PRINT April 2014


Mireia Sallarès’s Little Deaths

Six stills from Mireia Sallarès’s Las Muertes Chiquitas (Little Deaths), 2009, digital video, color, sound, 286 minutes. Top left: Mireia Sallarès.

ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL and provocative documentaries I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been looking at movies has never had a theatrical release or been shown in a film festival anywhere. Mireia Sallarès’s 2009 Las Muertes Chiquitas (Little Deaths) played briefly at Anthology Film Archives in New York this past fall. Three years before, NYU’s Catalan Center had presented it in conjunction with an exhibition of Sallarès’s photographs. Now, probably thanks to filmmaker Jill Godmilow, Sallarès’s champion in the US, it is available on DVD from Facets Media for less than thirty bucks. What are you waiting for?

Perhaps for a better sell than Little Deaths has yet received. After all, who’d want to see a five-hour documentary in which some thirty Mexican women are interviewed about their orgasms? Not I, who had enough of orgasm confessionals in late-’60s consciousness-raising groups and am fed up with “the personal is political” being used as a rationale even for waxed-and-toned selfies. The film, therefore, languished for months on a pile of DVDs next to my TV. When I finally put it on, I was overwhelmed almost from the start—by the women in the movie, by the way a question about sexual desire and satisfaction opens onto every aspect of each woman’s life, and by the filmmaker’s tenacious political and moral grip on the first-person singular, a commitment I have trouble maintaining on this single page.

Little Deaths is a series of interwoven video portraits, every one of them framed in tight or medium close-up, shot from a slightly low angle, and without movie lighting. (The subjects’ faces are illuminated by the energy of their emotions and ideas.) Sallarès, who worked alone, hand-held the camera, and, in order to maintain focus in close-up, made frequent small adjustments of its position in sync with the movements of the subjects’ heads as they speak. While such movements can be irritating and indeed are considered unprofessional, here they seem part of the conversation—a cinematic representation of the intimacy that gradually develops between the filmmaker and each of the women on the screen. In the strategy of both interview and camera placement, Sallarès makes the opening move and then follows her subjects wherever they go. There is also a striking absence of cutaways or picturesque decor, with no exceptions after the opening sequence. There, the filmmaker introduces herself in a monologue in which she answers the same unheard “leading” question that she will ask her subjects, speaking to the camera as they will do. She tells us that she although she remembers feeling very sexual in childhood, she did not have an orgasm until she was well into her twenties. She speculates that this might have to do with her strong fear of death, which she associated with orgasm because of the expression la muerte chiquita (in French, la petite mort.) At this point, we see a young woman on a plaza with a hooded Day of the Dead skull pressed against her cheek. Although the original rules of Direct Cinema (i.e., cinema verité) forbade “talking heads,” Little Deaths is as direct as any film could be.

Most of the subjects were born in Mexico, although a few emigrated from other Latin countries and one, a television journalist who prides herself on her adventurousness, is from the former Yugoslavia. (Sallarès is from Barcelona.) The majority are in that wide range termed middle age (thirty-five to sixty-five), but at least half a dozen are younger or older than that. Regardless of their age, they all speak to the ways in which class, race, and the culture of machismo have conditioned their particular experiences of being female. There are indigenous women, mixed-race women, and women of European descent. Some are middle-class, others working-class (which means that they and their families have experienced dire poverty). They are single, married, widowed, or divorced. Most are mothers. One is transsexual. The preponderance are heterosexual, but there are two lesbians and several women who, without self-identifying as bisexual, speak with tenderness if trepidation about their sexual experiences with other women. There are house cleaners, academics, anthropologists, sex workers, performers, an AIDS survivor and activist, two ex-nuns, a former guerrilla, and one who is still a militant activist. For every one of them, sexuality involves pleasure and pain and is always connected to power—to a patriarchy steeped in fear of and violence toward women.

Although no one is identified by name, each woman is profoundly individual. And ordinary, in the sense that not one is famous or powerful or, it should go without saying, male, as the majority of documentary subjects are. That said, Sallarès’s subjects are all extraordinary—for their courage in their lives, and in speaking their experiences in front of the camera. Because there is no room here to reference all their stories, I refuse to recount any one of them. For that you must see the movie for yourself. Indeed, what makes Little Deaths a great film is that out of a single question asked of thirty women, a multitudinous reality emerges. (Nothing could be further from the single-issue—and therefore relatively ineffective—politics that guides most contemporary documentaries.) Contradictions abound, between and within the women in the film. Sallarès cannot resolve them. She can only offer her subjects and the audience a space for resistance. There is sadness, anger, and exhilaration, but no catharsis. It is the lesson of Thelma and Louise: For women, there is no catharsis in patriarchy.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.