A wide-ranging self-portrait, ‘Beba’ traces its director’s cross-national family history

Filmmaker Rebeca Huntt is fighting for control of her own story — but it doesn’t always land

click to enlarge Rebeca Huntt in Beba. - Sheena Matheiken/Neon
Sheena Matheiken/Neon
Rebeca Huntt in Beba.

Diary films can embody a range of impulses, but few seem more essential to the form than the compulsion to reveal. Working from at least eight years of footage (accounts seem to vary) dating back to her late teens, Rebeca Huntt has offered up in Beba an abstracted portrait of herself as a young Afro-Latinx woman, making ample space to puzzle, too, over her family history and their collective roots. Weaving personal recollections, musings rooted in symbolic motifs, and invocations of cultural influences (one might say artistic ancestors) via voiceover over a range of images, there’s a sense throughout that Huntt is fighting for a sense of definitive control of her own story. But the signs of this effort which appear on the film’s surface don’t always manage to communicate, culminating in a work that at time feels elusive — and not always purposefully or productively so — for the genre of which it’s a part.

Speaking firm and slow over images captured in frequently luminous 16mm (Ricardo Arteaga and Abraham Chacra served as the film’s sound supervisor and designer respectively), Huntt’s fusions of image and sound swings between extremes of giving and withholding. In bouncing, shaky sequences in parks and sidewalks with family members early on, conversations feel richly intimate. More than once with these, though, a speech delivered over photographs or shots of objects meant to resonate with their absence in a cut away from them can feel arbitrarily selected, with certain gestures aiming for emotional appeals that don’t quite land. These gaps are not wholly leaden, though, and arguably prove telling in themselves; each signals a withering of immediate feeling stemming from some lack of emotional access, the film responding in the wake of beloved figures vanishing from firsthand view.

In Beba, migration becomes a central subject, with characters moving not only across borders but into and from the film’s own frames. In exploring the movements and actions of her familial peers and predecessors, Huntt not infrequently becomes demanding of those she loves most. When asking her Dominican father about the decision to raise his children in cramped quarters in Manhattan (as opposed to Brooklyn’s then-affordable Bedford-Stuyesvant), her queries seem modest and inviting; her conversations with her Venezuelan mother, by contrast, prove more trying, especially in one sequence in which she accuses her of withholding and “a microaggressive attitude.” Her isolated reflections are sweeter and more wistful when speaking of them, though: “They sacrificed everything for us to be the poorest kids on Central Park West,” she remembers aloud before taking an ensuing, harshly self-reflexive turn, playing against her own air of admiration in the process. These sorts of adroit pivots, complicating the film’s emotional trajectory throughout, lend Beba at its peak moments an air of serpentine complication, joining bits of information to create meanings that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

While the tone among Huntt’s pickings at personal history over time varies, the message across each exchange is clear; the subject for Huntt — of heritage, identity, and culture, particularly as a biracial woman — is an urgent and a pressing one. Given the talk early on in Beba of a long-running “family curse,” it’s clear Huntt is seeking an impossible source of emotional certainty about her family history, some sort of identifiable primary cause for generations of harm. Indeed, there’s no shortage of trauma that Huntt’s seeking to find the root of: her siblings and their children struggle with substance issues and housing woes, and her maternal grandmother endured long, embattled stretches of trials with her mental health. Something of an exception, Huntt seems less of an immediate victim of all this herself (or has at least pushed through it), going on to pursue a liberal arts degree at Bard College — further upstate.

It’s in this second chapter of the film (there are four in total) that Beba begins to erect something of a shield around its emotional core. Bringing in a heavier volume of quotations along with vocalized music tracks which supplant Holland Andrews’s eager, at times ominous electronic score, Huntt begins using a filmic syntax here that sometimes relies on re-enactment; some such scenes feel stiff and unconvincing. Campus arguments feel all but cribbed from New York Times op-eds, and the film’s artistic references (Bob Dylan, Octavia Butler) come to seem too familiar and under-processed for their inclusion to be expressive of anything much. Moments which appear improvised, however, as well as an incisive interview with a sympathetic counselor, feel enriched by jolts of live emotion. Shifting between these rote and sprightly portions of filmmaking can leave a skim of disappointment even over the film’s high points — but Beba is nothing if not a roving, youthful experiment engineered from scant resources, so it’s perhaps inevitable that over its 80-minute course some crooked seams might show.

If all this information — the sheer amount of stuff running through Beba — make the film sound narratively heavy or dense, it’s only so for dealing with matters of considerable weight and for covering a lot of ground. But Huntt’s a more intuitive than deductive director in how she seeks to follow threads and ultimately assemble the film (labor in which Isabel Freeman, Beba’s editor, surely played a heavy part). Together, they cut sequences together in pursuit of a varied pace and formal rhymes that allow the film to largely remain light on its feet. Privileging recurrent moments of sensory experience in pastoral settings like forests and — as well as connection made, either at parties or one-on-one — Beba’s more open, abstract, and non-explanatory sequences allow it space to breathe while offering pleasures that can stand easily on their own terms regardless of what they’re juxtaposed against.

Considering all that’s in play here, it should come as no surprise that threads get dropped, with certain themes feeling both under-explored and over-glossed, closed off before their time. While these pockmarked aspects don’t always serve the film, they do fulfill a kind of promise. “I am the lens, the subject, the authority,” Huntt says in voicover early on — so she’s certainly owning up to all that’s here.

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