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María Silvia Esteve’s Thoughtful Abuse Survival Documentary ‘Mailin’ Steps in Where Justice Fails to

Documentaries can reach places justice cannot: this is the credo of Argentinian writer-director-producer María Silvia Esteve, whose latest project “Mailin” won the 2|35 Post-Production Company Award at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. For seven years, Esteve has been working with Mailin Gobbo in Buenos Aires to document her story of overcoming systematic sexual abuse. Gobbo led a legal battle against former priest Carlos Eduardo José, but lost the case in March 2021 when José was cleared of all charges.

“Mailin” is Esteve’s sophomore documentary feature after “Silvia,” which premiered at IDFA in 2018; her short “Criatura” was awarded in Locarno in 2021. Already, this new project has gathered industry accolades, such as the IDFA Bertha Fund. Additionally, “Mailin” had already scored a double award win at the Visions du Réel Industry 2022, under the care of Alejandra López (IKKI Films) as co-producer, and is supported by Argentina, France and Romania.

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The director told Variety in the lead up to the festival that she first saw Mailin in a news report. That interview, she recounted, focused so much on the abuse, in “all of the most atrocious details,” signaling that the media “didn’t really care about Mailin as a woman, nor as a person.” At that moment, Esteve decided to combat a reductive narrative—a mix of pity and sensationalism—and to seek out that woman, whom she saw as “very strong,” especially since she was “exposing something very painful, with the courage to do so because she needed to enact change.”

Propelled by the same values, Esteve believes in the power of stories and, most of all, in their accessibility. Documentary filmmaking comes with responsibilities and, as she summarizes it, “telling a story in a way that makes it easier for people to empathize means you’re trying to change things.” Care and patience are the key ingredients, as the director observed in her seven-year long process of making “Mailin,” that gaining trust and getting to know the woman behind the public “victim” persona was essential. In order to do that, Esteve had to overcome the “character” Mailin had built, “the one that was expected of her.” The whole process took seven years with long periods of earning trust—off camera—and ongoing therapeutic support to assure Mailin didn’t just “revisit her pain” and could see the film as “a way toward catharsis.”

The film starts with a very personal story, and gradually expands toward a bigger universe where justice fails you, but there is hope for the future. In order to fit its inclusive storytelling, the style of “Mailin” interweaves different formal elements—animation, VHS archive, video-diaries—and a fairy tale narrated by the protagonist to her daughter. Esteve conjures the power of metaphors and visual expressions, determined to deliver an experience that is both “aesthetically rich and beautiful to behold.” She adds that “it was necessary to create something beautiful for the viewer to be able to see the cruelty and the harshness behind the story.”

The urge to make “Mailin” was born out of a desire to help woman she saw on TV to own their own narrative in a society that victimizes, victim-blames and silences trauma survivors. Indeed, this trial has encouraged more than 30 other women to come forward with allegations against the same priest. According to producer Alejandra López, by breaking the silence and opening her personal story to the public, Mailin “is helping other women to also stop the cycle of violence. Her case has become iconic for a lot of people in Argentina by spotlighting this type of abuse.”

López and Esteve are keen for the film to “break the silence” around sexual abuse and empower a broader audience, not only at festivals, but regular cinemagoers and TV viewers. Making the film narratively accessible and formally appealing to young adults is also part of the goal, while seeking support from various women’s associations as part of their impact campaign in a world where “justice just gives you the back, so to speak, ignores you in a painful way.”

Even when the judicial system fails abuse survivors, Esteve is hopeful that documentaries can “try to generate a voice stronger than justice.” Looking back at the years she spent with Mailin, she is certain that “there’s no other way of doing a documentary unless you really commit emotionally. You also have to be open to one another, not to extract anything, but to allow for something to grow, that’s both a gift and a privilege.”

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