Tea Time is a short and sweet documentary from Chile about six elderly women who have been meeting for tea once a month for 60 years. It is directed by Maite Alberdi, whose grandmother features, and is produced by Clara Taricco. Albderi writes, “In my home country of Chile, having afternoon tea together with friends and family is a cherished ritual. The custom is far more than just tea… As time goes on, tea time and the conversations it fuels can become the glue that holds relationships together.”
The six women went to high school together, and at the start of the film we are introduced to each of them in turn. First, there is a montage of group photos through the years, shown in the context of a photo album. Then, each character is introduced in third person, their quirks highlighted. It’s an introduction reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film. Alicia, for example, signs up for every single course because it really affected her that she was not allowed to study after school. The narrator says, “She’s very flirty and likes everything to be perfect and matching.” and we see a close up of Alicia applying lipstick. The shot is such that her chin and the top of her head are cut off, and it allows us to focus in on her expression, her concentration and the wrinkles in her skin. Throughout Tea Time there is a constant alternation between medium shots and extreme close-ups. This switching back and forth is done at a natural tempo and mimics the ebbs and flows of a conversation where one tends to focus in and zoom out repeatedly. In this way, we feel like we’re part of the tea party, and the six women quickly become our close friends.
Tarico is a fan of the extreme close-up shot. Focused on a subject, the close-up fosters a feeling of intimacy and vulnerability. Focussing on the food being served or the tea being boiled has a different effect altogether, highlighting the importance of tea time as a ritual. The food, the drink, the plates – it all becomes sacred. The maid prepares the sandwiches with such care and precision that a certain gravity hangs in the air. The regular meets of these women are so much more than a fun catch-up session. Certainly, they gossip and discuss day-to-day issues, but they also spend a great deal of their conversations nutting out what it means to be in love, what it means to live and what it means to age and to come to terms with death. When they reflect on the changing times – on sexual mores and attitudes towards homosexuality – their afternoon tea hints at larger, societal change. Their tea time thus becomes something of a microcosm of Chilean society.
As the documentary progresses, certain members of the core six women begin to drop out. One is too sick to attend. Later, a particularly lively member passes away. We hear them talking about their illnesses, and about their fears. Maria Terese hates being on dialysis, but wants to stay alive for her daughter, who is intellectually disabled. Time passes quickly. Before each afternoon tea starts, there is a scanning shot of nature – some tree, flowers or leaves – to remind us of the transience of life. Then there is a close-up of tea brewing, and this signals the commencement of the ritual.
Tea Time is a very enjoyable documentary. It is rare that elderly women are the subject of a film, and each of the women is lively and a joy to watch. Maria Terese is especially charming. She speaks with such love and fondness for her deceased husband, and her letter to her friends, read out towards the end of the film, is wonderful. Tea Time gives peripheral insights into Chilean society, and the ritual of afternoon tea, but more importantly it teaches us about the nature of human existence, seen through the eyes of six wise, witty women, sparkling with joie de vivre.