The future perfect is a strange tense. It describes actions that are going to be completed: what will have happened, what will have been done. It simultaneously looks forward and back, as if reflecting on the future from some place beyond it: an already-written. On the surface, it seems to articulate a world in which things are inevitable, knowable, factual – I will have changed, I will have been. Yet even to assert this is an act of imagination, a projection of oneself into a time other than the present. It inscribes an awareness of other possible paths into the future, just as these alternatives seem to be closed off.
The Future Perfect is an appropriate title for Nele Wohlatz’s evocative and gently playful documentary, which consistently probes the boundaries between fact and fiction to create a complex reflection on the grammar of identity of a young migrant woman. 17-year-old Xiaobin has moved from China to Buenos Aires; although her family is already working in Argentina, she is keen to become independent from them, finding herself a job and starting to learn Spanish in secret. The film is structured around the process of language learning, following Xiaobin’s development from an early, pragmatic use of the language to describe the circumstances that have led to her arrival in Argentina, to the moment when she is able to articulate alternative possibilities for her identity and her future.
The language-learning process functions as a metaphor for Xiaobin’s coming-of-age as a young woman in a foreign country. As a concept, this might have risked slipping into cliché, but Wohlatz avoids this, instead endowing the film with a gently ironic tone and subtlety, focusing in on the particular charm of Xiabooin’s personality and allowing it to quietly anchor each shot. Initially, Xiaobin appears somewhat passive and isolated, restricted by her ability to use only a few words. The film hints at the way in which, as a young woman and a migrant, others often try to write her identity and future for her: at the language school, she has been given a Spanish name, as if she must take on a prescribed role if she is to be recognised and heard in Argentina. Meanwhile, her parents are unhappy about her growing independence, and the fact that she may be meeting men they don’t know. They want to save the money she has earned for when they return – as they assume they will – to China.
Moments of misunderstanding provide some light comedy, relatable for anyone who has attempted to communicate with limited vocabulary in a new language. When she begins to date an Indian man she meets at work, Xiaobin finds that getting to know each other and even deciding which direction to go in on a street can be a challenge. Yet, ultimately the film’s focus is not only what is lost in translation, but on the way in which Xiaobin is herself changed – translated – in the process. In other words, as well as illustrating how identity is formed through articulation – within the prescribed spaces of linguistic and cultural frameworks – the film also depicts the possibilities for redefinition that these frames enable.
As the film progresses, Xiaobin becomes increasingly fluent and confident. The second language enables her to carve out a new identity, to more clearly assert her own desires and to take ownership of her words. When her boyfriend suggests marrying her, she reflects that she is still too young, has too many other plans. The film formally mirrors Xiaobin’s development. Initially, scenes are short; exchanges between characters feel stilted and contrived. As she develops confidence in her new surroundings, its visual language evolves too, opening up into longer scenes, more complex perspectives.
One of the strengths of the film is that, while it draws out the specificities of Xiaobin’s experience, it does not marginalise it as a conventional narrative of migration. Rather, it suggestively depicts the way in which all identities are formed in translation – through the imaginative, performative process of constructing narratives about ourselves. As a young actor tells a Chinese friend of Xiaobin, ‘I’m [acting], just like you are’. Here, the lines between performance and reality are inevitably blurred. The actor teaches Xiaobin and her friends how to cry for the camera; we think we know that they are acting, yet as the camera focuses in on their faces, it is difficult to be sure.
The film plays on its own artifice throughout, drawing attention to the constructed nature of its scenes through dialogues delivered in rehearsed tones, like the lines Xiaobin learns in her language school. In doing so, it departs from the conclusiveness of a simple retrospective narrative and avoids facile future predictions. Instead it creates a provisional, uncertain narrative of possibilities; a world in which we can never be entirely sure what has actually happened or what will happen – only what might be or have been the case. Even if we might think we can know Xiaobin’s future, as her actor friend reminds us: ‘the forecast is always wrong’.
This is not a conventional political documentary. Yet there is something politically valuable, even radical, about asserting the potential of a mode of possibility – of a perhaps. In a world of dogmatic headlines and political discourse, in which reductive categorisations of women and minorities are rife, it is maybe more urgent that ever to not only assert alternatives in themselves, but to create a discourse in which alternatives are possible. Beyond official narratives of what happened, and what will have happened, beyond fixed definitions of who you are or should be, Wohlatz’s film reminds us of the potential, and the need, for imagining something different.
Maya Caspari is a writer and PhD researcher at the University of Leeds. You can find her on Twitter @mayamnc.