Lila is a 7-year-old girl living in a residential tower block. Left to her own devices one night, with no parent around, she fends for herself, and even fries up some potatoes for dinner before falling asleep in front of the TV.
When she wakes up, the building is on fire. Her neighbor Karim helps her escape. But as she realizes what is happening and the blaze rages on, she believes she caused the fire and feels ashamed and guilty. She attaches herself to Karim, but as the night wears on and the intensity of the stress builds, Lila finds herself once again on her own.
Directed by Marie Mc Court from a script she co-wrote with Abdoulkarim Hamadi, this visceral, superbly crafted short drama is both a psychologically penetrating portrait of a traumatic event as seen through the eyes of a child and a subtle indictment of a failed social system. What links the two approaches is the theme of abandonment and the tragedy that can happen when we leave the most vulnerable on their own, without support or resources.
The film’s visual language has a restless immediacy, with tight framing, handheld movement and a sometimes jarring toggling between images and sounds. Unlike the seamless cohesion of a more classical film style, the style here reflects Lila’s subjectivity, fascinated by small details and flitting from thought to sensation. Key story elements and narrative information are often left off-screen as a result of this cropped perspective. But we are given an intense empathy with Lila, and understand her bewilderment and confusion.
The film rarely cuts to a wide shot, but when it does, it offers a wider social and emotional context to Lila’s life. We see in a fleeting moment both her craving for belonging and connection, as well as how utterly alone she is. (It’s notable that no one in her small community even questions her parents’ absence.)
Lila’s aloneness is precisely built up with almost documentary-like attention to detail, though the storytelling remarkably never feels written. Instead, the film is a sensory experience: a running stream of images, feelings, sensations, built around a remarkable performance by young actor Anae Romyns. She anchors and compels the story with a remarkably natural presence and an emotional immediacy with absolutely no false notes. As viewers, we are completely with Lila as she navigates, as best as she can, this traumatic experience — and we feel her final abandonment all the more painfully.
“I Was Still There When You Left Me” would be a powerful indictment of abandonment if it existed purely on the psychological level. But it builds up a cogent social critique, at first through obliquely positioned sound and images and then more forcefully as we observe the fire’s effects on Karim and his friends. The question of Lila’s role in the fire hangs over the work but is never answered conclusively.
What is fact, however, is that these residential buildings — where the socially and economically disadvantaged often live — are neglected and not updated to modern safety codes, as seen in real-life examples like the 2017 Grenfell tower fire, which likely spread as rapidly as it did because of the use of polyethylene panels on the facade. The story parallels Lila’s abandonment by her parent to an amorphous but still consequential abandonment of social responsibility — and makes clear through intense empathy and immersive storytelling that both are disasters.