directed by Vicky Funari
Plenty of people had it rough as children, but you’d have to look a long time to find somebody who had it rougher than Paulina Cruz Suarez, subject of the riveting nonfiction feature Paulina.
In early adolescence, she got up the nerve to leave Mauro, traveled to Mexico City and returned to the town in her late teens with a new identity as a streetwise, sophisticated, promiscuous urbanite. She hoped her newfound cockiness would embarrass Mauro, unnerve the townspeople who did nothing to stop her abuse and effectively change everyone’s image of her from child sex slave to strong-willed, tart-tongued adult seductress. Of course it didn’t work out that way. For women in Mexico–anywhere, really–the sexual adventuress persona tends to backfire. Paula’s hometown “audience” isn’t impressed with her tight green dress and wiggly walk and her tales of sleeping with hundreds of men. Paula cultivates the image hoping onlookers will think, “Wow, look at the independent-minded city woman who doesn’t care how people see her,” but instead, they think, “After all these years, she’s still damaged goods,” or “I always knew that girl was a slut,” or “I’d like to have sex with her.”
Directed by San Francisco-area filmmaker Vicky Funari, who also cowrote, coproduced and helped edit the picture, Paulina retells its subject’s story in an unusual, somewhat ungainly way. There is present-day video footage of Paulina, a longtime domestic with a husband and grown daughter who works as a nurse, telling the story of her youth and adolescence; there’s also footage of Paulina returning home a couple of years ago to confront some of the people who made her life hell (and to visit the grave of Mauro, who died in the early 70s). It’s fairly conventional video stuff, boringly composed and unremarkably lit even when the filmmaker is trying to be arty.
These flaws aren’t crippling, since Paulina is such a good storyteller and her story is so engrossing, and because savvy moviegoers expect (and maybe even want) a certain plainness from documentaries. The plainness signifies truth and restraint, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Better plainness than the cheeseball razzle-dazzle of tv newsmagazines like NBC’s Dateline.
Yet the movie isn’t content with soberly photographed talking heads; it intercuts the present-day stuff with dramatic recreations of Paulina’s early life featuring actors. It’s a self-consciously ambitious approach to the material, but it works better than you might think. Except for a few stagy monologues and a couple of faux-magical realist moments that don’t quite work, the dramatic portion is a pleasure to watch, gracefully edited and tightly composed. (The camerawoman was Marie-Christine Camus, and I wonder if she doesn’t deserve some of the credit for how good the dramatic stuff looks.) The obvious difference in visual quality (and imaginativeness) between the documentary and dramatic parts does not seem entirely purposeful; it’s as if the director could never quite decide what sort of film she wanted to make. Or maybe the two halves of the movie, drama and documentary, engaged her in different, arguably incompatible ways–meaning the dramatic reenactments fired her emotions and imagination, but the present-day nonfiction scenes engaged her intellectually, as the record of a woman’s survival. Either way, Paulina sometimes feels like two different movies cut together, and though each is interesting in its own way, the pieces don’t quite fit.
Despite these difficulties, it’s a unique film, disturbing and affectionate and hard to pigeonhole. I’m not surprised that it had trouble finding a distributor, even after receiving favorable press at last year’s Sundance film festival and becoming a hit on the festival circuit. It’s a personal film that feels as if it was made because the filmmakers thought the story should be told–not because it could become a hit or a “calling card.” Funari met her subject more than a quarter-century ago, when Paulina worked as a maid in the Mexico City home of Funari’s father, a U.S. diplomat who resigned his post over America’s role in the Vietnam War and took a job with the Ford Foundation in Mexico. It couldn’t have been easy for Funari to hop over the chasm of class, nationality and ethnicity and see the world through the eyes of a fiftysomething Mexican woman, yet for the most part the film manages this feat without much fuss. One of the highest compliments I can pay Paulina is to say that if I didn’t know the director was a white American-born woman from an upper-middle-class household, I probably wouldn’t have figured it out after a single viewing. (According to press reports, in early cuts of the movie, Funari herself was a major character in the nonfiction scenes, but she ultimately cut herself out because her presence was distracting from the story. Apparently she understood what many snotnosed film school brats do not. Fiction or nonfiction or even autobiography, the story is ultimately about the story; it’s not about you.)
Except for an embarrassingly jejune bit in one of the dramatic sequences–in which a teenage Paula bites the hand of a masher feeling her up on a bus, then is seen by other passengers as, respectively, a crazy woman, a masked wrestler, a prostitute and an Aztec priestess–Funari avoids treating her subject’s life as “raw material” with which to muck around. Unlike most white American filmmakers who make movies about people whose experience is foreign to them (in more ways than one), the director doesn’t make Paulina’s story into a sociological case study or a jumping-off point for boneheaded “deconstruction” or textbook feminist sloganeering. She just sees it as a story; she thinks about what it means, about how Paulina sees the world and how other people see her, and pretty much leaves it at that. And for the most part, she doesn’t indulge in directorial flourishes that might cheapen what Paulina has to say. The film was a labor of love, but it doesn’t ask you to love it for that reason. It’s a strong story, honestly told.
The empire strikes out. Star Wars fans got a bit of bad news last week: George Lucas and releasing company 20th Century Fox have decided not to allow advanced ticket sales by phone for the first two weeks of The Phantom Menace. Where services like MovieFone sell tickets up to a week in advance for some films, in this case, only same-day sales will be permitted.
Fox said the decision was made in order to protect average moviegoers against scalpers, who might purchase huge numbers of tickets by phone, then resell them to the same people who were denied tickets due to the scalpers’ treachery.
Really, now. Does anybody believe this explanation, including Lucas? The filmmaker isn’t protecting the fans; he’s (1) reassuring himself that there’s no profit out there that he isn’t privy to and (2) ensuring 24-hour, round-the-block lines for tickets, which will then be covered by tv newscasts and print outlets, generating more publicity and making The Phantom Menace into an even bigger event than it’s already likely to be. It’s naive and childish to gripe that Lucas is only in it for the money; of course he is, and it just so happens that he financed the new film himself down to the last nickel, so he wants to make as huge a profit off The Phantom Menace as he possibly can.
But there’s a line between protecting one’s investment and being insensitive to your customers, and I think Lucas just crossed it. The no-advanced-phone-sales edict is a terrible idea–one that will unfairly penalize the same generation of moviegoers that grew up on the Star Wars movies and made Lucas a multimillionaire. People who were in high school or younger when the first film came out are now adults, and most of them have day jobs, even families; they can’t afford to take a day off from work to stand in line to get tickets during the first couple of blockbuster weeks, nor is it reasonable to expect them to stay up late to compete via phone for same-day tickets that go on sale at 12:01 a.m. Phone-sales technology has made moviegoers’ lives a lot easier in the 22 years since Star Wars came out, and now Lucas and Fox are taking away that convenience in the name of greed.
There are ways to make life hard for scalpers without screwing the fans. Remember that on most phone sales services, like MovieFone, there’s a limit on how many tickets can be charged to a single credit card on a single day, usually four. Thanks to the wonders of computer software, that number could probably be reduced to three or two if Lucas wanted to prevent scalpers from profiting off his imagination.
Ticket resale agencies have better (and more profitable) things to do than resell movie tickets: The profit margins usually aren’t high enough to justify the time and effort necessary to get them, and the fact that you can only buy a few at a time limits the opportunity for skullduggery. The only people Lucas is thwarting are small-time scalpers, and they’re not much of a threat to anybody–not the fans and not Lucas. He’s alienating the same people he should be bending over backwards to accommodate. To quote an old Jedi saying: Don’t shit where you eat.