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 from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).