A celebration of the small things that help us endure. Tea Time, filmed over five years, illuminates a beautiful paradox: as familiar worlds slip away, friendships grow ever stronger and more profound. Ritual is often associated with powerful and impersonal institutions, but for five Chilean women, ritual centers on a monthly gathering that has sustained them through 60 years of personal and societal change. A charming and poignant look at how a seemingly mundane routine of tea and pastries has helped the well-heeled participants commemorate life’s joys and cope with infidelity, illness and death.
Tea Time takes us through a rite of friendship and shows the importance of traditions and celebrations and how rituals can help life make sense. The rite of Tea Time allows us to enter a female private space, from which life is interpreted. Around the table, intimate and universal themes intersect and are analyzed from the particular perspective of elderly women who look at the world through the lens of their conservative backgrounds, and who have been forced to adapt.
As a granddaughter of one of the characters, I have been observing this monthly rite since childhood, and I have always seen the women in the same way: They have never aged. I’m interested in portraying this new way of living old age — in which new possibilities arise, though inevitably, they may be the last ones.
—Maite Alberdi, Director
Tell us about your film, Tea Time.
Maite Alberdi: Teatime is a film about friendship, a film about the different ways to experience and live love, it’s also a film about intimate confessions between women, about a new model for old age in which people are totally active and it is also a film about death.
It’s a film that tells a story of a group of five elderly girlfriends who have been getting together for tea once a month for the last sixty years. At the table, they talk about their past, their most intimate feelings, their pains and they also trying to analyze the present proving that they are still up to date with reality. In spite of having different personalities and biographies which always generate internal quarrels, in the long run they are long life friends so fights don’t last very long.
We are facing a new kind of old age in which old people are up to date, they are not helpless, of course they are going to die but making the most every moment, an active, vital, and I believe it is world wide to spread this attitude about all in this generation that have more preconceived ideas about old age.
I understand that friends are the people that accompany you and not the people that are more like you. In this film there is also an approach to understanding why this conservative generation thinks the way it does. Those women lived through a period of radical historical changes. When they became adults they didn’t have the right to vote, and for example today they have to speak and discuss about same sex marriage, they have had to adapt to so many things despite having had a radically conservative upbringing. The film I think that help us to understand why this group of women thinks the way they do without censoring them from beforehand or seeing them from our preconceived ideas.
Discuss the making of the film.
Maite Alberdi: Well the shooting took five years. Once a month we went to shoot the monthly tea and after the shooting we sat down with them at the table and ate the leftovers, which were very few, but before filming I had already spent my whole life with them. This is my grandmother and her group of friends so I have always felt very close to their conversations. Actually I never really thought about making a film about them until the day that I release my first short film. And my grandmother has always been a big fan of mine but she told me that she couldn’t make it to the first screening because she had her teatime with her friends at the same day and I get furious. I had to ask myself why she preferred her friends over me. That’s when I realized how important friendship was and I started this project.
From the very beginning I saw this project as an aesthetic challenge for me. I knew that I wanted to build it and shoot it using only close-ups for different reasons but first and the most important because I really wanted the spectator to be like one more guest sitting here at the table with the characters. I wanted to build an intimate, observation documentary when we are looking at each other up close. On the other hand, for me the off frame played a fundamental role because the relation these women had and that they… any group of friends for that matter is often centered on everything that is not said. For example in the way she looked at her, in the expression she had on her face, in what wasn’t said. So really those subtle reactions are often the base of an interaction and often say so much more than any dialogue and it could only be conveyed by a close-up.
For example, the reaction that you can see when one of the friends’ face when she realized that her friend has Alzheimer’s and forget things, seems to me much more powerful than having the camera on the person who is trying to speak but keeps forgetting, forgetting what she wants to say, because these reactions transmit the dramatic quality of the situation and the depth of that friendship relation. In addition there was a pragmatic aspect as well, all the houses were different and changing from one afternoon to the next one but we need to generate a continuity of the style so each conversation has content units and although it seems to be only one moment and in time and space, but it really wasn’t.
What was your biggest challenge?
Maite Alberdi: The biggest challenge I faced in making this film was being constant and patient. For me, filming this documentary is an exercise in patience, waiting for things to happen in reality without hurrying or pushing them, trusting that if one chooses the places and situations well, they will provide what do you need. But the right time is more up to life than up to the director. I think it’s complex to impose a time frame in the character’s development. In this film, I knew that I wanted to portray the last years of this ritual but I didn’t really know exactly how long this was going to take. We filming once a month for five years in a row. Films have to tell stories and real life stories don’t happen over night. That’s the challenge for a documentary in general and for this film in particular. Leaving the reality on these characters however long it may take to tell their story and have it move forward. Have things happens, that’s the journey.
What was your greatest satisfaction?
Maite Alberdi: My greatest satisfaction in this film is that something which started as a personal attraction to my grandmother and her friends, was able to become a total universal and transversal story that people could relate to anywhere in the world. I believe that cinema must have something that seems contradictory, it must involve the individual and the universal at the same time. Unique characters or singular stories with universal emotions that touch us all. They had all this beyond my personal relation with them. Additionally, as a director, I am proud of the fact that in spite of film having a radical style — we use only close-ups — it is not an experimental film. It’s a film that reach out to a broad audience and I was able to do this without betraying the outer style that I wanted to give it. When you have a powerful story with unique and universal characters, there are liberties in style that you can take and one has to take advantage of that. You have to leave the conventional behind to have a voice as the director in film’s language. For me, the point of view is not only in the content but it is mainly in the way you film.
Can we talk? The answer has been a resounding “yes” for a group of five Chilean women who have gathered once a month for the past 60 years to speak their minds–and reveal the current state of their hearts and souls.
Five years in the making, Tea Time is not to be mistaken for a television chat show. The gatherings begin promptly at 5 p.m. with the saying of grace, after which the topics might range from marriage, divorce, soccer and gossip to illness and mortality. Not a hair is out of place among the well-coiffed, elegant and highly cultured women, who may disagree on many topics but are always genial. Voices are never raised, except perhaps in laughter.
While all five core participants — Alicia, Gema, Angélica, Ximena and Maria Teresa (Alberdi’s grandmother) — have similar backgrounds and all graduated from the same Catholic high school in the 1950s, their lives have taken different paths. One has never married: “She had lovers, but no one gave her what she wanted,” says Maria Teresa, who does most of the narration. Others had husbands in the military, while another who was not able to pursue college takes continuing-education courses. High school photographs show all five in the bloom of youth; the film illuminates them in the sometimes hard-won glow of a lifetime of experiences.
“Tea Time takes us through a rite of friendship and shows the importance of traditions and celebrations and how rituals can help life make sense,” says director Maite Alberdi.
While the gathering is routine, the array of topics and concerns is ever-changing and often surprising. And while the participants are dignified, there is no lack of frankness or candor–nor is there fear of broaching topics completely off the radar earlier in their lives, including contraception and homosexuality. Sometimes the talk even gets a bit risqué, invoking cries of “Please, don’t continue!”
“Tea Time allows us to enter a female private space,” Alberdi adds. “Around the table, intimate and universal themes intersect and are analyzed from the particular perspective of elderly women who look at the world through the lens of their conservative backgrounds, and who have been forced to adapt.”
The social changes and upheavals of the past half-century are never far from their minds. During one gathering, they read from a home economics textbook from their high-school days that stipulates that a father’s job is to make a living while the mother runs the household and raises the children. “Women do both jobs now,” the ladies agree.
Marriage is deconstructed — and reconstructed. “The truth is, we were raised to get married,” Alicia recalls amid general agreement that traditional family life is best. But their marriages are not necessarily of the storybook variety; some have been visited by infidelity, divorce or the death of a spouse.
The sexual revolution, meantime, is seen as an absolute rout of the values with which the women were raised. “So, how come these young girls don’t love themselves more?” Maria Teresa asks. “Sixty years have gone by,” Ximena explains, and Angélica completes the thought: “Virginity is over; it is no longer a value.” These observations are not made in bitterness and are often punctuated with laughter.
Some of the most captivating moments in the film are close studies of the women’s faces, which reveal lifetimes of struggle and change, but also lingering joy. During opening grace it is reported that a friend has died, which initially brings sorrow, then laughter as better times are recalled. The women sing songs, read love letters and talk about their health problems and the inevitability of death. The individual strength of each is amplified by the communal strength gained via their longstanding companionship.
Although the documentary is almost entirely filmed around a table, there is a subtle lushness to it. The pastries are small works of art and seemingly rich enough to transmit calories through the camera. A soundtrack of guitar and whimsical violin is playful and sensual.
Alberdi sees a timelessness in this ritual. “As a granddaughter of one of the characters, I have been observing this monthly rite since childhood, and I have always seen the women in the same way: They have never aged. I’m interested in portraying this new way of living old age–in which new possibilities arise, though inevitably, they may be the last ones.”
A celebration of the small things that sustain us, Tea Time illuminates a beautiful paradox: As the world they were born into slips away — “Take me back to that age when to live was to dream,” Maria Teresa says near the film’s end–these friendships grow ever stronger and more profound.