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Observed Online Reviews

‘Ramona’ Tests the Bounds of Reality and Fiction

Staging a portrait of class and societal roles, Victoria Linares's latest yields an artful deconstruction of documentary filmmaking.

By Kelli Weston

From Ramona (2023), dir. Victoria Linares Villegas, courtesy True/False Film Festival

Ramona, the latest nonfiction feature from Dominican director Victoria Linares Villegas, boasts a peculiar inception.

Linares had originally conceived of Ramona as a fictional drama about a pregnant teenager, who flees a miserable home to become an actress and, more specifically, dreams of getting cast on her favorite telenovela. While writing the screenplay alongside co-writer Diego Cepeda, Linares interviewed several pregnant teenage girls, and the project—doubly upended by the pandemic— transformed into an ornate, curiously oblique excavation of art and representation.

The film had its US premiere at the documentary festival True/False, where in fact, such broad (and rather fashionable) matters have long occupied nonfiction. Admittedly, that landscape does not quite adequately account for the ambitious questions Ramona proposes, or even the sophisticated architecture Linares has designed to scaffold these somewhat unwieldy themes. If contemporary nonfiction—so long captive to pretensions of transparency—has often disguised filmmakers’ more cynical impulses in the name of self-flagellating interrogation of their suitability to tell certain stories, Linares, alternatively, establishes a signature. She seems instinctively drawn to the composition of a film (if not, more aptly, its dismantling); marking moments of decision, drawing attention to the way she furnishes a scene or, indeed, her own actors for a sequence. Linares’s two feature films to date do not merely test the bounds of reality and fiction, but leave audiences immured in cinema’s artifice.

Her previous film and feature debut It Runs in the Family (2022), details the life of her cousin Oscar Torres, a queer director and activist, whose memory had been actively occluded by their family. Like Ramona, It Runs In the Family also integrates performance, namely re-enactments and rehearsals, in an artful deconstruction of filmmaking, nimbly layered with self-inspection. In the film, Linares primarily concerns herself with unearthing a fractured and disavowed history: pouring over books, photographs, home videos, and archival footage to restore what has been so thoroughly eradicated from family lore. It’s a deeply personal story, in which she becomes a central performer, as her ancestor invites multiple, generative parallels—personal and professional—as she closes the distance between her artistry and his.

In Ramona, she stages an altogether different portrait of family, one helplessly shaped by class and societal roles, and thus, perhaps the natural provenance of theatrical fixations. In fact, the film opens on a soundstage, the camera sweeping past the bright pink walls of a salon set before landing finally on the lushly painted, bucolic scene of a verdant pasture, resplendent with grassy knolls and sumptuous clouds. Pastels—yellows, pinks, muted blues—saturate the film and surely prefigure its unfolding preoccupations: girlhood and the  various intrusions upon it.

From Ramona (2023), dir. Victoria Linares Villegas, courtesy True/False Film Festival

But first we meet actress Camila Santana, who has already begun creating “Ramona.” Her middle-classness is immediately discernible and she appears visibly frustrated by her own remoteness from the character. “I’ve heard pregnant girls don’t paint their nails. It’s like some sort of superstition. Would she be that girl?” she muses aloud as the crew straps a belly to her waist. Linares winkingly betrays her defiance of the mode, when, rather too transparently, someone says, “This isn’t a documentary. We can take liberties.” Such a declaration wryly concedes that much of nonfiction is curation: the director leads us in pursuit of her own coherence. 

Seeking authenticity, Camila sets out to speak with pregnant teenage girls—all notably, from the ‘hood—some as young as fifteen when they first conceived. Quite a few of them look astonishingly young, barely pubescent. They tell grim stories of men drugging them and then disappearing. Casually, they recall their family lives and reliably ambivalent relationships to impending motherhood. Some of them initially refused to believe they were pregnant; others still play with childhood toys. Many of them had long been tasked to look after their younger siblings or cook for their families, so caretaking has always been core to their lives. But the real richness unfolds when Camila asks them for their input on Ramona: what they think she would look like, act like, be like.

Satisfyingly, the film grants a group that usually finds themselves flattened into bleak statistics the space to create something far more dynamic and alive: an avatar that can more tenderly—and honestly—represent them. “What should her clothes be like?” Camila asks. One teenager replies, “She wears dresses…long ones, down to her knees. Her color should be pink.” Her vision is a paragon of modest femininity. “Or purple!” She decides last minute: the color of royalty. Others insist that she should have “salon hair” that flows down to her waist or shoulder-length. In the next scene, Camila goes to the salon and gets her hair straightened. Another teen says, “I see her as someone with long, blonde hair. She’s plain and calm.” 

No doubt the girls seem pleased—enlivened even—by this collaborative act of imagination. But it is fascinating that their creations stray so far from their own image. They envision someone far closer to Camila, tawny-colored with wavy, auburn hair and playfully called “rubia” or “blondie.” But the girls themselves are generally darker or else possess more Afro-centric features. They live in pastel-colored shanty houses; and later, when Camila accompanies the girls to a riverside clearing, they swim in their clothes, while Camila strips down to her bathing suit. Linares consciously mines this chasm and ultimately replaces Camila with the interviewed girls, each acting out a scene. But some of these themes feel too lofty for such a neat conclusion: if Linaress never conceals her remove from this community, and if this format—through which reality and fiction blur—suits these particular subjects, then the broader implications of how to confront representation in art, separate and distinct from reality, remain unresolved. No film could ever hope to settle such a hefty argument, and Ramona  prefers instead to honor its subjects.   


Ramona (2023) made it North America premiere at True/False Film Festival and will be distributed by Alief.