‘Beba’ review: Rebeca Huntt’s debut shines like a diamond
How many thousand-year-old cine-memories does the world need? I might have answered this question differently before “Beba”. As a generation of TikTok and Instagram users search for even more ways to overshare, it’s only a matter of time before we’re drowning in self-test movies. Having seen what Rachel Huntt can do with the format, however, I say, “Bring them on!” Her film gives me hope – if only her documentation-inclined peers could have the same self-awareness and intuition as they shape their experience.
An insightful, engaging, and comprehensive affirmative self-portrait of an Afro-Latin New Yorker with an ear for poetry and an eye for the ineffable, “Beba” never questions her own right to exist. “You are now entering my universe. I am the objective, the subject, the authority”, she says straight away, betraying a thoughtful, liberal and academic sensibility. “I carry an ancient pain that I find hard to understand,” she continues, confronting head-on the anguish she feels as a woman of color, knowing full well that those with easiest access to microphones and the cameras will accuse him of whining, of playing the victim.
For a movie like this to work, its creator can’t hide her flaws – that is, say something in a medium where movie stars so often do the opposite, insisting that they are only shot on their flattering side or nixing scenes that make them look weak. In contrast, Huntt draws her strength from sharing both the good and the bad within herself. The imperfections make it believable, while Huntt strives to be as authentic as possible – some might say “raw”, although his editing sense is far too refined for that.
Also, let’s face it: Beba, the version of herself that Huntt chooses to share, is a movie star. DDiscovering and/or acknowledging her power over men is part of the journey Huntt shares with us here, such as when she talks to Annie Seaton, the Bard College counselor who recalls being surrounded by boys eager to do what she was asking for and who warned her not to wear belly shirts. It’s a hard lesson: check your own freedom of expression, lest it confirm the prejudices of others.
Huntt grills his Venezuelan mother how she felt about raising three “black children” in a racist world, chiding the Latina woman for her “micro-aggressive attitude” (posing herself as the bully in the process). She confronts her father, a funky black man born on a Dominican sugar cane plantation, about packing the family into a one-bedroom apartment in Central Park West. “It’s the best I could afford,” he explains. If he had opted for a bigger place somewhere else, “We’d be in a neighborhood where, I assure you, one of you wouldn’t be alive today.” Still, Huntt remembers picking up crack pipes off the street and incorporating them into an elementary school diorama.
“Beba” is packed with details impossible to invent, interweaving images of a bygone New York with news of young black men killed by cops. His approach is not without manipulation, although Huntt uses such techniques to dig into a deeper truth. She returns to the jungles of Venezuela, which gave her freedom – no longer a room of her own – and the sunny 16mm footage takes on a dreamlike quality. She enlists a handful of liberal white friends to set up a typical late-night debate, during which she slams, “I’m not the answer to white supremacy!” Why don’t you understand it? before hitting the streets of New York.
Huntt interweaves all of the above with footage she’s been filming for over a decade, anticipating the harsh criticism audiences might have of her naivety, immaturity, and insecurity (which are pretty universal) with thoughtful commentary. “There’s nothing honorable about trying to assimilate into a system designed to destroy you,” she says at the end of the film, sounding like someone who has read a lot of James Baldwin. No doubt she has.
Huntt knows a lot more about her subject – herself – than anyone else, and yet the film is a kind of report on those dimensions that elude her, like David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun”, in which the late journalist has found eyewitnesses. re-enact a personal incident he couldn’t remember. Here, Huntt relies on others to reflect aspects of herself that she is too close to acknowledge. She braids this with images of earlier stages – a developing human being – like in a sloppy spoken word reading where she’s still trying to find her voice.
It all comes together beautifully, thanks to editor Isabel Freeman and composer Holland Andrews for making this meticulously structured collage so intuitive. Sometimes the screen is a window into the lives of complete strangers. With others, it is a mirror that reflects ours. “Beba” is both. Huntt’s millennial colleagues are unlikely to do as good a job as her, but this film was enough to convince me that this genre could in fact be the future of the medium.