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Hot Docs 2017: ‘Communion’ chronicles one girl’s tenacity, resourcefulness, and empathy

In Anna Zamecka’s portrait, a 14-year-old girl holds the world on her shoulders.

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14-year-old Ola has, quite frequently, had enough. Sharing a small council flat with her alcoholic father and severely autistic brother Niko, she cooks, cleans, packs lunches, and even helps to pen request letters in a petition for a larger apartment – someone has to, since her mother Magda is occupied with a new baby and an apparently abusive partner. Yet she still, somehow, finds spare energy for selflessness: in a heartbreaking phone call with Magda, she gently chastises Magda for taking on “too much” in looking after the newborn and performing her other daily tasks. “You can’t do everything by yourself.”

It’s moments like these that make clear why Anna Zamecka’s debut feature-length doc Communion nabbed the Grand Prix at Locarno last year. In a scant but unhurried 72 minutes (culled from 35 hours of footage shot over the course of a year), Zamecka is able to craft a full and considered portrait of this beleaguered household, whose lodestar, as the song goes, really just wants to have fun. When left to her own devices (which is not all that frequently), Ola behaves much as you’d expect any contemporary Western teen would: she’s constantly glued to her phone, loves to dance and hang out with her friends, and has a generally impetuous attitude towards the menial work she constantly tasks herself with. Yet Ola is also preternaturally patient and canny for her age, even beyond the demands of her situation. She knows (or senses) exactly what to say and not say to people in positions of authority (both at school and elsewhere) in order to keep the status quo running. She negotiates ruthlessly with her father for every ounce of possible social time with her rarely-seen friends. Most heartbreakingly, she laces every phone conversation with Magda with just enough mentions of her prolonged absences to coax her into remaining a presence in their lives.

What Zamecka does and does not include in this portrait, as well as her framing of Ola’s everyday chores, speaks to the level of empathy and craft involved in her portraiture. Zamecka seems to back off from filming (or at least including) Ola’s rare, sacred downtime; it’s not for nothing that in most of the many sequences of Ola taking care of one family member or another, she’s often semi-obscured by said family member occupying the foreground. While Communion initially appears to be governed by a structuring device (with young Niko’s first communion serving as a rare opportunity for this fractious family to come together publicly), Zamecka respects us enough not to bullshit us with a sense of false uplift: ultimately, Niko’s milestone is just another day, and no pageantry can wallpaper the issues keeping the family apart.

Zamecka gets a lot of mileage out of the discrepancy between the pious upbringing foisted upon Ola and Niko and their mutual disinterest in it. Ola only seems invested in the communion ritual inasmuch as she wants Niko to “pass” (she drills him constantly on the Biblical particulars she knows he’ll be quizzed on) , and Niko himself is more interested in the animal world than anything around him. (In one particularly amusing sequence, he rewrites the Virtues to include gluttony.)

Zamecka’s style is so restrained that her one formal indulgence is allowed to land with greater impact: a late-80s home movie depicts young Magda preparing for her own communion, insisting that she can finish the work of putting on her elaborate gown herself. Zamecka has spoken of seeing herself in young Ola, and we can see the same generational bridging occurring in this sequence, wherein it becomes clear that Ola has inherited her tenaciousness from her mother. But Ola appears to have a toolkit all her own, as well, and the fact that her wellspring of tenacity has no immediate forbear is kind of miracle in and of itself.

  • Simon Howell

Simon is a roving writer and editor who has been crawling slowly Westward across Canada for the last decade. (He currently resides in Toronto.) He obtained a BFA in Film Studies from Concordia University in the spring of 2012 and a Graduate Certificate in Technical Writing from Algonquin College in 2015. He is a former co-host of the Televerse podcast. His favorite films include F for Fake, Brazil, Stroszek, The Fog of War, Grave of the Fireflies and In a Lonely Place. He can be found on Twitter (mostly yelling about far-left politics, ye been warned) at @hollowmines.

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