While editing one of her films in Toronto, Canadian-Chilean documentary filmmaker Maria Teresa Larrain began to lose her sight. This was expected, as Larrain had inherited her mother’s progressive myopia. Unable to receive benefits from the Canadian government, Larrain returns home to Santiago to reconnect with her extended family. In Chile, she has to learn how to cope with her increasing blindness, as well as try to document this journey through the way she knows best: film images.
The new (and likely final) film from Larrain is a poignant first-person documentary that alleviates a difficult battle of blindness with some striking stylistic tricks. A good portion of Shadow Girl shows, from a subjective point-of-view, the various ways that the loss of colour, clarity and location affects those suffering from this ailment. The filmmaker uses superimposition, high and low contrasts, and unfocused lenses to situate the viewer with a perspective that likely aligns closely with Larrain’s experience. Frequently, the author uses a water motif to link the tempest of feelings, strong and calm, that she faces. The result, capturing the filmmaker’s perception of the world, is extraordinary.
Beyond its stylistic triumphs, Shadow Girl is a powerful look at how one woman learns to cope with disability. Just as the viewer has to adjust to the aesthetic differences presented, one also relies on Larrain’s warm voice to orient us with the challenges she faced in her struggle. Some of these moments are bleak – we watch the director write on a page of blank paper, slowly, “I can no longer read what I write” – and we join her fight to appeal the Canadian government’s rule to disallow her benefits. Even as she faces extreme loss, Larrain’s steady voice persists.
At 75 minutes, Shadow Girl is stunning, although a little slight. There is a lovely subplot involving some of the blind Santiago street vendors that Larrain befriends, and their efforts to fight for the right to work. We come to realize how this aside helped to serve as inspiration for the filmmaker. However, more time among this marginalized population and a deeper focus on their travails and triumphs would have made the film, and the author’s personal journey, a richer experience.