The power of film on the collective memory of a community can rarely be understood. Documentary remains one of the most impactful ways to remember a place, a time, and a culture. Yet the true power of these films stems from the emotion that rises naturally over their runtimes. While God is a Woman begins like many movies focused on understanding the impact of film, the Kuna people quickly take center stage in a stunningly emotional voyage.

In 1975, French director Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau traveled to Guna Yala islands off the coast of Panama. His plan was to follow the indigenous peoples of the region and deliver a portrait of their lives to Western Europe. However, Gaisseau ran out of money in post-production, and the banks seized the footage. The Oscar-winning passed away shortly after returning home, and the film seemed lost. However, director Andrés Peyrot follows the hunt to recover the film. As the Kuna people reckon with an artifact of their past, they must balance the power of the footage on their memories with Gaisseau’s techniques as a filmmaker.

Peyrot could easily paint Gaisseau as a genius who simply lost his ability to complete a masterpiece. Yet early in God is a Woman, its clear that Gaisseau wanted to craft a film that would reinforce his vision of indigenous cultures. As one Kuna person retells a story, we discover Gaisseau actively tried to showcase the Yuna as a primitive culture. The director hid modern goods from cameras. Rather than let the Kuna explain their societal structures, Gaisseau pieced together his own interpretation.

Many of the indigenous peoples tell horror stories from the sets. Gaisseau pushed the Kuna to act less “modern” and embrace “traditional” ingenious stereotypes. Doing so but others opened the door to increase more negative stereotypes, most notably, the “noble savage” trope. Despite this, the emotional closing of God is a Woman reveals the uneasy truth.

No matter what Gaisseau may have attempted to capture, he created a portrait of the Kuna people that means more than he ever could have imagined. Yet in order for God is a Woman to succeed, Peyrot must directly confront the negative stereotypes. It’s hard to blame Peyrot for taking the opposite approach as Gaisseau. To its benefit, the documentary embraces a more conversationalist tone with his subjects.

While Gaisseau showcases the approach and mindset of an older generation, the Kuna people tell their story to Peyrot. He never lets them simply exist on camera. Instead, he becomes an active participant in hunting down interviews and talking head sequences. Peyrot wants the Kuna people actively involved with his film, but rather than tell their story, he wants the Kuna to tell it themselves.

Where God is a Woman really excels is when it discusses the future of the Kuna. Many of the historians and leaders of the town want to modernize. One of the young men even begins his own career as a filmmaker, joining Peyrot as a cameraman and using the opportunity to tell the stories of his people. As he begins to get more creative opportunities, the film chooses to frame the people of the town against Gaisseau’s footage. It makes for a powerful juxtaposition of the power and immortality possible with film. At the same time. it reminds us time never stands still. We can simply capture the world for a moment.

Alan’s Rating: 8/10

What do you think of God is a Woman? Let us know in the comments below. Check it out at the 2023 TIFF Film Festival.

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