WOMEN DO CRY (SXSW 2022) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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If anyone was cynical enough to dismiss Maria Bakalova’s breakout performance in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm as a flash in the pan or a gimmick, Women Do Cry single-handedly proves such positions do the Oscar nominee a great disservice. Directed by Vesela Kazakova and Mina Mileva, Women Do Cry is an unflinching portrait of the plight of women in contemporary Bulgaria which hinges around Bakalova’s Sonja and her sister Lora (Ralitsa Stoyanova). When we first meet the sisters, a squabble about clothing escalates into a full-fledged fight, broken up only when their mother slaps them. And yet, like so many sisters in real life, things fizzle out as quickly as they ramped up, and soon they are back to talking about boys as they play with kittens while lying around in their underwear.

Life, however, takes a dramatic turn when Sonja tests positive for HIV. Dealing with not just the shock of her diagnosis but the revelation that her lover knowingly infected her, Sonja must navigate not just her and Lora’s relationship in the fallout from this news, but that of her family and broader community, including shockingly bigoted medical professionals. Sonja’s story becomes a central cog in the wheel of Kazakova and Mileva’s broader portrait of life for women in Bulgaria, expanding to incorporate the journeys of other women in the family as they face a range of challenges related to identity, marriage, motherhood, sexuality and work. This is all contextualized specifically against the backdrop of a country where old attitudes to gender politics prove to be difficult to budge, despite the growing feminist movement and the desire of these women to change the status quo.

With the central motif of the stork permeating the film from beginning to end, while Women Do Cry is hardly subtle, it never feels ham-fisted or didactic. Rather, despite the number of particularly gruelling scenes in the film, what really rises to the surface is something as effective as it is profound: the filmmakers frequently privilege the sounds of women’s voices. While there are numerous male characters in the film, the story is not theirs, and instead the film is largely constructed of conversations between women, which at times are heated and extremely emotional. This is both thematically and in terms of its content then very much a movie about the importance of women communicating with each other, and finding safe spaces to do so, and as such it Women Do Cry is an urgent, timely snapshot of women, their lives and their communities in the contemporary Balkans.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).