Dir: Clare Weiskopf, Nicolas Van Hemelryck. Columbia. 2022. 84 mins.
The opening of shots of Alis – of the cold exterior of an unnamed institution at dawn, of tall fences topped with barbed wire – could be mistaken for footage of prison grounds. Far less austere than it first appears, this compassionate film, shot in Bogota, Columbia, is about a group of vibrant young women housed at La Arcadia, a state institution for teenagers whose families cannot care for them. At Arcadia, they go to school and receive emotional and psychological support in the hopes of building a brighter future.
Alis is a sensitive and generous act
Documentary filmmakers Clare Weiskopf and Nicolas Van Hemelryck’s second feature (their debut Amazona premiered at IDFA in 2016), Alis was filmed over a period of five years with the young women and genderqueer at the facility through documentary workshops. The result is what they term a “psychological documentary”: a creative act of storytelling that enables the individuals to speak candidly – about everything including sex and sexuality – without having to focus on their own traumas and experiences of life on the streets. Premiering in Berlin’s Generation 14plus, where it won both the Teddy for best documentary/essay film and the Crystal Bear for best film, Alis is a sensitive and generous act, which puts the safeguarding of its subjects ahead of its own desires to tell a compelling story – which, incidentally, it also does with aplomb.
The similarities to prison continue as the women line up for their daily exercises on the compound. Over the PA, an announcer talks about reform: “We want people who triumph, good people, useful people, responsible for themselves.” The words hang in the air like a question mark – is Arcadia keeping the girls in or the world out? Weiskopf and Van Hemelryck simultaneously, and also literally, foreground the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Though they could have chosen to go out and film young women at risk on the streets of Bogota, their choice was to workshop – to ask instead of observe.
Inside, each of the women take a seat, looking direct to camera. They are framed by brightly painted cubby holes, a slow pan across which reveals a selection of personal effects – items of clothing, toiletries, makeup. It’s not much, but Helkin Rene Diaz G.’s camera lingers long enough to drum home that no matter how small the square footage, staking a claim on a physical space is an important step from street life to building a better future.
Acknowledging the stagey nature of the setup, Weiskopf and Van Hemelryck leave the pre-interview banter in their edit (“Can I laugh?” one woman giggles, “Can I talk street talk?” asks another.) The women look most alive in these moments, forgetting the formalities of filming. They are then invited to close their eyes and imagine a girl named Alis. When they are ready to open their eyes, they are each asked questions about her life, relationships and experiences at Arcadia. Through Alis, they are able to tell the filmmakers as much or as little about themselves as they like.
The anecdotes are both amusing and moving, covering everything from the kinds of petty teenage jealousies young women might experience when a new girl arrives to the candid retellings of a first lesbian experience. Some of the women imagine Alis as just another girl who had it rough, while others talk about her as their best friend or first love. Some sing songs about her life, smiling as they think of her, others cry. She is missed, she is remembered. And when asked if she exists, each answer is a round in the film’s full chorus: Alis is real.
Production company: Casatarántula
Screenplay: Tatiana Andrade, Anne Fabini, Gustavo Vasco, Clare Weiskopf, Nicolas Van Hemelryck
Cinematography: Helkin Rene Diaz G.
Editing: Gustavo Vasco, Anne Fabini
Music: Miguel Miranda, Jose Miguel Tobar