Life Is Short: How ‘Heroines’ Hides its Horrors Within Humour

In her new monthly column, LIFE IS SHORT, Naomi Alexander embarks on a worldly exploration through the lens of short films, weaving tapestries where life and art collide.

 

‘Okay’ is far from the most captivating word in the history of the English language but turn your sights on Katia Badalian’s debut short film and that single utterance casts a syrupy spell.

It helps that our speaker asserts this around an unlit cigarette, her gaze sweeping away from the young girl curled up on the only other chair across the table to her own manicured hands, where the flick of an unseen lighter sets off the title screen backed by blaring electronica.

Heroines (2018) does not waste time waiting for you to settle in. This short is sharp and slippery, the cinematic equivalent of a creature with a mouth full of shark teeth that uses its scorpion tail to strike. It hardly extends any more of an invitation, but the reward is oh so sweet if you decide to stick around for the main event.

Well, sweet enough.

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Still of Sage Adler as Nina in Heroines

Heroines not only packs a punch but lands it, despite – no, because of the simplicity of its premise.

Written by Sara Bower, the short centers on a rather one-sided conversation between ten-year-old Nina (Sage Adler) and her crass neighbour Regina (Anna Khaja) who, upon discovering Nina’s modest knowledge of love and intimacy, opts to share her wisdom about “the birds and the bees”.

Cue an unabashedly salacious explanation spectacularly performed by Khaja, whose character grows more and more impassioned by Nina’s apparent naiveté (and, perhaps, even her wordlessness), which only gets deeper and grittier.

Testimonies claw its way out from her battle-scarred heart, though stripped of any discernible giveaways and bereft of backstories.

By conversation’s end, however, Regina’s truth is overshadowed by another, more sinister revelation, unshakably disorienting, the forewarned serpent beneath this striking rose – or the aforementioned scorpion’s tail to complete the rows of serrated teeth.

Heroines goes above and beyond its themes of love and sexuality to aim- if only for a few fleeting seconds – right at the gaping wound of sexualization, precisely that of vulnerable young girls.

Every element of this short film is maximized, but its pace, performances, and blocking appropriately stand out more than the rest.

From the beginning, the importance of time is established – Regina arguably has five minutes to divulge every pertinent detail to Nina before her mother picks her up, or she loses her chance indefinitely – informing the quality of Khaja’s performance even further. In the process, Regina’s method of communication becomes more calculated: she resolves to make use of the objects around her to relay her thoughts to Nina, who, taciturn though remarkably expressive, makes sense of the world via that very approach.

Their conversation thus takes several turns, reaches higher heights, almost choreographic in its progression yet too rudimentary to be considered balletic.

Still, there’s a wealth of beauty here, one that solidly impresses upon the mind. Adler makes magic out of her wordlessness, every expression electric in its conveyance. What we see and hear (and especially what we don’t) thus become increasingly significant, asserting both the elusive nature of the short and the distinctive insight of each character.

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Most importantly, for director Katia Badalian, this is more than just another film to add to an ever-unfolding filmography.

Take note of the closing credits, and to her, the story is ascribed; scroll through the biographical page of her personal site, and a scanned magazine spread unveils more of the film’s origins. Heroines is the start of a journey towards release.

Badalian declares, “What I know is this story. I think talking about what hurts makes you heal. This is my form of healing my own self. When you see it on screen, it’s when you can let it go, and when you can move on.”

With this in mind, the film’s impressive festival run evokes immense personal jubilation, especially in an era where the #MeToo movement gains more traction and powerful ever, prominent figures face public resistance and conviction. Moreover, Badalian plans to release a feature-length adaptation further exploring this story, and if Heroines is any indication of her competence, it is certainly worth looking out for.

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