Film Reviews

Hot Docs Review: ‘Breaking the Silence’

Priscilla Padilla’s film is fresh and authentic

Courtesy of Hot Docs


Breaking the Silence
(Columbia/Bolivia, 83 min.)
Dir. Priscilla Padilla
Program: Persister

Women resisting the brutal practice of genital mutilation in an indigenous community in Bogota is the centerpiece of this moving meditation on cultural longing and female empowerment.

The film begins with Luz struggling to survive in the city 30 years after she discovered that she had endured genital mutilation as an infant in her Embera village. It was the catalyst that made her leave home. When she meets Embera activist Claudia, the two decide to return to her original village to open a dialogue with women and engage them in the process of ending the practice.

To engage with the village women, the duo joins with them to plant an orchard honouring the traditional agriculture that connects women’s health with the earth’s force. Herbs that grow will tend to their reproductive well-being.

Director Padilla parks her camera among these planters as they talk about their work, marriages and sexuality. Plainly colonization has done serious damage to the Embera’s basic values, promulgating patriarchal norms in all aspects of life. Women are seen doing heavy grunt work, such as gathering wood, while husbands who’ve promised to help never materialize. In the village, there are many fewer girls in schools than boys.

But the most damaging colonial import is the ritual removal of the clitoris, which automatically occurs at birth. Crucially, it happens in secret. Female babies are whisked away to unnamed destinations and no one is permitted to witness the procedure or talk about it. Claudia and Luz are taking a huge risk in challenging the practice.

The film becomes an ode to female solidarity: very few men are seen on camera. While they’re working collectively to grow their orchard the planters talk about the shame they carry for their bodies and the pain of sex with their husbands.

This is the kind of film that sounds at first as if it’s heavy and unremittingly grim. True, descriptions of genital mutilation are horrifying and during the course of the doc, the practice does not miraculously vanish. But you sense that this collection of women is quietly discovering empowerment and that they will not be easily discouraged.

And gorgeous Embera women’s traditional songs, sometimes sung by the villagers, sometimes on the soundtrack, give this doc an uncommon beauty. The title comes perilously close to cliché, but Breaking the Silence is fresh and authentic.

Breaking the Silence screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Susan G. Cole is a feminist, playwright, the author of two books on violence against women and a long-time cultural commentator. The former Entertainment Editor at NOW Magazine remains the books editor there and, as a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, continues to contribute film reviews. @susangcole

View all articles by Susan G. Cole »