It’s hard to explain the cycle of emotions prompted by permanently leaving one’s home country to someone who has never had to do it. Pangs of guilt, loyalty, resentment and yearning chase each other in turn, oblivious to the fact that your motherland is returning no feelings in kind. Eventually, enough time passes that you realize you’re nostalgic for a place that doesn’t exist anymore: You’ve both grown, and your country, as it belonged to you and you to it, is fixed only in your memory. That continuing ache is articulated with lovely, delicate precision in “In a Whisper,” a diary-style documentary that captures the immigrant experience in a cinematic dialogue between two filmmakers who know it all too well: Heidi Hassan and Patricia Pérez Fernández, childhood friends from Cuba whose paths have diverged in the larger confusion of Europe.
As such, “In a Whisper” is not just a story of immigrant alienation, but of intimate personal estrangement, as Hassan and Pérez Fernández mend their distance-withered friendship through the film’s binding structural conceit: a series of alternating video letters, each made in the individual director’s own distinct style, in which they attempt to explain what they have and haven’t been doing with their lives in the time they’ve been apart. The epistolary format, tricky to pull off without seeming precious or affected, works beautifully here as a way to knit together two narrating voices rich in shared experience, but whose contrasting creative sensibilities reflect their different trajectories away from home. Commercially, the film is undeniably a niche item, though as the top prizewinner in IDFA’s main competition, it’ll earn the attention of further fest programmers and discerning doc distributors.
“It’s not the same to face it with a dream, than with nothing to hold onto,” says Pérez Fernández of Cuba, having once held on a little more optimistically than some: Even the brightest, most everyday missives in the film are undercut with a persistent mourning not just for the country the filmmakers have left, but for their belief in it. A splintered, impressionistic opening montage establishes their childhood relationship to Cuba (and to each other) in a mosaic of archive footage, home video and student film fragments. We learn that Pérez Fernández and Hassan, both now around 40, attended film school together — at the Gabriel Garcia Marquez-founded Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión — and were set for a fruitful collaborative partnership before life got in the way, keeping them apart for 15 years.
Hassan, seemingly the more mellow and internally peaceful of the two, was the first to leave, settling in Geneva and into a tender, affectionate marriage to fellow Cuban expat Pablo. Hers is a calm and comfortable life, yet her wistful, elegiac video postcards from it don’t convey complete happiness: She feels creatively unfulfilled and spiritually displaced, curious about the phantom life she left behind. Pérez Fernández has had a more jagged journey: Having held out idealistically for change in Cuba longer than her friend, she finally bit the bullet and fled to Spain, settling illegally and living an itinerant existence mixing cocktails: a good mojito being the only aspect of her national identity with which most are willing to engage. A chance at more rooted married life beckons: For both women, the struggle to start a family matches the challenges of resettlement for difficulty and uncertainty.
Equally homesick and heartsick, but in highly variable colors of anger and exasperation, the two women’s short video letters differ significantly in style: Hassan’s are more straightforwardly confessional, while her friend’s incorporate disparate visual elements and poetic metaphors to reflect her inner chaos. Yet, as gracefully edited together by the filmmakers and Diana Toucedo, they gradually meld into one unified, mutually wounded statements on the eternal mood swings of immigration — the surges in insecurity, longing and relief that continue long after you’ve ostensibly found your place. In the process, a friendship is revived and strengthened across the miles, a creative collaboration reformed in the most unexpected of ways. “When was the last time we did what we really want to do?” they ask of their new, patched-together lives: One hopes this rare testament to restless outsider identity is the answer.