Updated: Apr 20, 2022
When director Eugenio Polgovsky passed away in 2017, his sister Mara stepped in to assemble his surviving film footage into Malintzin 17, an absorbing documentary about nature, observation and the wonder of childhood.
14 February 2022 By Ben Nicholson
Reviewed from the 2022 International Film Festival Rotterdam
A beautifully patterned Inca dove has made a nest on a power line overhanging the road in the unassuming and quietly affecting documentary Malintzin 17. As filmmaker Eugenio Polgovsky trains his camera on the bird from his Mexico City balcony, he uses it to gently prompt discussions with his five-year-old daughter, Milena, in what becomes a sensitive snapshot of parenthood. Constructed from footage shot over a week in 2016, the film has been assembled by his sister, Mara Polgovsky, after Eugenio suddenly passed away in 2017. Knowledge of this naturally influences how we understand the finished film, but it only serves to heighten the impact of this absorbing and serene work.
Mara’s intervention into the footage is masterful but effectively invisible, meaning that were you to see the film without context, it could very well have been made by Eugenio and would remain a touching study of the rhythms of a place, the relationship between nature and the urban environment, the wonder of childhood, and what it means to be a parent.
Eugenio’s interactions with Milena are delicate and encouraging; his method is to inspire thinking rather than impart answers. In a semi-whisper from behind the camera he poses questions – why does she think the bird has nested on a precarious wire rather than in a tree? – and allows her curiosity and creativity to formulate her own explanations which range from it being a robot to it trying to protect its eggs from hungry squirrels.
Dove resting on a power line, Malintzin 17 (2022) © Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
One of the few musical interludes in a film largely reliant on diegetic sound comes via a simple piano melody while the dove resolutely tends its nest during a downpour. It makes for an unexpectedly poignant moment of portraiture which feels key to the narrative Mara has crafted. The sole occasion that Eugenio takes his camera onto street level – where he looks up at the nest as if gazing at the canopy from a forest floor – is placed to suggest it was the night that the eggs hatched. While Milena may wonder why her father films the bird, Mara teases out a clear affinity between her brother and their avian companion.
She is not the only subject of the camera’s gaze, however. Much of it is aimed down at the street, taking in the quotidian comings and goings of their neighbourhood of Coyoacán. There is almost a sense of radical observation to the footage, which Mara has both respected and emphasised. In the same way that her brother encouraged Milena to discover her own answers through active looking and thoughtful consideration, Mara Polgovsky offers the same opportunity to her audience. It’s a more than fitting tribute and makes for a rewarding and deeply moving experience.
Originally published: 14 February 2022