The artfully turned opening of Vocessitas/Little Voices is the essence of filmic storytelling. The tale's female protagonist leaves work and heads home in her car, which breaks down in a blighted neighborhood. The doe-eyed twentysomething grows increasingly agitated as she wanders the deserted moonscape seeking a human presence or a working phone. She eventually finds her humans, but they turn out to be animals: urban hyenas who stalk and gang-rape her in a weedy alley.
The five-minute segment is completely visual. Not a word is spoken, and none is required. The remainder of Vocessitas suffers from serious dialogue deficiencies -- among other things -- but the deft, hushed opening passage by first-time feature filmmakers Kim Flores and Michael Swenson is sublime. Its only real drawback is that it promises more than the movie is ultimately able to deliver.
Flores and Swenson co-directed Little Voices, shooting it on a frayed shoestring in their hometown of Dallas and in nearby Irving, but it's really Flores's story. The 29-year-old wrote the screenplay, drawing inspiration from the work of indie icons such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Alfonso Arau and Peter Greenaway and her own real-life run-ins with sexual battery. In tone, Vocessitas mates the Jodie Foster vehicle The Accused with Arau's Like Water for Chocolate. Though not in the same league as either of those films, Voices is rich in rage, tragedy, magical realism and spiritual healing.
The lead character -- Anna Garza, a sophisticated woman who's proud of her Hispanic heritage but so acculturated that she's lost the ability to speak Spanish -- is convincingly played by Lanell Pena as a vivacious woman turned outside in by the rape. "[Sexual assault] happens so much these days that I think we've all become a bit dulled by it," says Flores. "While we were making the film, we were all sitting around talking, and it turned out that an extraordinary number of the women in the cast and crew had been assaulted or date-raped or something."
Flores was a victim of sexual harassment at a Dallas grocery store, and she barely averted rape on the University of North Texas campus, where she attended film school. She readily acknowledges that making Vocessitas was therapeutic. "The similarities between Anna and myself are pretty close, though I think Anna might be a little more conservative. Anna's the nicer side of me, the part that tries not to bother anyone with her problem. That's definitely not me. I reacted very strongly and violently to the incidents in my own life."
Flores says her main inspiration for Voices was the gang rape of three Hispanic girls by 30 men in Dallas in the early '80s. The incident -- and the fact that it didn't receive mainstream media play because "it didn't happen in [affluent and largely Anglo] North Dallas or Plano" -- moved Flores to action.
"Vocessitas began life as a documentary, but I couldn't do anything constructive with that format," she says. "A documentarian must record the truth as closely as possible. The nice thing about narrative, which is the way Michael and I finally decided to go with this piece, is that truth is echoed, but it doesn't have to be fact by fact."
Despite its flaws, Vocessitas is a well-told tale, especially given the unlikely circumstances of its birth: a script supervisor with no directorial experience and her similarly unseasoned gaffer boyfriend making a film about magical realism and gang rape on an initial grant of $7,000 from the Irving Television Cable Network.
It's easy to imagine what the naysayers must have told Richard Linklater while he was making Slacker. Thank goodness for Texas film -- and bright young acolytes like Flores and Swenson -- that Linklater chose to heed his own vocessita. "The Texas film scene is on such an upswing because of the holy trinity of Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Mike Judge -- and Robert's wife, Elizabeth Avila," says Flores. "It's a very good time to be a filmmaker in Texas."
-- Clay McNear
Vocessitas/Little Voices screens at 7:30 p.m. August 21 and 22 and 7 p.m. August 23; Kim Flores leads discussions before each showing. The Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet. Info: 639-7515. $5.