To Keep the Light

in 65th International Film Festival Mannheim - Heidelberg

by Ofer Liebergall

The International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg focuses on newcomer filmmakers, most of them still relatively unknown to critics and film lovers. What makes this festival exciting is the opportunity to discover fresh new talent with a unique view on the world and on filmmaking. In this year’s competition, the film that stood out for me was To Keep the Light, the debut feature of Erica Fae, an American writer ,director, producer and actress. In it, Fae demonstrates a skillful use of different cinematic tools in order to tell a gripping and thought-provoking story. From start to finish, I felt that I was watching a work by a visionary artist.

The film is a period drama, set in the year 1876 at a small island off the coast of Maine. The heroine is Abbie, a strong young woman who maintains the local lighthouse, a position officially held by her husband, but he can’t perform the job himself or be of much help to Abbie, for reasons that are slowly revealed during the course of the film. One morning following a storm, a Swedish sailor by the name of Johan is washed away to the island, barely surviving the rough night. Abbey saves his life and takes care of him, and the dynamics between the two become central to the rest of the film – it is a combination of attraction, gratitude and suspicion, each one of them is afraid of telling the other the complete truth, but also needs the other in more than one way.

With most of the picture taking place in the small island that has only two active characters, the way that Fae makes use of different kinds of compositions becomes crucial to the film – it seems that many of the images are inspired by 19 Th century landscape painting, but through them the director always shows the changes in the relations between Abbie and the world that surrounds her, her inner self, or Johan.

In addition, the film uses non-conventional editing in order to show the characters’ moods and the connections between them – it seems that the emotional core of the scene is more important to the director than making the audience know precisely what is happening at any giving time. This editing technique also allows the movie to show more close-up shots than the typical film; these close-ups give an intimate feeling to the film and reveal some of the things the character don’t dare to say. Fay’s script takes its time in uncovering important information about the main characters of the film and their stories, the audience has to add up the hints by themselves in order to get the full picture about what is taking place on the island and the nearby mainland village.

Although the film focuses on two people, it includes several minor characters, each one of them being essential to the artistic message of the piece. Some of them propose a direct threat to the heroine’s desires, but none of them is depicted in a one-sided way, you can understand their motives and viewpoints. All the people in the film shape a picture of a world that doesn’t allow women equal opportunities, in an age when few people understood that this is oppression.

The entire cast of the film gives a convincing and believable performance, rich with nuance that makes even actors who appear for only a brief moment feel memorable. But the most impressive and moving performance is that of Erica Fae herself, who plays Abbie with a mixture of toughness and fragility. Abbie is determined to fight for her ability to maintain the lifestyle she has grown to love, but the film also shows her to be a caring and giving woman. Yet, she is far from being just a model of a strong female character – during the film we see her making wrong decisions or failing to get things as well as her desire. At different points throughout the film it appears she has problems understanding the state of things and some of her actions may cause damage to herself or to others. But eventually, the film creates a feeling of admiration for her. And for many real-life women throughout history who had to hide the fact that they were doing the job they loved, because it wasn’t considered appropriate for their gender.

Abbie is an impressive and unique heroine, but her story also stands as a symbol of many other untold true stories. Because of that, the film title refers not only to the light of the lighthouse but also to the symbolic fight for women’s rights. And like any great historical film, this film is very much relevant to not only the age it depicts, but also to the time of its inception. The fact that women’s struggle in the world is still an important issue to this day, can be demonstrated by looking at the entire competition at this year’s Mannheim- Heidelberg Film Festival – out of the 19 films that were shown, 10 focus on this subject in one way or another, To Keep the Light being the only period film.

Edited by Eithne O’Neill