Short Film Spotlight: Dulce

The Bright Wall/Dark Room Short Film Spotlight is a regular feature celebrating independent short films by emerging filmmakers. To submit a film for consideration, visit our profile at FilmFreeway.

There’s a type of story I’ve come to recognize as my favorite, though I have yet to come up with a satisfactory term. These stories, this amorphous pseudo-genre that hits me with the greatest force and leaves the most lasting resonance, are the ones that seem in the moment to be about small, even insubstantial, personal concerns yet reveal themselves immediately upon finishing to have conveyed something like the full enormity of what it means to be alive.

I’ve experienced this feeling with so many of my favorite works of theater—Annie Baker’s The Flick, a play largely devoted to quiet scenes of characters picking up trash, builds across three hours into an examination of the exquisite pain of trying to connect without hurting or being hurt—fiction—Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a collection of connected stories that follows a character known only as “Fuckhead” as he wreaks havoc while either on heroin or in pursuit of more heroin, periodically jackknifes into pockets of unaccountable grace—and narrative feature film—Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, a movie about endlessly repeating routines, ends up demonstrating the spiritual value hidden within our endlessly repeating routines. These works linger for me by allowing the chance to observe the everyday lives of others, find the significance they themselves may be unable to see, and then turn that lens on myself, letting me sense the outlines of the invisible weight of existence and feel newly grateful for all the ordinary moments that may one day be revealed as points in the constellation of meaning I call my life. It usually takes hours for a story to unfold into this effect, and it usually takes calibrated invented events to conjure it. Yet within the pantheon of this unnamable genre sits an unassuming ten-minute documentary, one that provides a dizzying sleight-of-hand journey from the quotidian to the profound.

Dulce, directed by Guille Isa and Angello Faccini, follows the story of one young girl learning to swim. On the southwestern coast of Colombia, we watch Dulce flail about in a few feet of water, howling and sobbing as her mother summons the necessary patience to calm the child and help her through the requisite motions. It’s hard to know which plight I find more relatable, the panic of the child—so close to my own still-raw recollections of struggling through tasks I knew weren’t life-threatening but certainly seemed to be in the moment—or the raised-eyebrow exhaustion of the parent—so close to my own current everyday battles to harness my children’s roiling emotions long enough to help move them through life’s simple tasks. If Dulce can’t swim, her mother reminds her, then she can’t ride the boat with everyone else, and in this firm but compassionate negotiation I see echoes of my own daily household brokerages: Pull yourself together or you’ll lose the chance to experience something valuable. Only one brief reference tucked within the barrage of bargaining chips—the allusion to “the month the sea gets angry”—plants the seed that something greater may be at play than a simple rite of passage.

With such deft storytelling strokes, as well as the complete disinhibition of Dulce and her community as they’re observed by the documentarians, one could easily mistake Dulce for fiction. The sequence that follows the opening swim lesson—Dulce’s mother works in the nearby mangrove swamp, harvesting piangua alongside other local women, while Dulce’s friends join in the task of persuading the reluctant child to face her fears—is assembled with understated yet intuitive narrative structure, while the imagery, courtesy of Colombian-born and Spanish-trained Faccini, is captured with observational stillness that feels carefully calibrated in a way wholly out of step with traditional expectations for run-and-gun nonfiction filmmaking. By the time the closing stretch has lapsed into poetic and non-linear editing, the film’s rhythm comes to resonate with my innermost pleasure centers, allowing me to relax into this brief story with all the rising and cresting satisfaction of a feature film.

Dulce pivots on a quiet moment between parent and child. While her mother does her hair, Dulce asks one of those plain and brutal questions I recognize from my own life as a parent: “Are you mad at me?” There’s no simple way to answer this sort of inquiry from a child; of course her mother is mad about the situation, or at least feeling something very close to it. We can see that truth in the over-deliberate casualness with which she denies it, just as we saw it in her barely-concealed eye-rolls when supporting the full weight of a child who flailed with all the terror of a girl adrift miles from land. But she takes a moment to consider, and then she finds that filter of generosity a child so often needs in order to arrive at the necessary conclusion. It’s not anger she feels, it’s sorrow. “When children can’t swim, their mothers get sad.”

When she reveals the reason for this sadness, Dulce takes a turn into territory I can’t recognize, but it’s territory that shakes me thanks to my already deep affinity for this family. Dulce needs to learn to swim, her mother tells her, because “the water is always rising.” And if one day the worst should happen, if the sea gets mad and the water rises so quickly they don’t have time to prepare and escape, then “those who know how to swim will survive.”

This story has a happy ending. Dulce takes her mother’s words to heart, conquers her fears, and learns to swim, and her mother’s evident satisfaction disguised as nonchalance tugs my heart in a way that feels frankly magical after less than eight minutes in the pair’s company. When we met Dulce, she was at risk of not getting to ride the boat; as we leave her, she gets to ride the boat and join her mother in gathering piangua among the mangroves. And naturally, as we learn in the closing text, this co-production with Conservation International was a work of covert activism; Dulce’s village “is under threat from climate change,” the mangroves “provide key protections,” and “there is more work to be done” in ensuring the long-term survival of this way of life.

But referring to Dulce as “a message movie” would do a disservice to the feat of storytelling accomplished by Isa and Faccini (as well as editor Roberto Benavides, whose contributions to the film’s effects cannot be overstated). I referred earlier to the sleight of hand necessary to pull off this shocking accumulation of power underneath a simple story, and that sort of close-up magic is most impressive, and most difficult, when done so quickly you barely have time to realize an illusion might be taking place at all. In just ten minutes, a story of the simplest struggle—convincing a nervous child to swim—comes to represent the mammoth responsibility of preparing our children for life in an increasingly-unstable world, of doing what little we can to provide them the skills that might help them navigate the rising tide of the angry sea before we’re swept away ourselves. I may not have a term for my most beloved type of story, but at least I now have a quick example to offer people and help them understand. Stories like this, I can say. Stories like Dulce are the best kind there is.