Ostensibly, The Voice of Thais is a quest to find a lost film, the Thais of the title. As the quest becomes seemingly ever more hopeless, the story instead becomes one of a remarkable life, and what happens when a life is forgotten.
Elena Jordi was the stage name for Montserrat Casals Baque. She was a coal miner’s daughter from a small town in the Spanish Pyrenees. Born in 1882, Jordi rose to become a much-admired star of stage and screen in her native Spain, as well as a business woman and, briefly, a theatre owner. In 1918, she became (probably) the first woman in Spain to direct a film.
This is where the mystery within this documentary becomes ever more fascinating. The novel Thais, published in the late nineteenth century, had already been adapted for the screen multiple times before Jordi’s own endeavour. The Spanish film press was full of stories of the film’s shooting phase, and hype was built in advance of an anticipated release date. Then, curiously, all references seem to disappear – there’s no coverage of a showy premiere, or box office numbers, or even any reviews of the finished film. No-one can even be sure if any members of the public ever saw the film at all.
For a few more years after this mysterious movie may or may not have been on the silver screen circuit, Jordi continued to maintain a successful career. But then, in the 1920s, she, like her film, seems to have disappeared. After her death in 1945, her body was interred in a cemetery in Barcelona. In 2017, due to the non-payment of taxes, the cemetery staff removed her remains, and then, in an act of staggering bureaucratic incompetence, lost them.
There is however hope in this documentary. It had been believed that there are no surviving records of either Jordi’s life, work, or film, no surviving descendants, not even any tombstone in the cemetery. However, film-maker David Casals-Roma continues his hunt, and unearths Jordi’s more distant relatives. Interviews with them, and academics in the field of Spanish silent film and early twentieth century theatre, make up the bulk of the running time of the film. Those interviewed provide personal anecdotes, and comment authoritatively on what remaining crumbs the various national and international archives have managed to retain. What emerges is a fascinating glimpse of a woman who forged her own path, and lived outside the expectations and restrictions of Spain’s middle classes.
It also isn’t without its faults. Some of the imagery appears to be tenuously related to the narration which accompanies it. Some of the sequences where attempts are made to interview anyone now living in any of the buildings occupied by Jordi decades ago seem pointless, and hopelessly naive in scope.
The biggest issue however is the editorial decision to present the documentary as if the young woman whose journey we follow – Clara Minguaza, is the person whose interest in Jordi has sparked this project. This gives a sense of a young woman seeking to connect to a similarly once young woman from a century earlier. As the credits reveal that the project was actually envisioned by a man, there’s a sense that the audience has been duped – misled as to the true nature of whose voice we are hearing, and who was asking the questions we only heard the answers to. It’s a curious mis-step in a documentary that has a lot to say about the nature of fame, any individual’s legacy, and how these can be manipulated by unforeseen political forces.
Featured Image Credit: David Casals-Roma / The Voice of Thais