Tea Time at IDFA

This week IDFA announced that Maite Alberdi received The Alliance of Women Film Journalists' EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Documentary for Tea Time (Chile). Noe Mendelle, director of Scottish Documentary Institute, has just arrived back from Amsterdam and writes about the film and why it deserves every bit of praise it receives.

Maite and her producer Clara, might be young looking and petite in size, but they're already giants in the world of documentary. Their first film The Lifeguard also premiered at IDFA (2011) and won many awards. As a director Maite has developed a highly particular style that creates an intimate portrayal of the characters she works with, through everyday stories in small-scale worlds with big close ups and a very gentle pace.


I was delighted to be involved in the development stage of their latest film Tea Time, when they took part in my documentary workshops at DocMontevideo forum three years ago.

Tea Time is the story of five elderly women who for the past 62 years have religiously gathered for tea once a month. Although their personalities are very diverse, they've been together so long that they can forgive one another anything - even being on the opposite side of the political scale.

Together, they reminisce about the old days and rather than reflecting on current affairs, they keep revisiting the same old anecdotes from the past. Every month the cookies are laid out, whipped cream is put onto the pastries, and the tea infusers bob in the teapot. The ladies always appear dressed up and with immaculate makeup for their meetings, which are sometimes hilarious, but always warm and full of love.

Tea Time always starts with a brief prayer and an expression of their realisation that they have a lot to be thankful for. (Which they do, because we are observing very middle class women with maids and surrounding opulence!)

They have many stories and their opinions are forthright. One of them has no problem stating that her husband was as ugly as sin.

"Conversation can become the glue that holds relationships together - be it friends or family."

The six years of filming and 300 hours of footage turn the film into a meditation on youth, age and friendship. The film conveys beautifully how routine turns into ritual and how conversation can become the glue that holds relationships together - be it friends or family.

I thought I knew a lot about Chile, having spent several months there filming, but I never realised that the greatest link between Chile was not the love affair between Pinochet and Thatcher, but the love of tea!

The British dependence on tea has played a significant role in preserving British identity and culture. It is a well-known fact that Churchill considered the ritual of tea to be more important than ammunition in winning WW2:

"That's what keeps us going, comforting those in need of solace."

...as it has done for those women over the past 62 years. Rituals are also a way of measuring the passage of time. Once in a while in Tea Time we hear one of the women saying: "Have you noticed our group is shrinking a bit?"

They acknowledge that their days are counted - but any sad thought is quickly wiped out with the passage of another big close up of a cream cake in front of the lens!

Watch a shorter version of Tea Time, called Another Tea on the New York Times website: