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Toronto Hot Docs: Review A Bastard child

What advertisers are most eager to target in consumers is their desire to be loved, and that primal need is what haunts every frame of Knutte Wester’s “A Bastard Child,” a vividly nuanced ode to the filmmaker’s grandmother, Hervor. She was born in 1909 to a woman, Ada, who was shunned by her family and the rest of the community in Stockholm because of her unmarried status. Cast adrift in society, Ada was forced to send Hervor to a series of orphanages and foster families, where the girl became branded with her designated stigma as the “bastard child” of a “whore.” Ada notes how the label of “whore” is used in place of “witch” to shame women who dare to “question things.” In many ways, Hervor serves as the real-life equivalent to the plucky heroines who graced the literature of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Johanna Spyri, remaining strong-willed even in the face of potential abandonment. After she is forced to sleep in a drawer at an orphanage, one of her legs becomes shorter than the other, repelling visitors from adopting her after being baited by her cute picture framed in the window. She finds herself commoditized as a damaged good, dressed up like a doll and at one point, groomed to be a ballerina by a duplicitous rich couple. There’s a Dickensian wit to the scene where she and Ada dine at a soup kitchen. Hervor looks at the words etched in the bottom of her soup bowl, “Asylum for the poor,” and asks her mother, “Do they have to remind us of that?”

The story that Wester recounts is so compelling that it’s easy to take his masterful technique for granted. These memories from his grandmother’s grueling childhood so transfixed the director that he decided to recreate them in numerous watercolors. There are just enough frames of movement to make the imagery seem alive, and once the viewer falls into the film’s rhythm, Wester’s fusion of paintings and archival footage proves to be seamless and immersive. This may in fact be a more accurate representation of memory than the typical staged recreations, since each drawing is the sort of remembered moment forever seared into Hervor’s mind. As an artist, Wester has a great gift for human expression, bringing out the sadness in smiling eyes. The sound design is also tremendously effective, subverting the tone of various moments at the drop of a hat, as a pleasurable train ride with Ada literally comes to a screeching halt. Even more jarring is the sickening crunch of a shoe slammed against the ice, as Ada attempts to drown her and Hervor in a fit of profound hopelessness. No wonder that Hervor, who we see in fleeting home video footage, spent the entirety of her adult life fighting for women’s rights, serving for 30 years on the Social Welfare Board. These inspirational sections of her life would’ve likely been covered in a feature-length version of this picture, which clocks in just under an hour. Yet there’s something perfect about the film’s length, since it encompasses the poetic impressions of Wester, who brilliantly links Hervor’s memories of her birth to a dream she had of falling through the ice. In both cases, she found herself shrouded in darkness before a voice called her toward the light.

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