.

VI. Shadow Neorealism

6. Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) at the gate

Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) comes out of the house toward the gate.

I was wrong in that first viewing: Silva’s film is not a work of neorealism. All of the roles are played by professional actors with only a few exceptions—including Mercedes, the first contender for the new maid position, and, perhaps ironically, Lucas. But as I learned how The Maid was made, and in particular the details of its embedded shoot, I found myself responding to the formal, ideological, and ethical issues posed by the film as if it were a work of neorealism.

Can a film, then, be a work of shadow neorealism? Can its production stay so close to the actual site and actual people involved in the real-life events upon which its fiction is based, that all of the issues of neorealist cinema still apply?

VII. A Revolutionary Humanism?

7. Lucy (Mariana Loyola) pleads with Raquel in the film's pivotal scene

Lucy (Mariana Loyola) pleads with Raquel in the film’s pivotal scene.

Neorealist films are often as conflicted ideologically, in the sense of the message of their onscreen content, as they are ethically, in the sense of the messy lifeworld extending beyond their frames—and no doubt the two are bound up with each other. Bazin also praised Italian neorealism for its “revolutionary humanism” (“An Aesthetic of Reality”). But how revolutionary can that humanism be if the films present poverty and injustice as archetypal and thus enduring, even eternal?

The message of Silva’s film is similarly conflicted. Another reason I keep diving into his interviews about the making of The Maid is because I want to understand the central paradox of the film’s onscreen content: how it can present so powerful a critique of the class system, yet ultimately seem resigned to the continuation of that system.

Across its first hour, the film seems to march toward the trope of the murderous maid who plots cruel and parasitic vengeance on her bourgeois masters, à la Jean Genet’s 1947 play Les Bonnes and Claude Chabrol’s 1995 film La Cérémonie. When Raquel goes to a fancy shopping district to buy the same sweater she saw in Pilar’s closet, even though it’s well outside her price range, does she intend to usurp her mistress’s position? When Pilar discovers photos in Raquel’s album with the eldest daughter’s face scratched out, is it a preview of a violent act to come?

As with his ignorance of neorealism, Silva insists he hadn’t seen or read any of the murderous maids texts before making The Maid. He says he wasn’t even aware the first hour verged on horror-film conventions until his co-screenwriter, Pedro Peirano, alerted him to the edge they were walking with the script. Silva explains that because he knew the real maid whom Raquel is based on, he knew from the start that the character would never cross over into an actual act of violence.

Instead, in a sudden and drastic change of genre, the film crosses over into heartwarming melodrama. The genre shift, occurring two-thirds of the way through the film, is the turning point of the whole movie and takes on tremendous power. No matter how many times I’ve seen The Maid, its pivotal scene never fails to entrance me.

The third and final contender for the new maid position, Lucy, returns from an evening jog and is confronted by Raquel in the kitchen. Raquel tries to force the interloper to perform cleaning tasks that, to Lucy, seem excessive and unnecessary. To break the tension, Lucy goes to take a shower. Raquel gets out her bottle of bleach and yellow rubber gloves and waits impatiently. After the shower, Lucy returns to the bathroom and discovers Raquel bleaching and scouring the tub where she’s just been—it’s an action we’ve seen Raquel do with the previous maids. Overwhelmed by the rush of poisonous fumes in the cramped space, Lucy gasps and covers her mouth. She grabs Raquel and shakes her, trying to pull her away from the tub. She weeps and pleads for her to stop. “My God, what did they do to you?” she cries.

It’s the key line of the whole film.

And just like that, everything changes.

VIII. Refusal of Judgment

8. Alejandro Goic as Mundo, the absent father

Alejandro Goic as Mundo, the absent father.

The film’s controlling idea seems to be that only the love of a working-class peer can save Raquel, and not the false, or at least highly compromised, love of “her family.” A number of times during the first hour of the film, we hear Raquel insist, “The kids adore me.” The jaded older maid Sonia (played by Anita Reeves) rolls her eyes when she hears this. Lucy just stares at Raquel piteously. But at no point does anyone other than Raquel seem to believe it.

Thanks to Lucy, Raquel seems to wake up to the lies she has been telling herself, and has been told by her employers, to make her job and her situation bearable. But it wouldn’t be right to say Lucy’s role in the film is to raise Raquel’s political consciousness.

Silva explains in the interview:

I didn’t make an intentional social or political judgment about the institution of having maids, which is something that Chilean critics didn’t appreciate. The reviews stated that the movie lacked a political outlook. But that was absolutely intentional. I made the movie to exorcise my own demons, not to overthrow the institution of domestic help or to judge people who have maids. These folks are my parents. To demonize the patroness or make the job of a maid look humiliating would be patronizing for the more than 100,000…

The interviewer jumps in at this point to say that the number is closer to a quarter of a million: “I think there are 250,000 maids in Santiago alone.”

Surely demonizing people is a counterintuitive strategy for an exorcism. But how can Silva get rid of his own demons without challenging the institution of live-in maids, which he goes on to admit “has a flavor of slavery” to it?

IX. Complicity

9. Eldest child Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro) has a power struggle with Raquel

Eldest child Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro) has a power struggle with Raquel.

I didn’t grow up with servants in the home, live-in or otherwise—unless I count my tirelessly doting grandmother, and I probably should. Still, I recognize Silva’s conflictedness. In another interview, he struggles to parse it out:

The first memory I have of maids that worked in my house has a rebellious feeling to it. It was because they were a third authority—I already had a father and a mother, and they were another authority figure at home that you didn’t want to be bossed around by. It was like, “Who are you, lady? Whoa, whoa, whoa! Nobody tells me when to eat!” I started feeling awkward having someone at home 24/7 and feeling that her authority was less than my parents’. Also, they were more illiterate than everybody else in the house, and we were much younger than them and already knew stuff that they didn’t know, so you would feel a little superior, in a way. All those factors together either makes you act like a fucking asshole towards them, feel superior, ignore them, or feel a little sympathy. But it wasn’t just sympathy, it was guilt, and I didn’t like that, because I wasn’t responsible: “Man, she’s hired here, I didn’t do anything.”

The sense of personal guilt Silva describes, and his frustration at having been born and raised into complicity with a corrupt system, is familiar, I’m sure, to many members of the privileged classes. It’s not hard for me, for instance, to transfer it to my experience growing up white and middle-class in America, even if my own childhood home was far more modest.

Since making The Maid, Silva has moved to New York and seems to have settled into the identity of a Brooklyn hipster. His statements in interviews often express maddening blind spots about his own privilege, even as his films seem to be concerned with little else (especially 2015’s Nasty Baby in which he portrays a hilariously self-absorbed artist living in Brooklyn who does adult-baby play as his latest art project). If The Maid were simply a fiction film, I might judge the skill, artistry, and politics of its director from a safe critical distance. But to recognize that the film is embedded in the real is to recognize that there is no safe critical distance. I also share the world with “Raquel.” Do I share Silva’s guilt? If so, why? If not, why not? If I feel that he has responsibility toward this woman, do I as well? What have I done, or what do I plan to do, to change the conditions of her one life on earth?

It probably doesn’t need to be said at this point, but I prefer a film like The Maid. A film that bleeds out from the margins of its fiction into the mess of the real world. A film that is best understood topographically. I prefer films that open themselves up to the unresolved problems of the world and hold us accountable, demanding some response—even if or when the filmmaker himself doesn’t know what that response should be, or ends up being as guilty of inaction as we are. I prefer such films to the hermetically-sealed ones that pass off representation, or empathy, as action—the ones that tell the right story in the right way with the right politics, and give us the complacent feeling that, through the simple fact of the film having been made and now being seen, the director and ourselves, the viewers, have accomplished something important.

X. The Academic

10. Claudia Celedón as Pilar, the ineffectual mother and academic

Claudia Celedón as Pilar, the ineffectual mother and academic.

Silva is only two years younger than me, and, like me, he is a cis gay man, but it isn’t he among the participants in the film whom I identify with the most. I identify with (and take the most perverse pleasure from) the character Pilar, who is portrayed brilliantly by Claudia Celedón, because she’s an academic. Pilar’s job is easy to miss, but early in the film she tells her husband she is heading to the university, and a bit later she ends a phone call to Raquel by saying a student has shown up and she has to go. We never find out what she teaches, but I like to imagine she’s in the arts and humanities like I am. Maybe she teaches women’s studies.

Pilar’s complicity is compounded by the history of Chile. I get a strong sense (though I have no evidence from the film) that the Valdés family did not leave the country during the Pinochet regime. Pilar’s own mother pops up in a few scenes as a steel-hearted, haut-bourgeois matriarch played by Delfina Guzmán. She hears out her granddaughter Cami’s complaints about Raquel (Pilar doesn’t bring them up because she’s in denial that anything is wrong) and announces she knows just what to do. She’s seen these “maid fights” countless times, she says, and she will send in her own maid, Sonia, to whip Raquel into shape. When the elderly, no-nonsense Sonia arrives, it’s clear she didn’t learn her job in a home environment cloaked in illusions of cross-class fellowship or that the servants were part of the family.

Pilar is soft where her mother is hard. From one perspective, it’s Pilar’s gentleness and passivity that prevent Raquel from being fired or thrown out on the street. But the film also presents Pilar as the avatar of a liberal humanism that serves no other purpose than to keep the system in place. No doubt she can see structural inequality quite clearly, and she recognizes how she and her family benefit from it. But as the various problems arise with Raquel, she wrings her hands, mutters “oh dear,” and hopes that things will get better. Meanwhile, she enjoys her breakfast in bed.

What is perhaps most disturbing about The Maid is that things do get better, for Pilar and her family. Raquel becomes a much less disturbed and disruptive servant at the end of the film.

XI. Redemption

11. Raquel jogs at the end of the film

Raquel goes jogging at the end of the film.

In the film’s penultimate sequence, Raquel throws a surprise party for Lucy and learns that her friend is leaving. Lucy is moving back to her home village, where she took Raquel as a guest for Christmas. The bombshell threatens to send Raquel spiraling back into self-destruction. But at the end of the film, we see that Raquel has internalized some of the love and respect that Lucy has shown her. She performs a modest act of self-care: she goes jogging. In a final long take, the camera tracks Raquel’s progress down the empty sidewalk, along the high walls of the other houses along the street. We watch as she slowly learns to hit her stride.

And that’s it.

That’s Raquel’s redemption.

Or her epiphany.

Or, more neutrally, the end of her character’s arc.

By my viewing, it’s a very effective ending. But it’s also terribly sad. Certainly, it’s face-punchingly inadequate as a solution to the problems brought up by the film.

But I guess it’s what actually happened.

XII. Fast Car

12. A Jeannette y Marisol

The closing title card dedicates the film to the real “Raquel” and “Lucy.”

There’s a title card just before the closing credits that presents photographs of two maids and the caption: “A Jeannette y Marisol”.

We know that the maid who inspired Lucy still worked for Silva’s family during the shoot, that she served the cast and crew, advised Mariana Loyola on the part, and, according to Silva, became good friends with her.

But as for Raquel, what happened to her?

When an interviewer asked Silva if Raquel was based directly on the maid he grew up with, the director responded:

Yes. She was working with my family until I made the film, then I showed her the film, and she quit after two weeks. Since then, she’s been away living with someone that she loves and she has a car and she has her own life. I do see her sometimes on Skype, and say “Hey, how are you?” She liked the film a lot and I think it was great for her too to see herself portrayed in such a fair way.

Of all the conflicted statements Silva made in his interviews about The Maid, none confound me as much as this one. Did the maid quit because of the film, or did she like it a lot? Could it really be both? And what does the fact that she has a car have to do with anything? Why does Silva point this out? What does it mean for him? And what is it supposed to mean for us, the potential viewers of the film whom the interview is designed to reach?

The car is an image of mobility. I gather Silva would like us to know that the real Raquel isn’t trapped anymore. She’s escaped the claustrophobic confines of somebody else’s house, and she no longer confuses “love” or “her own life” with the affective labor she has been hired to perform for somebody else’s children.

Good for her. Great, really.

But as mobility goes, that car won’t get her anywhere close to the distances Silva and I have traveled.