Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Albertina Carri's The Daughters of Fire is exclusively showing March 23 - April 21, 2020 in MUBI's Undiscovered series.
Dating back to making shorts in the late 1990s, Albertina Carri has become a significant iconoclast in Argentine cinema in both realms of fiction and non-fiction films. Film and politics run in her blood and have long informed her confrontational and subversive sensibilities. As a queer woman, sex and gender amid homophobia, sexism, maschismo culture, and the male gaze also inform her work and career, which in addition to filmmaking also has her working within Argentine film culture as a major creative force behind Argentina’s LGBTQ film festival, Asterisco. Her most recent feature, The Daughters of Fire, is provocative in its explicit scenes among a group of queer women in which sex is presented in shockingly honest and upfront detail in fully pornographic splendor. In its utopian vision of polyamorous same-sex relations, The Daughters of Fire reveals itself to contain one of Carri’s most sentimental offerings as a filmmaker.
The Daughters of Fire opens with two women, Violeta (Carolina Alamino Barthaburu) and Agustina (Mijal Katzowicz), introduced separately: They were long lovers who are reuniting. Immediately Carri sets the tone of what this film will be in its content with one of the women masturbating in self-pleasure as Violeta serves as the film’s quasi-narrator and invokes the title in something of a manifesto. Carri, who also co-wrote the screenplay for the film with Analía Couceyro, is unwavering in her declarations of how the female body and female desire has been used in art. "The problem is never the representation of the bodies, the problem is how those bodies become territory and landscape in front of the camera," Violeta’s voiceover states.
It turns out this same character wants to make a porn film for female pleasure and female pleasure only. The proposed film is a series of explicit sex scenes and all-women orgies. There are no real complications to this goal in the plot of The Daughters of Fire other than to challenge the presence of patriarchal structures that bend female desires towards them rather than refrain. The presence of men are used to present judgment in their toxic masculinity and homophobia, but their involvement in the film are spare and rooted out quickly.
Carri has long challenged the order of the feminine ideal in her work, perhaps none as explicit and truculent as her 2002 short film, Barbie Can Also Be Sad,which is an Almodóvarian sex farce. Far from the Todd Haynes renderings of the Mattel product in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, these non-anatomical dolls suddenly now have anatomies and genitals and are screwing around the clock. Barbie has sex with several women as her Ken cheats on her. The film is actively trying to shock in its entire run-time and also presents heteronormativity as a fool’s errand, with Barbie finding solace in her same-sex trysts.
That prankster quality still exists for The Daughters of Fire, such as an imagined, dramatized scenario a character has in her group of women transforming into an image inspired from Sir John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia, where one woman is floating in a body of water only to becoming an ecstatic, frenzied orgy of surprises and twists. But this scene plays more into the subjectivity of one character. The rest of the film is much more tied to realism of what lesbian sex entails. There are no ups and downs in the central relationships of The Daughters of Fire. In fact, gradually, the number of women involved in these carnalities expands from two to three to five to several more. Lust and sex expands, open to women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and identities.
The Daughters of Fire imagines a utopia tied to sex much like Jessica Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s queer masterpiece So Pretty, the Wachowski Sisters’ Sense8, and Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s visionary softcore film Passing Strangers in presenting interconnected intimacy being tied to a similarly queer utopian worldview. And these worlds are the product of wanting an escape, each of these works denoting the realities their characters want to take refuge from. The Daughters of Fire also shares a kinship to Leilah Weinraub’s radical documentary Shakedown, a documentary about a lesbian-focused strip club that premiered digitally on the pornography website PornHub (despite actually not being an adult film even though the setting is a strip club, becoming the first ever non-adult feature film on the platform), whose promises of a “real lesbian utopia” in non-fiction form by documenting the goings-on at a strip club from 2002-2015 are, in fact, consistent with Carri’s own leanings. Carri has her women find utopian refuge in Argentina’s Patagonia, the southernmost tip of the country: An end of a world nestled among mountains and landscapes that only further emphasize the matriarchal retreat of this film.
The lack of complication to Carri’s film may come as a surprise to people who were first exposed to her bourgeois incest drama Geminis (2005) or, most recently, her work in non-fiction and archivist works that meditated on Argentina’s political history. The personal is political for Carri, whose father Roberto Carri, a sociologist and filmmaker, disappeared along with footage of the film that he was adapting for his book on political hero Isidro Velázquez. He and Carri’s mother, along with many others, were victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” a right-wing Argentine crackdown by military juntas on leftists and other dissidents in the country backed by the United States government. Albertina Carri’s documentaries Cuatretros (Rustlers, 2016)and Los Rubios (The Blonds, 2003) deal with her search for her parents and her relationship to Argentina’s political system. These works are less polished than her more dramatized films but are her most radical and experimental, with Playmobil figures used in Los Rubios that recall her more punkish provocations but also feel aligned with Rithy Panh’s autobiographical The Missing Picture. The trauma, uncertainty, and lack of closure percolate these non-fictions. She outlines the Argentina national history of political violence coming in waves, first to Isidro Velázquez, next for her parents—their deaths still unsolved. In Carri’s statement for Cuatreros, she notes that tracking down the film of her father has become a defining moment of her personal life, stating, “So I travel to Chaco, to Cuba, seeking for a missing film. I also dig into film archives looking for moving corpses that could return to me something that was gone too early. What am I looking for? I search for movies, also for a family - of living and of dead. I seek a revolution, as well as some justice. I look for my missing mother and father, their remaining bones, their names, what they left on me. I realise I am making a western with my own life. I seek a voice, my own voice, through the noise and rage of those lives shattered by that same bourgeois justice that was looking for Isidro Velázquez.” Carri is forever informed by how the state acted against her family; refuge and solace through sex is not just a simple pleasure, but an act of defiance. The Daughters of Fire is far from slight. It has become a hit at queer film festivals not just becoming popular from what it is showing but also how this film functions as a respite from the political current, knotted in sexual and personal politics of viewers in addition to its auteur.
The Daughters of Fire is striking and bookends images of female self-pleasure, presenting the sexuality of one that can grow and form into utter bliss with the like-minded. To claim this film as another provocation from Carri would be simplistic. This film is open and warm to its characters and viewers, imagining something seldom dramatized in its ode to female pleasure and female sexual imagination. Carri brings that inner-search prevalent in most of her filmmaking to the ends of the Earth and in full view for those willing to look through her gaze.