A pigeon nesting on an electric wire. This unremarkable, everyday sight is at the centre of Malintzin 17, which gradually reveals itself as a calming reminder of pre-pandemic life, a window into the daily activities of residents in a suburban Mexican neighbourhood and a tender portrait of father-daughter love, proving that cinematic inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
Shot over one week in 2016, the 63-minute-long documentary unfolds from the window of an apartment in Mexico City. Eugenio Polgovsky, who is never seen on camera, talks to his five-year-old daughter Milena as the two of them peer out and wait for the pigeon’s eggs to hatch. Neighbours walk their dogs, deliverymen drop off parcels and vendors peddle their wares as the days turn into nights. There’s no narrative waiting to emerge, no drama around the corner — the documentary rewards voyeurism with comfort, not thrills. After the past two years of pandemic upheaval, its power lies in the soothing way it observes life unfold, placidly and unhurriedly. The natural sounds of crickets chirping or leaves rustling in the breeze complete the immersive experience.
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Eugenio’s rapport with Milena makes the dynamic behind the camera as rewarding as what is taking place in front of it, as her sense of childlike wonder keeps the documentary buoyant. Her fascination with the pigeon is understandable, given that life in a city offers so few opportunities for children to observe nature, and Eugenio lovingly indulges her many questions. Malintzin 17 would have probably remained a home video, had he not died in 2017. It was his sister Mara who found the camera and decided to edit the footage into a documentary, a brief line of text reveals at the end. In the film, Eugenio doesn’t try to steer the conversation to arrive at a grand revelation, or seek to impart life lessons to Milena. He’s simply a man who loves spending time with his daughter, an observation that makes his loss even more gutting.
Throughout the documentary, despite the heat and rain and Milena’s efforts to lure it with food, the pigeon stays firm, protecting its eggs until they hatch. This recurring image becomes one of enduring parental love by the end, mirroring Eugenio’s own.
Shot in Chicago in 2020, Zhengfan Yang’s Footnote pairs serene pandemic-era landscapes — isolated streets, empty public parks, deserted beaches — with dynamic police radio chatter to create a striking portrait of a city that’s simultaneously sedate and simmering. Filming from his apartment windows, he locates the constant amid the change as reports of violence recur while Spring gives way to Winter and eventually, the Monsoon.
The documentary begins with visuals of window cleaners steadily working their way down a high rise, juxtaposed with audio clips detailing reports of domestic violence and attempted break-ins. The contrast is stark, the message bleak — in a sprawling city, no one can ever really know what goes on in their neighbour’s home. From this microcosm, Footnote fans out and paints a picture of a city consumed by loneliness, depression, gun violence and homelessness. A long, static shot of an empty park on a sunny day accompanies calls of citizen protests elsewhere across the city, an auditory reminder of the racial tensions that gripped the US at that moment in time.
The reports are gripping and build either suspense or anxiety across 91 minutes. A cop calls in breathless as he chases a suspect down alleyways, and in leaving unanswered what the man is wanted for, only inflames curiosity. Another dispatch follows up on a woman’s report of spotting a corpse by the beach but as it continues, begins to resemble a murder mystery podcast. The woman refuses to assist the cops further and the body is eventually found at a spot that can only be accessed by a gate, making her a suspect. “Never mind,” is how the call abruptly ends. Few of the reports are followed through to their conclusions, some of which are utterly heartbreaking, which makes the odd happy ending a welcome respite.
Footnote also walks the tightrope between depicting the struggles of the police force, who are sometimes asked to make arrangements for childcare when their shifts are extended, and acknowledging their limitations. Repeated requests for translators reveal a lack of diversity and squads often ill-equipped to understand the problems of a non-English-speaking population. Not all policemen are helpful. While one dispatch officer triumphantly reports having helped deliver a baby in a car, another talks dismissively about a woman’s repeated complaints of domestic violence.
A feeling of hopelessness creeps in towards the end of the documentary, in which only a few reports deal with Covid-related emergencies. While the pandemic will pass, human nature is harder to change, is the distinct impression it leaves.