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Tea Time - Sheffield Doc/Fest

Friday 26 June 2015, by Nisha Ramayya

Tea Time opens with painted half-smiles on porcelain dolls, mint green buttercream and sugar pearls, strawberries, cherries, and slices of lemon. Women wear floral blouses, tweed jackets, long gold chains strung with turquoise beads, crucifix pendants, and coral nail varnish. María Teresa – the narrator, and director Maite Alberdi’s grandmother – introduces her best friends. The one who was denied higher education; the one who never married, and doesn’t like talking about love; the one who looks conservative, but is the most surprising; the one who likes everything to be perfect; the one who says what she likes, because her friends are forgiving. The grandfather clock strikes 5pm, and the ceremony begins.

Tea Time is a fly-on-the-wall style documentary about a group of Chilean women who have been meeting for monthly tea parties since they left school, over 60 years ago. Taking turns to host, the women sit around tables laden with avocado sandwiches, fruit tarts, and chocolate cakes, and talk to each other over cups of tea and the odd glass of brandy. María Teresa, Ximena, Alicia, Angélica, and Nina pause to say grace, after which there are very few pauses. Conversations unfold as the women update each other about their present lives, and remind each other about the past.

Lessons in home economics (a good mother is prudent, zealous, and hygienic); a classmate who believed hand-holding resulted in pregnancy; modern women and their lavish lives, and Blue Is The Warmest Colour; an upcoming day trip to Palomar; the dangers of idealising dead husbands; whether or not to wear funny hats at the next tea party; chemotherapy, cataracts, and memory loss; Laurence Olivier saying the words: ‘Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.’

Tea Time takes pleasure in the listening as much as the talk: reacting faces, blank, sympathetic, impatient, open mouths, getting ready to laugh, or correct. It is not always clear who is speaking, and who is speaking over. The limitations of subtitles transcribe one voice at a time, leaving unrepresented the layers of conversations, the interruptions and echoes. The tea parties are intended to be elegant affairs – despite a few provocatively liberal opinions on sex and politics (María Teresa admits that she is left-wing to annoy her friends), and the occasional funny hat – and Alberdi emphasises the women’s make-up and good manners.

The women stop talking when the bell rings and the Peruvian servants refill teapots and clear dirty plates. Apparently, the servants have a habit of entering the room at particularly awkward points in the conversation: the dangers to a child’s happiness and well-being when left in the care of servants; the diminishing value of virginity, whorehouses, and the maid of the house; a football match between Chile and Peru, at the moment Chile scores. These cuts are too purposeful for objective observation, but too subtle to provide social critique.

However, in the Director’s Statement, Alberdi indicates that her primary interest is in the tea parties as ‘a rite of friendship’, which enables ‘a female private space, from which life is interpreted’. This is an invitation-only rite, an exclusive space, a perspective sustained by intimacy and privilege: ‘We should all be so lucky to have these rituals, and the relationships they foment, in our lives.’ As Tea Time suggests, the privilege of the rite of friendship does not depend on the sumptuousness of tea parties, but on the plainness of dependability itself.

Dir: Maite Alberdi, 2014

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