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Feature Documentary Films, Film Festivals

#TBT: Why Sundance’s Maddening “A Woman Captured” is a Fiction Film in Documentary Clothing

“A Woman Captured” is an engrossing, maddening film. It bills itself as a story about modern-day slavery, following 52-year-old Marish who finds herself trapped in contemporary Hungary serving a vile master named Eta. (The film premiered at Sundance 2018).

Visually, the film reflects Marish’s small world via unwavering extreme close ups. It’s enamoring, because her visage, like that of an old-world gypsy, is haggard and telegenic. The result is intimate and raw.


Sundance premiere A Woman Captured

In fact, film critics fell under its spell. The Hollywood Reporter calls it, “more than promising as a debut.” Variety calls it “shiveringly effective.”

Initially at least, I’m on board for the ride. Marish’s quest is believable, which she announces early on: to escape from her situation, get her own place, and reunite with her 16 year-old daughter.

Where this film breaks down is the accumulating sense that Hungarian filmmaker Bernadett Tuz-Ritter is withholding vital information. After all, some 69 minutes pass before we see anybody besides Marish! Throughout Act 2, I have an increasingly strong sense that I’m being manipulated.

There’s no back story forthcoming. As a result, the early rush of being immersed in Marish’s suffering is subsumed by a realization that everybody—Tuz-Ritter, Marish, and Eta—all have a lot more facts than I do.

We’re deep in Act 3, minutes before the over-the-top conclusion, before we learn bits and pieces about how Marish arrived in her current situation. This is way too late.

Sundance premiere A Woman Captured

What about Marish’s relationships? Is she estranged from her husband and children? If so, why? And for how long? And did this precede her descent into “modern-day slavery?” …Come again, does Marish really have 5 adult children nearby?!

Alternatively, perhaps this film is actually an experiment, testing my own expectations for more backstory and exposition? Is the joke is on me? Is this a postmodern work of art? Is it a fiction film in documentary clothing?

A third possibility is that Marish is actually suffering from some sort gargantuan lack of confidence that entraps her at an emotional level. How else can you really explain that she’s simply unable to walk down the street to seek help from one of her children, or a work colleague, or a social service organization?

If this is the case, wouldn’t have Tuz-Ritter tried let us in on this gradually during Act 2? Some sort of revelation that Marish’s health or choices have played a role in her current situation?

Cue Act 3. When Marish calls the “institution” where her daughter is staying, she gets through to the director easily and talks with him at length. She obviously has a pre-existing relationship with him. What is this institution? Where is the daughter? What’s the backstory there?

Most important, the conclusion is an emotional house of mirrors. Tuz-Ritter builds up Marish’s reunion with her daughter as the emotional peak of the film. But for this to matter, I need to understand what circumstances caused their separation. But the explanation is insufficient and I’m frustrated.

After the film, I talk with several Sundance filmgoers around me. Most of them love the film. They want to discuss modern-day slavery and how horrible it is.

But for me, “A Woman Captured” has the trappings of a film—an interesting character, an underlying quest, a structure and a resolution of sorts—but ultimately, it is manipulative gibberish.

Without exploring in greater depth why Marish’s family doesn’t help her escape, then the film isn’t honest or authentic.

The Hollywood Reporter piece called “A Woman Captured” “more conspiratorial than observational.” I suppose that’s spot on. And it raises a vital question: at what threshold of conspiracy does a documentary film cease to be a documentary film?

For more Los Angeles documentary film production, click here.



2 thoughts on “#TBT: Why Sundance’s Maddening “A Woman Captured” is a Fiction Film in Documentary Clothing

  1. Things like this do happen. And while Hungary might be one of the poorer EU countries, it does happen in rich countries as well. In Finland, there was a story a year ago about some Ukrainian/Bulgarian migrant worker who had been doing construction work. His work visa was going to expire but the contractor he was working for persuaded him to keep on working while he was applying for a new work visa.

    Of course, the contractor couldn’t pay him during the application procedure (which took like 6 months) but promised to pay everything after his visa was renewed. When it was, the contractor refused to pay, claiming that he hadn’t been working for him (strange that he was allowed to live in a campervan owned by the contractor next to the building site!) and instead had stolen some equipment from the site.

    The authorities were reluctant to complicate the case and just pressed charges for theft and visa violation against the worker. In fact, apart from that single article (which conclusively proved the migrant worker’s story to be true) in the respectable weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti, no-one gave a damn. It was just too muddy, with all kinds of shady deals and unofficial arraignments. And everyone assumed good faith. “Slavery? Certainly no, not in Finland! It was some misunderstanding…”

    It is certainly a possibility that no-one would believe you if you just popped in to a police station all disheveled and claimed that you had been held as a slave for the past 10 years. And what would you do then? With no ID papers, no money, no possession, no home, no work, no personhood, even!

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