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Jean-Pierre Gorin
USA/West Germany, 1980

To the extent that Grace and Virginia Kennedy are known to the outside world, it’s as Poto and Cabengo—names the identical twins self-applied as small children in the 1970s. Neglected by their parents (who incorrectly believed them to be developmentally disabled) and not put in school until the filming of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 1980 documentary about them, the two spoke a patchwork of English, gibberish, and their grandmother’s German. Endlessly fascinating and more than a little tragic, the girls are also somewhat unknowable—in other words, everything a documentary subject could be.

I watched Poto and Cabengo on Criterion’s Hulu channel almost immediately after being made aware of its existence in early May. What struck me then, and has continued to trouble me in the months since, isn’t how strange the girls are but how ordinary. The film runs a nimble 73 minutes, and in that time it’s made clear that Gracie and Ginny (as their parents called them) would most likely have developed normally had their parents not been under the false impression that there was something wrong with them. In believing their daughters to be handicapped — and, more importantly, treating them like a lost cause — they effectively ensured that the girls would be. “You can only be a foreigner in a language other than your own,” Gorin narrates, “but these two were foreigners in their own language.” In their own language, yes, but also in their own home. Sadder ways to grow up certainly exist, but few come to mind.