Anger is a rare emotion for me to feel when watching a film. I often feel sadness, frustration, joy. But rarely anger. Outside of certain documentaries, there are few moments in fiction that get me worked up enough to have a viscerally negative reaction.
Debutante has two such moments.
Currently playing on the festival circuit, Debutante is a film by Polish-born, Irish-based filmmaker Kamila Dydyna. Made on a tiny budget funded through Kickstarter, it has some of the hallmarks of a low-budget, digitally filmed short. The visuals are a little flat. The camera rotates through the rote master-medium-close-up shot list. Some of the performances are a little wooden. At times its music choices indicate emotion when the director should have just trusted her material. We’re told about scenes, then we witness those scenes. There is the flavor of an early career filmmaker still learning their craft. And yet this film did something that few films have.
It made me furious.
Debutante follows Meg, a young Irish girl in a Jehovah’s Witness congregation. She and her friend Sam stand on a street corner giving out copies of The Watchtower. Her mother is a dedicated member of the parish. Her father, for reasons unknown, has been “disfellowshipped,” ostracized from the community. When he approaches Meg to ask how she is, she acts as if he is a ghost. Then Meg is brought into a hearing with Jehovah’s Witness leaders.
They pick at her sex life, ask her the type of questions that no person should be asked, and they do so with the calm entitlement of people who are owed answers. When she confesses to having slept with Sam, her world begins to crumble.
Debutante masterfully shows us how friends and family can turn when a person is ostracized. The entire fabric of the community that Meg lives in is based not on love, but love with conditions. Love with borders. Love that is dangled overhead like a piece of meat in exchange for fealty. When Meg turns to the last person in her life she can turn to, and that person shuns her as well, you scream inside as she does.
Director Dydyna came from a Jehovah’s Witness parish. She slowly left their ranks after disillusionment in her early 20’s. Her rage at the hypocrisy of the world she grew up in is rage we see in Meg. This is a story that could not be told from the outside. The details are too specific. The way the religious leaders stare at her with empty, expectant looks. The disappointment on Meg’s mother’s face as she realizes that she must turn away from her daughter as she already has from her husband. And a pivotal moment of scripture.
In the middle of the film, Meg asks why such graphically detailed questions are being directed at her. What right do the leaders have to know if Sam ejaculated inside of her during intercourse? Whether or not they had oral or anal sex? The leader calmly opens the text and reads a single line.
“Then Joshua said to Achan: My Son, I implore you, honour Jehovah, the God of Israel, and make confession to him.“
Dydyna then shows the instinct of a master director, leaving a pregnant pause after this moment.
We as the audience expect the line to continue. That fragment of scripture cannot be enough to justify what Meg is going through. Joshua is asking for a confession, not sexual positions. But in this world, it is enough. The religious leader calmly closes the book, and they continue with their examination, as if Meg’s question has been fully answered.
In a single, silent moment, Debutante doesn’t tell you that scripture can be twisted to fit the needs of anyone seeking to exploit it. It shows you. Rather than intellectualize a problem you know exists, it plants a seed in your heart that blossoms into rage.