Reviews Short Documentary

Letter to Lia (2022) – 2.5 stars

Director: Nicky Larkin

Running time: 15mins

There used to be something quaint about time-capsules. Digging one up could reveal little details about a past that wasn’t even that distant – in the grand scheme of things – while planting one for someone else to unearth in decades to come could offer up advice, hopes and words of encouragement for the next generation. Writing to your children in the future once carried a similar attraction. By putting pen to paper, parents of toddlers – exhausted from the daily routine that often leaves little space for dreaming – could give their babies an insight into their lives at the time, while making promises to them, and speaking openly about their hopes for the years to come.

I don’t have children, and I don’t plan on having any. But I know people who are starting families, and God only knows how they cope with explaining the future to their kids now. I certainly get the feeling that the letters they may write will have a much darker tone, as they try to explain how they feel for their youngster’s prospects amid a time of war, economic instability and an impending climate apocalypse.

Letter to Lia feels like something of a bygone age, then. While certain spectres of the last decade inescapably loom large in the advice handed down by an assortment of adults in Northern Ireland, Nicky Larkin’s film by-and-large leaves them conspicuously hovering in the background, rather than tackling them head on. On the one hand, I can’t necessarily blame him for wanting to sugar-coat the harsh reality Lia Cianetti-Larkin has been born into. At the same time, while she appears as a chubby-cheeked baby here, by the time she is supposed to receive this ‘letter’ – the film makes reference to her being 18 several times – she will have presumably found out the hard way.

Among the list of things vaguely alluded to by guests are The Troubles, Brexit, the pandemic, the rise of conspiracy theories, and continued hostility towards people based on their race, religion and gender identity. However, most of these references are face-value nods at best (global warming doesn’t even get a look in), and will only make sense if young Lia already knows about the history of the last 500 years. Admittedly, leaving the sources of The Troubles to the imagination, beyond ‘hatred’ and ‘politics’, is understandable if you want to keep your short film under 15 minutes – especially as things are relatively (though not completely) stable for now. But the light-touch outline of the Covid-19 pandemic, without elaborating on how people of all ages died, or how governments failed to prevent that, is less forgivable – as a series of events which are already defining the world Lia grows up in.

There are vague assertions that the pandemic saw some people refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated, before one guest oddly keen to deny being an anti-vaxxer notes the episode shows why you should always be distrustful of authority… The assertion is oddly opaque. Considering just how important the pandemic will be for the politics of the coming decade, and having no clarification as to whether we should question state organisations because they held off a lockdown until it was too late, or because of some pseudoscience around vaccinations, it is worrying what exactly the future Lia is being invited to think of all this.

Another suspect moment comes later on when this same source offers up some interesting advice to Lia. She should be comfortable in herself, and never compete with women or men, because “you can do something that no man can do – and that’s grow another human being inside your body”. Whether or not you read micro-aggressions against the trans community into that clumsily-worded assertion, the suggestion that this human adult should take pride in themselves for who they are is immediately undermined by the addition that their value is primarily connected to their reproductive faculties. There are many women who cannot “grow another human being” inside their body. Maybe they need IVF before that can happen. Maybe they have to adopt. Maybe they decide not to raise kids at all. Are they less valid because of this? No. It would be grotesque to suggest otherwise – especially in a ‘letter’ supposed to give someone words of support in an uncertain future.

Another moment where the musings seem to conflict with the film’s apparent mission sees a woman who moved to Northern Ireland from Greece give Lia the advice that she should travel as much as possible. She then adds that Lia may find it harder to do that, thanks to Brexit ending the Erasmus programme. This may be the only time that Brexit’s legacy is mentioned – although it may have been lightly hinted at during the segment on The Troubles. Either way, as amusing as it might be, the joke almost feels as though it is at Lia’s expense – which again slightly undermines the idea of an empowering letter to that person in the future.

By the time Lia is 18, it is also possible that the whole family will have relocated to the European mainland anyway. Federica Cianetti is seen holding Lia while one of their friends suggests they are unsure whether Lia will grow up in Northern Ireland or Italy. Considering the state of Italian politics, that probably creates more questions than it answers – but it does suggest Lia’s freedom of movement among the remaining bloc of 27 is something of a moot point, anyway.

This does bring me to one final point, though. Besides this brief cameo from Federica, and a one-second shot of Nicky Larkin in the credits, both Lia’s parents take a backseat throughout the message. You might think that their testimony would have been the most compelling of all. After all, Lia will never know them at this age, going through this exact set of social conditions. Telling Lia how they feel in this moment, wondering what the future holds for their child, still trying to make promises, and offer words of encouragement for what they can become, would have been beautiful to behold. It could also have helped tie together the loose strands left by the other eclectic guests, or to elaborate on some of the points that – left as they are – have a less-than positive edge to them.

Of course, every generation has its own problems, its battles to fight, and its wrongs to right. Letters to the future have probably always looked the other way to a certain extent. But the world as it is now is sitting on a knife-edge and sending a message to a loved-one which brushes over the systemic issues that will shape their future calls into question the point of bothering. Even more, it calls into question why you would then release said message to the rest of the world. As beautifully framed as the footage here is, and as cute as the shots of the young family and their friends are, there is not much here Lia wouldn’t get by rummaging through a family photo album. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, there is no fresh insight into the forces shaping the world we live in.

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