"Belinda" toes the poverty-porn line

For Marie Dumora, her documentary “Belinda” is a love story. She has been following these characters intermittently for 15 years. She knows them. She has the context.

We don’t.

Documentaries are, ultimately, about conveying facts. Facts require context. Without it, the facts of Belinda make it come across as poverty porn.

Belinda is a documentary about the oldest of two French Yenish sisters. It’s filmed in a small town in Eastern France — the Alsace region, if I understood correctly. Its first few images made me think of countryside Romania, with its mixture of traditional German-influenced houses, winding roads, surrounding forests, and evident poverty.

The houses aren’t just quaint, they are ancient, and people can’t afford to renovate them.

We first meet Belinda and Sabrina when Belinda is 9. There are only a few scenes then (taken from one of Dumora’s previous documentaries). A caretaker is telling the sisters they are being taken from their mother, something the middle-aged man — all smiles, and who in a drama would have been cast to play the controlling pervert — is explaining as a good thing.

We haven’t seen their mother. We don’t know what the issue is. We only see two sisters taken to a state home (boy does that historically have bad connotations) and told that they might see each other on weekends.

We skip ahead. The sisters have run away from their homes to be together. Belinda’s caretaker, who truly seems to care for her and who will keep in touch through the years, is explaining to her why that was a dangerous thing to do.

Skip ahead again. Belinda is now 15. Her mother seems to be back in the scene. Sabrina is a mom herself. Belinda is catching up with her caretaker on the phone, explaining why she doesn’t want to work in a shoe store, she wants to be a mechanic. She insists on sticking around her mother, who is instead pushing her to go out and make something for herself.

At least Belinda wants to work, even if I can’t help but think that someone with limited options should take the first opportunity and use it as a stepping stone.

Opportunities don’t seem to abound for them. The Yenish are a nomadic people, and like other gypsies, are discriminated against and marginalised. Belinda herself makes some self-deprecating jokes about it at one point, then complains later that everybody judges them because of their heritage.

Yet, when we see her at 23, we learn that her beloved Thierry is a repeat criminal offender. They planned to marry some years earlier, but had to postpone it because of a “forced vacation”. Thierry’s brother is in jail, as are or have been other family members.

I want to like Belinda — both the person and the documentary. She tries. She wants to straighten Thierry out. There’s a part of her that seems to know she should be careful, pay attention to details. But that part is a squeaky little voice against a screaming horde.

And Thierry is too set in his erratic ways. When they are about to marry, Belinda insists they should review the marriage documents. He just wants to sign it and be done with it. She has to glare and push and badger until he agrees to listen while she reads them out loud. We then find out that he was so obstinate about it because he can’t read.

When the sisters’ caretaker said they were lucky to go to La Nichée children’s home, I thought he was just being a bureaucrat putting a positive spin on forcing them apart. Turns out he was right — at least Belinda is not illiterate.

There’s one question on it about where they’ll live. “Caravan”, Thierry answers without thinking. Belinda nudges him towards what she thinks is the right answer, getting an apartment. “At first”, Thierry says, “but then a caravan”.

Whatcha mean, integration?

He can’t say what he thinks is important in a marriage. He says he doesn’t have debts. Insists he doesn’t. Then he jokes that the debts have him. Nobody laughs. He repeats the joke to a silent audience. Then he does it a few more times while Belinda stares.

Neither of them has a job. They still want to spend. Get this dress, those shoes, that tiara or this collar that might be better for the wedding. She fantasizes about the number of guests, spends €100 on getting her hair done, then complains it’s just highlights. They go to a fair, where Belinda is aware they need to watch their spending. “We do this one thing, then we stop, OK?”. Thierry agrees. Then she goes and buys more candy, plays more games, gets more plushies. Over, and over, and over, and over, and over.

When they finally leave, Belinda looks mortified. “We blew a lot of cash”, she says. Thierry nods. “What can you do?”, he asks, like some capricious god had reached into their pocket to throw their money into the wind. Then they both remember that the next day the fair was half-off, and look back at the lights with longing, maybe calculating how much more they could have gotten for the same money then.

Sitting in the audience, I can only shake my head, take palm to forehead, reach out to smack an out-of-reach couple.

And we’re not even half-way through the documentary.

In retrospect, I can see why Dumora would believe this to be a love story. Belinda is attached to Thierry, seems to be willing to do anything for him. Maybe Dumora has seen them interact beyond the self-destructive pattern they follow here. Dumora said she wanted the documentary to be naturalistic, so we get no framing or explanations. But I can only see a bad influence dragging Belinda down when she doesn’t have good habits or a shred of impulse control herself already. Dumora sees love, I see co-dependence.

I should judge the documentary itself and not its subjects. But that’s impossible to avoid when you see the couple claw themselves into a hole, then steal a shovel because they want to make faster progress.

It’s hard to recommend Belinda. If you have seen Dumora’s two previous films about the sisters — I haven’t — maybe it works as a continuation of their story. For anyone else, I’d expect it’s just one more thing pushing us towards peak poverty porn.


Originally published at filmsnark.tumblr.com.

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