This is the context for I Am No Bird, the new documentary by Melbourne filmmaker Em Baker. The title comes from Jane Eyre, where the heroine uses the line to declare her independence from her would-be husband Mr Rochester. Jane’s resistance is short-lived, but the question remains: does Rochester mean to trap her in a cage or give her a chance to fly free?
In pursuit of a 21st-century take on such matters, Baker follows the wedding preparations of four women, in Australia, China, Mexico and Turkey respectively – all of them looking forward to the big day, however different their circumstances.
Two story strands stand out. Anna, in Australia, is a Pentecostal Christian whose church insists on a traditional definition of marriage as well as chastity for the unwed. Before meeting her equally devout partner she had never even kissed anyone – and by her account, neither had he.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dalia in Mexico, who has gone against the wishes of her working-class Catholic family to marry her girlfriend, in the only same-sex wedding of the four.
But we’re encouraged to see parallels as well as differences, especially as the subjects have their own ways of placing themselves within a larger context. Anna is convinced that her notion of marriage is basically universal, while Dalia describes herself as an ordinary person like anyone else.
I Am No Bird contains much to mull over, but not always with a sense that Baker has been able to shape her material into a cohesive narrative or argument. Perhaps she wants to leave us room to make our own judgments – but it might also be that a low budget did not always allow her enough time with her subjects, much less their families or spouses-to-be.
When all else fails she goes for a generalised lyrical effect, making use of Super-8 film – the “home movie” format of yesteryear – to create instant nostalgia. Similarly twee are the animated vignettes that show the subjects in their younger days, an overworked technique that should be banned from documentaries for at least five years.
It’s as if Baker herself is torn between a sceptical, analytical point of view and the feel-good high that springs from the dream of the perfect wedding. Still I Am No Bird is at least a conversation starter, even if the post-screening discussions may be more interesting than the film itself.