Dir. Jennifer Steinman
Inspired by loss and motivated by hope, Motherland is a film that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking. A narrative woven out of the collective grief of six women who have lost children, the documentary follows them on a journey to Africa as each attempts to cope with her loss. The film's director and producer, Jennifer Steinman, organized the service project that Motherland centers on after a friend lost her son in a car accident. Steinman's intention was to take six strangers suffering from a similar form of grief and place them as volunteers in a community wracked by death. South Africa, a country where the majority of the population has either HIV or AIDS, was the locale she selected.
The film opens with a brief snapshot of each woman at home, either at the scene of her child's death or in his or her fully intact bedroom. Without delving into the details, Steinman gives us a glimpse of each mother’s personal tragedy and motivation to go on the trip, and an eye into the way the women are coping with their grief. From the outset, Steinman creates an open space for the viewer to grieve with the mothers, and to identify with their particular pain. Though her itself is formulaic -- it quite closely mimics the structure of the reality TV shows we are so accustomed to watching -- Steinman manages to avoid overt cliché and tell each woman's tale gracefully. Acutely aware of the difficulty that the participants in her documentary must be experiencing, Steinman pieces together their stories respectfully. Each mother introduces her child first as a living person, and it is only later in the film that we are told the story of their deaths.
However, as Steinman introduces the larger goals of her project, and explains the connection between the American mothers and an African community filled with both orphaned children and mothers with children who are HIV positive, the basis for the film begins to feel unstable and grandiose. Like many artists, Steinman has a large and somewhat abstract vision of the story she wants to tell but, as is also often the case, that vision is too expansive to be contained in a single film. Motherland remains both captivating and engaging, but the magnitude of Steinman's goal forces her to structure the film so that each scene feels too much like it is leading to a very particular end. From Mary Helena, the mother who cannot initially move past her sorrow to be a part of the group, to the revelation that the woman hosting the volunteers has also lost a child, there is an underlying formulaic quality to the film that detracts from the greater product.
Nonetheless, Steinman is clearly aware of this potential and compensates for the easiness of the plot by carefully avoiding obvious cinematographic clichés. The director is able to capture the beauty of Africa without using the landscape to force a feeling of healing, or even to evoke grief among her characters. She acknowledges that they are in a place both of extreme beauty and of great poverty but lets those elements speak for themselves. Near the end of the film, two of the mothers climb to a particularly beautiful spot and scatter some of their children's ashes. The camera remains close to them, yet it is to Steinman's credit that this moment remains singularly beautiful and personal, without attempting to represent any greater truth.
One of the major themes that Steinman toys with is the way that grief is felt throughout different cultures. While each of the mothers admits to feeling isolated, lonely, and unable to wholly reintegrate into the community that she formerly identified with, Steinman highlights the incredible sense of both commonality and joy that pervades South Africa, despite the extreme loss that nearly every member of the country has suffered. Through song, dance, and abundant human contact, the mothers open up -- both to one another and to themselves. We watch, experiencing their sadness organically, as they are transformed and begin to feel both pain and pure joy in close connection to one another. If the other themes of the movie felt forced, this meditation on experiencing loss does not. And though this theme incorporates familiar cultural ideas, Steinman explores them in a way that is both refreshing and thought provoking. Motherland undoubtedly did a greater service to its subjects than to the cinematic arts. But it nonetheless feels worthwhile, and for a story whose odds at achieving originality were so slim, it fares quite well.