Review by Sean Boelman
The verité genre of documentary filmmaking has long been controversial, but there has not been a challenge to this genre as effective as Andres Peyrot’s God Is a Woman. Peyrot has made an extremely ambitious documentary, and while it succeeds in much of what it sets out to do, it arguably casts a bit too wide of a net.
The film tells the story of the Indigenous Kuna community of the Guna Yala islands in Panama as they set out to discover a lost film that was made of their community — which was also to be named “God Is a Woman.” It’s both a film about filmmaking and a completion of sorts of the original film by documenting this community, albeit with a much better, more altruistic lens.
The most interesting portion of the movie focuses on documentary ethics as it relates to the namesake that was directed by Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau. Throughout the film, many residents of the Kuna community who are old enough to recount the filming process discuss some of the ways in which Gaisseau asked them to stage some of their customs. It’s a debate as old as documentary filmmaking — but the perspective these subjects offer is refreshingly unique and underrepresented.
This segues into a discussion of the Kuna identity and how it was shaped by the events in 1975, as well as the more modern developments in society. This is done through a combination of interviews, modern-day verité-style observations the likes of which Gasseau hoped to capture, and actual footage recovered from the original film.
Peyrot does an exceptional job of capturing the spirit of this community and its evolving nature. Our primary subject is a Kuna man who makes it his mission to find and recover the film, showing it to his community as had been promised to them when they agreed to participate in it. It’s a very compelling, surprisingly emotional storyline that humanizes a style of documentary that was notorious for dehumanizing its subjects.
Less effective is the subplot that focuses on Indigenous representation. Although this is woven naturally into some of the other storylines, there are some sections that are more frustrating, such as a portion about a teenager who hopes to make a name for himself creating his own media.
Peyrot is a strong filmmaker, blending the different methods of footage in poetic ways. There’s a device used in which the footage from the 1975 film is projected with its participants sitting in front of it in the modern day, and this juxtaposition — while simple — creates an amazingly powerful image.
God Is a Woman asks some thought-provoking questions, and is one of the most unique and interesting approaches to “completing” a lost film there has been. However, the movie ultimately bites off more than it can chew — especially considering its sub-90-minute runtime — leaving the final product feeling still underwhelmingly incomplete.
God Is a Woman premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival in the Settimana Internazionale della Critica section.