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Close ups of two women standing next to each other, one looking at the other one who is looking away, sunny day

Heartland Film Festival 2021: Since August

Since August is a thoughtful and tender study on the ties between grief, guilt and connection. Written, directed, produced and edited by Diana Zuros, this film refreshes a familiar story in such a way that it is a worthwhile addition to your Heartland viewing slate. 

Since August is the story of Elizabeth (Sabina Akhmedova) as she follows Vedette (Antoinette Abbamonte), a deaf woman coping with a terrible loss. From the empty apartment across the street, Elizabeth watches Vedette’s apartment with binoculars. She teaches herself ASL with videos on the internet when there is no activity in Vedette’s apartment to be observed. She trails behind Vedette in her comings and goings and even attends the acting class Vedette teaches at GLAD (Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness). Elizabeth’s behavior is mysterious, if not downright questionable. It leaves a clammy sick feeling, knowing that what she is doing isn’t right but that there must be a reason for it. 

Evident from the outset, at least, is that Elizabeth’s intent is not malicious. She’s spying or stalking and she clearly does not enjoy doing it. In fact, it’s torturous for her because her compulsion is driven by guilt. What else would compel her to watch this poor woman who lives alone, who drinks too much to prepare herself before packing away a young boy’s clothes in a donation box, who falls asleep watching home videos? It’s not obsession so much as punishment. The tragic event that connects these two women doesn’t stay a mystery for long, but the tension remains as Elizabeth crosses over from observation to active participation in Vedette’s life. Then it becomes a waiting game. How long until Elizabeth says what she has to say so both she and Vedette can escape the shadows of the past?

Speech is the crux of Since August, though not in the way you’d assume. The majority of the dialogue is conveyed through ASL between the two leads once circumstance brings Elizabeth out of the shadows. Outside of their scenes together, the film is virtually free of the spoken word. Elizabeth doesn’t speak to anyone and only half-listens when others speak around her. Like the best silent films, Zuros focuses most often on Elizabeth’s face and pairs her internal struggles with a haunting score from Maciej Zielinski. It’s an effective choice that speaks to Elizabeth’s character. She is silent by choice, either as a form of self-punishment or the broken incapability of speaking aloud everything in her life that brought her into Vedette’s. 

What Elizabeth can’t say out loud, though, she finds herself able to express in ASL. Vedette’s maternal kindness and a form of communication Elizabeth only shares with Vedette allow her to open up and begin to heal. There’s an argument to be made that Elizabeth’s actions are selfish, but as the movie unfolds, it becomes clear she never means them selfishly. Another movie would explore that facet more, perhaps, and would suffer for it. This one succeeds because Elizabeth wants to ease Vedette’s grief more than she wants to mollify her own guilt. Her attempt to do so is far from perfect, but she’s also set herself an impossible task. The visible courage it takes for Elizabeth to persevere rather than relapse makes her a compelling protagonist both despite and because of her flawed approach toward amends. We only see the flashes of who Elizabeth was before, but it’s enough to show the kind of growth that can only be earned through excruciating self-awareness. 

This is not a movie about forgiveness, exactly. If it were, the end result would be too trite to leave an impression. The connection Elizabeth finds with Vedette — and Vedette, in turn, with Elizabeth — is almost too complicated to reduce to a satisfying label. The important thing is that they find each other at all, that they forge a connection with each other while they are both in the midst of drowning in the seas of self-isolation. Both Akhmedova and Abbamonte anchor a strong first feature from Zuros, and the three of them defy expectations of what seems at first like an all-too-familiar story. Together, they transform Since August into something as heart-wrenching as it is heartfelt.