If you were expecting yet another coming-of-age story, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the delight that is Tahara. In her first feature-length film, which premiered at Slamdance earlier this year and was part of June’s Frameline44 festival lineup, Olivia Peace takes the genre to a new dimension. With Jess Zeidman’s writing which brings an organic and contemporary vision of faith and identity during teenagehood to the screen, Tahara takes us on an emotional journey of self-discovery.
“Sometimes it’s painful to be inarticulate.” The words of Carrie (Madeleine Grey DeFreece) echo as the film opens with the drawing of a square in motion. The corner of the square rotates as she speaks, and what we thought was a square reveals itself to be the face of a cube. Right from the start, Tahara seeks a change of perspective and states how treacherous one’s vision of the world can be. By gifting us with a refreshing stance on the Jewish teen experience, Peace achieves an authentic exploration of religion and relationships, while portraying a Black, queer, Jewish woman as a central character —a representation often absent from our screens.
As the car starts driving, we travel along with the view from the front of the rear-view mirror. The car stops in front of the synagogue, and Carrie steps out. She and best friend Hannah (Rachel Sennott) are attending the funeral service of one of their schoolmates, Samantha, who has committed suicide. During the service, Carrie and Hannah can’t help but gossip about the people present at the synagogue; they didn’t really know Samantha that well anyway. However, upon meeting the girl’s mother, Carrie’s face turns cold. She is reminded of the time she spent with Samantha and is compelled to acknowledge her death, although Hannah remains indifferent, and is only interested in seducing Tristan (Daniel Taveras). This interaction symbolises the way the different characters deal with their grief, and sets the tone for a journey unlike any other coming-of-age story.
After the service, the teenagers gather in a classroom which will become the stage on which they are to address their feelings in front of each other. The educational context allows for the introduction of Jewish practices, in particular with the explanation of Tahara, the ritual which consists in the cleansing and preparation of the body for burial. The characters begin to move around the room, switch places, leave and come back; their agency almost hints at a game of chess where all the pawns play a part.
The key moment shared by Carrie and Hannah actually takes place outside of this room, when they’re alone together, in this ordinary yet symbolic location: the toilets. From their post-funeral chat to Hannah’s wish to attract the gaze of a male suitor, the conversation leads to their lips colliding in a dreamy clay animation. A kiss, which means nothing to Hannah but is lived as a revolution by Carrie, and which will disrupt their friendship and evolve into a love triangle involving Tristan, the boy in question.
The claymation sequence, inserted as they kiss, alludes to an almost surreal experience. The film plays with shapes and textures, offering a unique story-telling. One of the most striking features is the tight 1:1 aspect ratio in which the film was shot, a square introduced in the opening scene that may remind us of the shape of an Instagram post, and a metaphorical prison for these characters. Each of them is introduced via a bubble that pops up over their heads, reinforcing the notion of facades put on by the different characters in the presence of others. As the two girls kiss, the sky opens up and their facades cease to exist, even for just one second.
With its retro colour-tones and unapologetic queerness, Olivia Peace’s feature-length directorial debut breaks free from the Disobedience-esque Jewish sapphic representation and the stereotypical portrayal of teenagehood. There are no constraints but only possibilities, a sensation of freedom experienced by the characters and shared with us. Although the unfolding of the story is rooted in the characters’ faith and driven by their grief, Tahara also teaches us about identity. Its ultimate statement, closing with the sun setting on the rear-view mirror, leaves us with the bittersweet taste of what could’ve been a first love, and the hopes of a brighter tomorrow.
Tahara screened as part of Frameline44’s Virtual Pride Showcase
by Lily Morgan
Lily (she/they) is a half-French-half-British Psychology and Criminology student living in Brighton, who’s unconditional love for Céline Sciamma has led them to start writing about cinema. Their favourite films are Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 20th Century Women, Frances Ha and Sorry To Bother You. You can find them speaking in Fleabag quotes at @sciammesque