Two films captured my special attention at this year’s Filmfest Hamburg. Both have women directors and both portray the difficulties of coming of age in a patriarchal world. Nevertheless, the one, FIRECRACKERS, directed by Jasmin Mozaffari, practically explodes on screen and doesn’t give the audience any time to take a breather and the other, TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG, directed by Dominga Sotomayor, begins deceptively calm and at times soft-peddles along too languorously.
Both films are made in America, one in North America and the other in South America. FIRECRACKERS takes place in a rundown, poverty-stricken, small town in Ontario, Canada, and TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG in a rural artists’ community, which is a self-imposed exile from the excesses of big-town Santiago, Chile. In both features, the most obvious goal is escape from the male-controlled societies they live in. Lou (Michaela Kurimsky) and Chantal (Karena Evans) in FIRECRACKERS wish to flee and find a better life in New York City and Sofia (Demian Hernández) in TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG hopes that her estranged actor mother will come and fetch her and bring her back to Santiago, away from her laconic father and boring surroundings. In both films, the women characters are much better developed than their male counterparts and Kurimsky and Evans in FIRECRACKERS and Hernádez in TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG are brilliant in executing their respective roles. Lou and Chantal are rough and tough and are determined to start a new life, but after a night of wild partying when Chantal’s ex violates her, the girls plan a reckless revenge that catapults them into a downward spiral that endangers both their escape and friendship. Lou’s hot temper is portrayed mostly through her actions, such as beating up another girl or intentionally damaging the car of Chantal’s ex-boyfriend, but also through close-ups of her strikingly red and shiny hair. When her long red hair floats on top of the water, as she cools off in the pool, or when she goes stomping off, her hair flying in the sun, we feel the energy and determination in this teenager. Mozaffari’s use of the handheld camera as well as many close-ups are very effective in capturing the anguish and frustrations of the two girls coming of age. In TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG, Sotomayor portrays the 16-year-old Sofia’s expectations and conflicts in a much more implicit and discreet way. Whether we see her leisurely smoking a cigarette in the bathtub, singing the Bangles’, Eternal Flame, at a talent night or just giving an old boyfriend the evil eye and an older newcomer the “come on” look, the camera always moves slowly and deliberately from scene to scene, pausing to take in the moment.
Color is another important element in each of these films. In FIRECRACKERS, the colors are vibrant and explosive like the red of Lou’s hair and in contrast, in TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG the tones are washed-out green and beige, reflecting Chile’s hot dry climate and the slow-moving pace of the movie and life in the hippy colony.
Interestingly enough, both directors shot their films with an almost all female key crew and all of the actors in FIRECRACKERS and all but one in TOO ALTE TO DIE YOUNG were unexperienced. Although this is the first long feature for Mozafarri, Sotomayor has directed two other full-fledged films. Both directors claim that they have at least partially based their films on their own lives.
Even though the socio-political context is not predominant in either film, Sotomayor’s production has the underlying theme of a country, as well as teenagers, coming of age. TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG takes place around 1990 just after the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship. All Chileans, young and old, must learn how to come to terms with their new freedom and opportunities, but the film’s emphasis is on Sofia’s endeavor to come to grips with her teenage coming of age problems. She feels left alone with her troubles since her mother is physically absent and her father emotionally handicapped. Likewise, Lou and Chantal feel left alone with their problems and also want to escape to the big city to find a new life. Lou’s father is unknown and her mother, a former addict, doesn’t seem interested in helping Lou and probably is not capable of it either. Chantal lives with her aunt and has additional problems since she is of mixed race in a predominately-white community. She wants Lou to understand this but she is afraid she doesn’t.
Both films end leaving us to ponder what the next episode could be. True to form, FIRECRACKERS has a colorful, loud, seemingly happy ending whereas TOO ALTE TO DIE YOUNG closes with a touching scene without words between Sofia and her father. Both films are must-sees and by the way, keep your eyes open for more films from these young and talented but very individual directors.