Every movie maniac can identify with the women featured in Maria Alvarez’s Las Cinephilas. The 2017 production, which was among the titles screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (July 20-24) in Thiruvananthapuram, features a bunch of elderly female film fanatics from the cities of Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Madrid. These women are separated by distance but united in intent: their daily lives revolve around the programmes at arthouse theatres and film festivals.
The silver-haired women attend screenings with the zeal associated with church-going. If there is a showing of an obscure Portuguese movie or a modern Japanese production, these women will be there, their dog-eared schedules in hand and anticipation writ large on their faces.
Cinema is all-consuming for the characters, and governs their habits and their routines. They hurtle across the city to be on time for a show, read up in their spare time on the films they have watched, and discuss filmmakers and movie stars with the familiarity associated with members of the family.
The characters not only represent cinephiles across the world, but also the much younger filmmaker. “Each of the characters in the film is me in the future,” Alvarez said in an email interview from Buenos Aires.
The charming 74-minute film was screened at the Thiruvananthapuram event as part of a package of documentaries celebrating cinephilia. Among the films selected by critic and filmmaker CS Venkiteswaran were Kamal Swaroop’s Rangbhoomi, about DG Phalke’s years in Varanasi, and Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque, about the legendary French archivist and programmer.
Apart from fitting snugly into a section that celebrates movie mania, Las Cinephilas also resonated with another, bigger event that takes place in Thiruvananthapuram every year, one that is organised by the same body that has been staging IDSFFK for the past 11 years. The International Film Festival of Kerala, which is held every December, is the ultimate destination for the movie pilgrim. The event attracts thousands of cinelovers who display behaviours not dissimilar to the women in Las Cinephilas: they queue up for hours on end, pack in at least four screenings a day, and avidly discuss and dissect the movies they have watched.
In Las Cinephilas, the daily movie dose acts as an “organiser of time” for the women, as Alvarez points out. Apart from following her characters to screenings, she also interviews them in their domestic spaces. Each woman has a different motivation for spending her afternoons in the darkened interior of a movie theatre: a cure for loneliness; a distraction from painful memories; an opportunity to disappear into a fictional world that is different from and better than the real one; the prospect of learning about new cultures.
“Each of the women has her own relationship with cinema – some of them are true cinephiles, who are in love with actors and directors,” Alvarez said. “A couple of them know more about cinema than many of us. Others just use it to socialise and be intellectually active. Some of them need a place to go somewhere. The fact that they have opened the doors of their homes and their lives to us has a lot to do with watching films every day. Cinema opens your mind to other worlds and other people. Movie theaters are places of trust, you know that those around you are getting on the same boat. It’s like a trip, a shared experience.”
What happens to cinephiles as they grow older? Do they allow their passion for cinema to fade, or do they simply let the movies consume their lives? For Alvarez, the main reason to make Las Cinephilas was to understand her own aging process, which is why the documentary was always meant to be only about women. “We women have a life expectancy of around eight years more than men on an average,” Alvarez pointed out. “I was interested in those last years. And if you go to a movie theatre, at least in Buenos Aires, there is a remarkable majority of women.”
Alvarez filmed her characters at the arthouse and alternative theaters that she regularly visits. She also travelled to film festivals and tracked down cinema courses aimed at elderly patrons. She interviewed more women than those who made it to the final cut. “Each of them is special and unique, but the ones that end up being in the documentary have something of myself in the future,” Alvarez said.
Cinephilia is assumed to be a young person’s game, but Alvarez’s film proves that often, it is the older demographic that has the time, inclination and need to turn up for retrospectives and film festivals. “We see these ladies around all the time, and they are a great support to art theatres,” Alvarez said. “There was something special about their age, plus their own stories.”
The documentary underscores the importance of arthouse cinemas and film festivals in bringing together strangers for a community experience. Movie nerds are now content to snuggle at home with their streaming-enabled devices. What is the future of spaces that offer shared viewing?
“Arthouse cinemas are so important that I could write a book about them,” Alvarez said. “When you are alone because your families are living their lives, have difficulties in walking and your body is hurting, there aren’t many places to go at four or five in the afternoon – a place that makes you think, feel, remember, imagine, travel, learn, socialise. I sometimes think we made a human rights documentary, since art and culture are human rights and are basic needs to be able to live. As time goes by, there will be more and more platforms to see movies. What is under threat and at the risk of extinction is cinema – a way of watching movies.”