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HOT DOCS 2023

Review: The Yellow Ceiling

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- In her documentary, Isabel Coixet deals with the case of Lleida’s Aula Theatre, where a group of nine women filed a complaint of sexual abuse against two of their teachers

Review: The Yellow Ceiling

In 2018, one year after the rise of the #MeToo movement, a group of nine women filed a complaint against two of their teachers – Antonio Gómez and Ruben Escartin – accusing them of committing numerous acts of sexual abuse between 2001 and 2008, when they were just teenagers. In her latest effort, Catalonian director Isabel Coixet meets with the victims and tries to give the viewer a sense of just how wrong things were within the walls of Lleida’s Aula Theatre and among the ranks of the youth theatre company La Inestable.

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The Yellow Ceiling [+see also:
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(already showcased at IDFA and San Sebastián, and now playing at Hot Docs) explores the toxicity of the world of theatre and the performing arts, an uncomfortable topic that is often overlooked. Generally speaking, the relationships between students and teachers established in a drama school or within a theatre company are often very intense, emotional and difficult to handle. You spend so many hours together, sometimes even more than with your own family, and you reveal many secrets to each other, both on stage and in the dressing rooms – the reviewer here speaks as a former stage-directing student, having attended a theatre academy in Italy from 2010-2013. Therefore, clear boundaries and rules need to be set and acknowledged by all participants, as the risk of harming someone’s mental health lurks just around the corner. And some people – like Gómez and Escartin – may take advantage of their position and exploit the students’ dreams for their own gain, leaving horrible scars and going about their dirty business unhindered for years, such as in this case.

Coixet chooses to use two main tools for her piece of non-fiction. The movie sports a series of talking-heads interviews, where all of the women involved get straight to the point and talk about how the two teachers manipulated them and behaved inappropriately, along with a few sequences made up of archive footage – often in black and white – and rendered more disturbing by Chop Suey’s eerie score. Said score contributes to rendering the heavily “sexualised” atmosphere built up by the two teachers, where physical contact and theatrical exercises served as pretexts for them to take advantage of the young women’s innocence.

It’s particularly painful to see how much indifference there was within the same environment, in particular from the young men studying at the drama school, who in most cases considered everything as a joke and were unable to decipher their female counterparts’ cries for help. The girls’ stories all contained details that suggested that something was going awry, to say the least, but nonetheless, it took 17 years for the first crimes to be officially reported, and this only happened thanks to the women who managed to speak out, despite their understandable sense of fear and shame.

“That wasn’t theatre,” and “it's not our fault” either, the women scream during one of their protests, and rightly so. Many viewers will probably realise their pain and uncertainty – or at least a fraction of it – especially during the part in which Goretti, one of the nine girls, discloses the meaning of the titular “yellow ceiling” while reliving her worst memory.

Ultimately, Coixet’s documentary is a moving cri de coeur against abuse and an important part of these women’s healing process. That being said, justice was unable to protect the nine victims, as the two teachers’ crimes ended up going unpunished. They are both leading their own lives undisturbed. Gómez, in particular, refused to be interviewed by the production team and moved to Brazil, after receiving a generous €59,000 in compensation following his dismissal.

The Yellow Ceiling was produced by Miss Wasabi. The Open Reel is in charge of its international sales.

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