Debut documentary paints a poignant picture of life in a Chilean women’s prison


Source: Venice Film Festival


Dir: Tana Gilbert Fernandez. Chile, Germany. 2023. 74mins

Tana Gilbert Fernandez’s debut feature offers a potent picture of life in a Chilean women’s prison. Told through still photographs and cell phone footage clandestinely shot by the inmates, Malqueridas (roughly translated as ’the unloved’) weaves together a tapestry of heartache, hope and harsh reality. The blurry footage and abstract images can be visually challenging, but the emotional impact is clear and sharply focused. Building into an intensely moving tale of resilience against the odds, it should receive substantial festival play following its selection as the first Chilean documentary featured in Venice Critics Week. 

 All of the footage in the film has been taken on the cell phones of the women serving time

Developed and nurtured over more than seven years, Malqueridas allows Fernandez to continue her fascination with the bond between a mother and a child, the theme of her short I’m Still Here (2017) which focused on 87 year-old Julia and her 56 year-old son Johnny. Here we learn that Chile’s female inmates are allowed to keep their children with them until they turn two. The soundtrack is filled with the noises of slurping and sighing, gurgling and gurning. We can make out a nursery that has been decked out with Minnie Mouse table cloths and Mickey Mouse sheets. The voice-over tells us how a child quickly learns that the jangle of keys signals the arrival of the guard. Eventually, one woman (Karina Sanchez) must hand over the care of her two year-old to her sister, fully aware that she still has ten years left to serve on her sentence.

Early credits inform us that Chilean prison regulations forbid the use of any recording devices and that all of the footage in the film has been taken on the cell phones of the women serving time. It is a unique insight reflecting the democratisation of the medium so that everyone is a potential filmmaker, even those behind bars. What has been filmed and then carefully edited and shaped by Fernandez and Javiera Velozo allows us glimpses of the cramped conditions in which the women live, and the attitudes they face. There are acts of kindness by sympathetic guards, but those are counter-balanced by authority figures who judge all inmates as cut from the same cloth. One doctor is said to consider all the inmates as drug addicts, unworthy of his compassion.

The mother/child bond runs through the film but as the focus broadens we see the friendships that are forged, the longing for connection of any kind and how the simplest acts are charged with meaning. A burst of fireworks glimpsed from a cell window provokes the cry of “Happy New Year, guard!”, whiile a makeshift candle brings light into the dark of night as a group of women scare themselves with spooky tales.

We never learn why the women are in prison, but we do see how the prospect of a family visit or the slow countdown to release can mean everything. Characters emerge including den mother Patty, who wonders if it is too late to get an education in her 50s, and teenage newcomer Mari, who needs all the comforting she can find. We see the good, the bad and the ugly of prison life, from the aftermath of a police raid and the death of an inmate to those little things that keep hope alive – like the women in one dorm deciding to start a collective fitness regime.

In some respects, Malqueridas is so full of incident and emotion that it could be a Charles Dickens novel, but these are real people. The film gives a face and voice to the unseen, allowing the viewer to glimpse the humanity of the inmates and care about all the heartbreak they endure. 

Production companies: Errante, Dirk Manthey Film

International sales: Square Eyes

Producers: Paola Castillo Villagran, Dirk Manthey

Screenplay: Tana Gilbert  Fernandez, Paola Castilla Villagran, Javiera Velozo, Karina Sanchez

Cinematography: the women of the prison and their families

Editing: Javiera Velozo, Tana Gilbert Fernandez