Outfest LA, which continues until July 24 is hosting several premieres and special screenings including that of the documentary Nelly & Nadine on July 21.
The film, directed by Magnus Gertten was the recipient of the 2022 Teddy Jury Award at the Berlin International Film Festival where it made its world premiere.
Nelly & Nadine tells the love story of Nelly Mousset-Vos and Nadine Hwang who met at the Ravensbruck concentration camp during World War II. Their story begins on Christmas Eve of 1944 when Nelly, a professional mezzo-soprano was instructed to sing carols for the inmates and from the audience Nadine shouted for her to sing something from Madame Butterfly. Nelly sang the song “Un bel di vedremo” which kicked off an unexpected romance that would span nearly thirty years, across two continents and four countries until Nadine’s death in 1972.
The film utilizes old diary entries, letters, photographs and film inherited by Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie Bianchi to tell their story. The women remained together at Ravensbruck until three months before the end of the war when Nelly was transferred to Mauthausen in Austria. During their time of incarceration, the two would dream of better days wrapped in each other’s arms on the top bunk of a three-tiered bed in the barracks.
After the liberation the two had no information about the other’s whereabouts but were soon reunited in 1946. In 1950 they relocated, along with Nelly’s daughter Claude, to Caracas, Venezuela where they remained until Nadine took ill in 1972 when they returned to Brussels.
The film essentially follows Sylvie’s journey of discovery. She had been in possession of her grandmother’s artifacts for quite some time but was unable to face the pain of looking through them until recently. It is never explicitly stated but very much implied that Sylvie’s mother, Claude, was disapproving of the relationship between her mother and Nadine. She was often hostile about Nadine and even went so far as to hide an envelope of her belongings in a pile of junk so as to avoid it being found. Sylvie seemed genuinely astonished to discover her grandmother was in a lesbian relationship. It had never occurred to her that Nadine was anything more than Nelly’s roommate, a label consistently reinforced by her mother.
To her credit though, once Sylvie gets started, she fearlessly and determinately pursues the truth about her grandmother and Nadine. She uncovers Nadine’s affiliation with Natalie Barney, the lesbian author, pioneer and founder of the Académie Des Femmes; which was a literary salon for female writers in Paris during the early 20th century. She then tracks down friends of Nelly and Nadine from Caracas, Venezuela which is interesting in itself but becomes completely illuminating once Sylvie manages to have a private chat with the daughter of her grandmother’s friend José. The details uncovered about Nelly and Nadine’s social circle of other gay couples during the 1950’s in Caracas is a fascinating glimpse into queer history.
The story is pieced together and told in Nelly’s own words as she was the writer of the journals and letters and visualized by Nadine who took all of the photographs and film. What is uncovered is an unconditional love and a bond so strong that even death couldn’t put it asunder. Nelly continued to write to Nadine in her journals after she died, one of the beautiful yet heartbreaking details uncovered by Sylvie. Another amazing discovery was that these women intended on telling the world their story but could not find any publishing company that would aide them in their endeavor of course due to the controversial nature of their story. This film changes all that.
The way Nelly and Nadine lived out loud and hid in plain sight is astonishing and a painful reminder of where we as queer people have come from. Their undying love is immortalized thanks to Gertten’s though provoking and inspired documentary, masterfully supported by the cinematography of Caroline Troedsson. If you are not able to attend the screening at Outfest, then do make plans to see the film when it is released theatrically and on VOD later this year. It is not to be missed.