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Hot Docs Online Review: Breaking the Silence

June 12, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

A selection of films from this year’s online edition of Hot Docs continue to be available to stream on their website. Tickets are $9 apiece, $8 for members, with screenings geo-blocked to Ontario. The full lineup can be found here.

“If we have a husband, we won’t have a clitoris. And if we have a clitoris, we won’t have a husband.” This quote, which is spoken partway through the film Breaking the Silence and is as eloquently stated as it is disheartening, really gets to the heart of the issue at the centre of this documentary, which was recently voted as one of the top twenty finalists for the Hot Docs Audience Award during the online festival, coming in at number seven.

Directed by Priscila Padilla, Breaking the Silence takes us into the Emberá Chamí Indigenous community in Colombia, where the brutal practise of female genital mutilation, which was introduced to them through colonialism, has been widely adopted as tradition. Spoken of in vague terms as a “cure” to remove the “thingy,” newborns are secretly taken into the mountain, where the clitoris is either cut out with a knife or burned off with a hot nail, with great risk of further injury or death from blood loss.

This cruel, disturbing procedure is done due to the unfounded belief that the clitoris must be removed from baby girls or else it will grow into a penis and no man will want them, which leads to feelings of shame around their bodies and painful sexual experiences. In this community, women are also taught not to move during sex and not to look at themselves naked, let alone touch themselves, with many of them expressing embarrassment around being seen naked by their husbands.

The film’s narrative centres around two women; Luz, an Emberá woman who left her family as a young adult over thirty years ago after realizing that she was a victim of female genital mutilation, and fled to the capitol city of Bogotá where she sells her traditional beadwork in the street; and Claudia, an activist and fellow Emberá woman who is trying to raise awareness and end the practice of genital ablation.

Claudia returns to Luz’s village to create a community garden that serves as a space for women to be together and openly talk about their bodies, while reaffirming traditional beliefs about the connection between their bodies and the land. As the women sow seeds and work on crafts, we listen in as they talk candidly about their marriages and sex lives, in a place where they are denied both sexual pleasure and equal status. Padilla makes the decision to keep men almost entirely in the background of the film.

The cinematography by Viviana Gomez and Yvette Paz is one of the most impressive aspects of the film, taking us into this community in a way that feels vibrant and artistic while still respecting the privacy and integrity of these women. In fact, Luz doesn’t like her face to be seen, which the film tastefully gets around through artfully composed shots. Traditional chants and songs sung by the women provide a powerful soundtrack to the film, giving it a haunting, ethereal quality. This is an emotionally raw but beautifully crafted film about bodily autonomy and female empowerment.

Breaking the Silence is available to stream until June 24th.

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