The First Woman | Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Eva has been living in a psychiatric hospital in Mallorca for six years, and while it’s not a terrible place, she’s eager to get out and move on with her life. That depends not only on her, however, but on the existence of suitable housing and supportive services in the outside world. As a sympathetic staff member informs her early in the film, she needs to move into supported housing, which is in high demand—they placed a request for her in January, but will be lucky if something opens up by May. In the meantime, she carries on as a normal a life as she can within the institution, socializing with the other residents, doing her laundry, smoking a lot of cigarettes, and basically waiting for the days to pass.

The world “normal” comes up a lot in Eva’s conversations—she wants to live a normal life, around normal people, have normal relationships—by which she means simply the kind of life that most of us take for granted. You might say that normal, for her, is defined in terms of what it is not—the kind of life she’s current leading within a psychiatric institution.  Director Miguel Eek’s documentary The First Woman (La primera mujer) is not so much concerned with abstract issues of what it means to be normal and who gets to decide such matters as it is with documenting the life of one woman as she makes the transition from living in an institution to living on her own.

Eek and cinematographer Jordi Carrasco enjoyed extraordinary access to the psychiatric hospital in Palma de Mallorca, allowing him to offer an intimate, and very human, look at the day to day life among people who may have been dealt a bad hand, but are doing their best to cope with their reality as it is. There are several scenes of patients talking about their symptoms, which they are able to laugh about, a good sign that they both feel safe within the hospital and trust the film crew. It helps that the hospital is located in a beautiful region (millions of people vacation on the Balearic Islands each year), appears to be adequately funded and staffed, and generally allows patients as much freedom as they can handle.

In fact, The First Woman is so generally upbeat about institutional life that it seems almost too good to be true, and Eva is such an engaging and articulate character that you may be forgiven if you start to wonder, as I did from time to time, if this is not some kind of hybrid doc along the lines of Chris Smith’s Operation Varsity Blues. But such concerns are really beside the point—it’s hopeless to try to impose rules about what does and doesn’t count as a “real” documentary these days.

It’s not clear how much time passes during filming of The First Woman, but that may simply be a tribute to the absence of traditional time markers when a person is off the “normal” track of life.  Eva eventually moves to supported housing, where she faces a new set of challenges, from doing her own cooking and cleaning to using a smart phone. We also learn a bit more about Eva’s past life—her troubles included drug abuse and bad relationships, and she has a son she hasn’t seen for ten years with whom she wants to reconnect. Eek maintains the same unhurried pace and nonjudgmental view as when filming within the hospital, and the result is a remarkably candid portrait of a woman doing her best to make a new start in life. | Sarah Boslaugh

The First Woman is available for on-demand viewing as part of the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs June 2-6, 2021. Further information about festival passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.

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