It’s 2017 and slavery is not a thing of the past. Despite all the social and human rights progress we have made in the last century, there are an estimated 1.2 million people enslaved in Europe right now. They live all around us in broad daylight, too afraid to step forward and go to the police; too afraid to ask for help from others. Without seeing and without knowing, each one of us has probably crossed paths with someone in such a situation. What would you do if you knew? Director Bernadett Tuza-Ritter met Marish and this encounter changed both their lives.
Ritter first met Eta, the woman that was keeping Marish captive. She was bragging about how she doesn’t do any work because she has others doing it for her. Ritter was interested in how this worked and asked Eta if she could film in her home and follow one of her workers. Eta, a tacky Hungarian woman hungry for money, agreed to this in exchange for 300 euros a month. And that’s when the real story started to unfold.
For 89 days Ritter filmed Marish working in Eta’s home. However, it was soon revealed that Eta was not in fact her employer. Marish was not paid or in any way compensated for her work. From morning until late into the night Marish worked in a factory making money that she would later give to Eta. She then worked in Eta’s home doing all possible household chores. She worked up to 20 hours a day; silent, invisible and not taking anything for herself. Marish’s only personal time was a cigarette break and the few sleeping hours in which she rested on a couch.
«The film reveals the psychological mechanisms of enslavement and the little support victims of such abuse can receive if they escape.»
‘Why don’t you sleep in a bed?’ one of the children asks her in the film. With kindness and acceptance Marish tells him a couch is a bed. She seems strange to the child, sleeping like a horse. ‘Horses sleep standing,’ Marish replies playfully with a smile. ‘You’re too young to understand,’ she adds.
In fact no one understands because no one outside the house knows. Soon Ritter starts to be witness to the physical and verbal abuse Marish has to endure. As their relationship evolves, Marish starts to feel at ease around Ritter, confiding in her and telling her things about herself – that she loves flowers and that she has a 16-year-old daughter who initially lived in Eta’s house, but ran away.
It is unclear whether Eta realizes the degree of harm she inflicts on others. She is either heartless, stupid or a combination of both. When asked what she offers in exchange for the work people do for her, she says she allows them to live as she does, have as many coffees and cigarettes as they please.
«The entire film feels like a character driven thriller with moments of humour and deep tenderness.»
Eta shows no kindness for Marish. She abuses her verbally and she beats her. She keeps an eye on her every move. Marish is not allowed to leave the home not even for groceries, Eta calls her regularly to check on her. Marish is invisible to the world and Eta is invisible to the camera. Only her artificial bright-coloured nails can be seen, as she points her fingers around, as she eats her food. A shadow of Eta relaxing in her bed is seen only once in her kitschy bedroom.
Bowed but not broken
Marish has been working for Eta for more than 10 years. A picture of her shows what she looked like when she came into the house, a 42-year-old woman, strong and vital. With 10 years of worrying and not enough sleep, Marish aged 25 years, a skinny frame with the wrinkles of a 70-year-old.
But though Eta took over her life, her time and her physical body, she didn’t actually take over her soul. Passive on the outside, Marish has a big heart and a spark in her eyes during the rare moments that she can be herself. She has a good sense of humour, a rich inner world, and she picks flowers on her rare walks outside between the factory where she works and the home where she is enslaved.
«A Woman Captured is a film about real life, and just like in real life things get messy and emotional.»
The entire film feels like a character driven thriller with moments of humour and deep tenderness. What Marish inspires in the viewer is not pity, but love. By the time she decides to escape with the help of Ritter, you feel for her as if she’s someone you know – you want her to succeed. Watching her life after that moment is like watching someone learning to walk again. And Marish has been looking forward to that for a long time.
Filmmaker or friend?
The film reveals the psychological mechanisms of enslavement and the lack of support victims of such abuse can receive if they escape. In a world like ours, one might ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave? Why not ask for help? Why not go to the police?” Like many in her situation Marish feels there is nowhere to go and no one that cares. She is afraid. She doesn’t have money and she’s trapped in a very common situation: Edith is not just a heartless woman with long nails; she is also a loan shark. People like her lend money to people like Marish, and when they can’t pay they make them sign dubious contracts that bond them for life. The contract is not legal, but they instil fear in the hearts of the ones who sign them. Without a complaint the police cannot interfere. And anyway, loan sharks are well connected. Their slaves are too afraid to escape their own chain.
A Woman Captured points to an important phenomena, but it’s a film about so much more than that. It’s about people overcoming their own circumstances. It’s about what can happen when we choose to help, offer a hand and stand by the people who need support. It’s about how things can go fundamentally wrong in one’s life and how that doesn’t have to be the end.
The circumstances around the film and the way the relationship between Ritter and Marish evolves can raise questions about just how much a director should get involved with their subjects. But Ritter’s relationship with Marish goes naturally beyond a filmmaker-character bond. For a while Ritter is the filmmaker and Marish the character, but over time these boundaries melt and they make the film together. A Woman Captured is a film about real life, and just like in real life things get messy and emotional. In real life we are all more than one thing. We could be a filmmaker and a friend. Or a victim and a survivor.