“The Chaotic Life of Nada Kadić”, part of the official 2018 competition of the International Film Festival of Cartagena de Indias, premiered at the Berlin Festival this year, is the feature film debut of Mexican director Marta Hernaiz Pidal. From a grayish corner of the program, the film became a canvas for inner disclosure and reflections: how can a film about daily chaos be remarkable?
After you shake off the glitters and the star dust from a festival’s program, you usually get an amorphous shape of films. The skeleton seems to always be sustained by nodes of celebrities, controversial films – visually hypnotic and outrageously exploding their narratives in front of your eyes. In a cone of shadow, in the peripheral shelter of the unremarkable, you’ll find a fair amount of films that usually seem to be there only to balance the general program. They are absolutely necessary, they are needed to sustain a general structure of shiny popcorn cinema, but their titles, their distributions and their cinéma vérité plots deepen that cone of shadow, disproportionate with the audience’s interest.
In the large mall cinema, I find myself fidgeting with the FICCI (International Film Festival of Cartagena de Indias) program in my hands. I carefully blew the bold and the gloss from the program, but I still can’t decide if The Chaotic Life of Nada Kadić (2018), the directorial feature film debut of Marta Hernaiz Pidal, is worth waiting for in the last-minute line. However, one second of being true to myself calms down my craving for the sensational and the bluster. Don’t we watch films anymore without seeing their trailers?
Finally, I enter with a flow of people around me, shaking their popcorn bags. The dense darkness in the hall gives all the light to the screen. A static scene of cramped buildings and gray elements purposely bother my eyes. People moving in the same direction meet a spot of color approaching them from the opposite direction. The tall redheaded woman carries in her arms a little girl who makes a repetitive, uncanny noise, growing in intensity as the two are approaching. The mix between a baby’s whimper and the nagging, repetitive sound of rain, compiles a prelude to monotony, a perfect soundtrack for chaos. “What a waste of popcorn”, I smile in the dim-lit hall, unwarily letting film be what it hasn’t been for so long: a medium that conveys an inner experience and a deep existential inquiry.
The redhead – Nada Kadic (Aida Hadžibegović, in real life), is a Bosnian single mother with a three-year-old daughter named Hava. The two are reenacting their lives, which are just as ordinary as everyone else’s , but with one big difference: their chaos has a particular tone, that of Hava’s inner world echo – the discomfort and the oddity of an autism spectrum disorder. Artistic sensibility, small doses of natural humor, quiet-but-noisy drama – this cinematic story has it all. Aida herself is catchy, her chaos absorbing you irresistibly. “Now is the time for hypnosis”, she says, turning on the TV and calming down Hava. Another time, she tenderly bites Hava with the vacuum cleaner. In that usually unbearable rattling, the two of them find sweet moments of joy. That’s how Aida seems to be – clueless, childishly funny, but always a calm and caring mother.
“When I met Aida, who was working in a school in Bosnia, she was so unique – with long orange hair, dressed with all these flowered clothes – I knew I had a character for my film”, the Mexican director opened up about her personal journey in creating The Chaotic Life. Marta Hernaiz Pidal is a graduate of Béla Tarr‘s Film Factory, who has herself spent some years in the Balkans. At times, she looses her train of thought and reminds me of Aida. A bit clumsy, a bit chaotic, she is the type of artist interested in the prosaic layers of everyday life: “My first short film was about a girl having her first period – Pollito Chicken, Gallina Hen. I really like to talk about small things of everyday life, but through them touch the deeper issues of our society.”
Detached from the sparkle of exceptional realism, my mind shifts unconsciously to Abbas Kiarostami’s cinematic meditations – long shots, elongated blessed silences and real characters reenacting their stories. But far away from Kiarostami, Marta Hernaiz’s characters seem rigid, sometimes uncomfortable in playing their own roles. All the struggles with Kafkaesque societal norms when Aida tries to get social assistance for Hava’s therapy, all of her loneliness and sorrow, are tempered by the effect of the camera pointed at her. In the film, there aren’t peaks of emotional intensity. Even when Aida takes Hava for a trip in an old Yugo car through the Bosnian countryside, the tension and conflict barely show up. The trip that was supposed to be an identitary interior journey, turns out to be more of a risky adventure. The mother and daughter get lost alone on endless wild hills, they sleep in a cheap provincial hotel, eating bread with jam, but always finding comfort in their shared chaos.
There is always a risk with fictionalizing real life stories – as French filmmaker Jean Rouch points out, reality may become what “filming provokes it to be”. Nevertheless, Marta Hernaiz doesn’t fancy that her “fiction became a documentary” – “I didn’t want to push, to put some melodrama that is not there”, the young director’s smile pops up with confidence. “I like that the public doesn’t know in what box to put the film”. Marta Hernaiz developed the story behind the scenes: “We were adapting the story according to the things that we encountered on the road. In the process of working on the script, we found out that Hava has autism. But instead of giving up the idea, I decided to adapt the script and explore Aida’s feelings in this totally new situation. It was a fluid process. We took what life gave us. We knew what we wanted, but we were open to improvisation”.
With the preoccupation for improvisation as art of life, Marta Hernaiz is playing in the film with philosophical substrates which can be easily missed out on if you just let yourself get carried away with the waves of amusement and common sense curiosities: “Is Aida actually reading Pirandello plays to her daughter before bed?” As fabled as it can be, Luigi Pirandello is one of Aida’s favorite authors, and one of Marta’s as well. That Pirandello, “a child of chaos”, the one born in the Sicilian village of Càvusu (Chaos), who argued that art can never be a representation of life, that art is rooted in life; life exists at its full-fledged form in art. “Reality is important in the film. But in the end, it’s art, is not real life”, in a Pirandellian manner, Marta Hernaiz smiled at my continuous attempts to discern between appearances and reality.
Discovering that life became a script and not the opposite, that Aida Hadžibegović became a collaborating writer of the script, diminished considerably my drawbacks mentioned above (such as the linearity of the story, or it’s thin insights on autism when compared to, for example, the profound close-up Dutch documentary, Matthew’s Laws – 2012, d. Marc Schmidt, in which the life of a young autistic man is documented years in a row).
The Chaotic Life of Nada Kadić is definitely not a popcorn film, nor is it a metaphysical meditation. What it really is may resemble an enticing silence, where everything has energy to become: a disclosure, a connection, a mirroring of yourself. The story of Aida Hadžibegović, a child of chaotic times, shaken by war and profound changes, continues invisibly behind the screen. On the visible side, my existential inquiry unfolds, a spectator lost in a chaotic festival atmosphere within a noisy, unfamiliar Latin-American world. That spectator, a child of a chaotic Eastern European world herself, uses a film from the grayish corner of the program as a journaling canvas to make sense of the reality around, taming her inner unleashed pandemonium in the process. “Chaos connects things”, says Marta Hernaiz at the end of our conversation. As a reminder that art has always been a profound exchange between the audience and the maker, I wonder if isn’t it remarkable to be quieted by something as prosaic as the daily chaos of our existence?
*This work was produced during the Gabriel García Márquez Fellowship of Cultural Journalism 2018, organized by FNPI, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of Colombia and The Cartago Foundation.