Written by Madison Drew Daniels
Originally posted on IndieEntertainmentMagazine.com
September 21, 2017
What began as a documentary following a women’s reproduction rights bill through congress ended as a tight intimate window into the lives of women in the busiest maternity hospital in the world. In Motherland director Ramona Diaz brings us through the doors of Jose Fabella Hospital and right to the heart of the Philippines.
It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of this decision as Motherland has taken home numerous awards on the festival circuit. Though Diaz is not unfamiliar with this sort of acclaim, she has also made other winners like Imelda and Don’t Stop Believin’. Diaz is a highly skilled documentarian and deserves all the praise she’s given.
I’ve used the word intimate before to describe the feel of a movie, but never before has it been so earned. Diaz filmed Motherland in cinema verite style. There is no narration, personal interviews, or expert opinion. All Diaz presents the audience with is the raw, intimate, and expertly edited scenes inside Fabella Hospital.
With an average of 60 deliveries a day and as much as 100 in a 24-hour period, Fabella Hospital is perhaps the busiest maternity hospital in the world. The highest rate in the US is Winnie Palmer Hospital in Florida at 54 deliveries a day. While that sounds comparable, remember that American mothers are typically given their own room. They have no such luxury at Fabellas. Acting as the final safety net for the poor and impoverished, mothers are sometimes two or three to a bed, delivering their babies side by side with each other.
This intimacy with one another continues as the mother and baby are wheeled into a large hall lined with beds. Stacked like sardines these women take the first steps into motherhood together. Most have been through Fabellas before and lend comforting support to first timers. They cry together, experience pain together, and most strikingly laugh together.
For despite how bleak Motherland seems on the surface, there is a definite humor throughout. The women shoulder their struggles, often with a tear, but mostly with a chuckle. A nurse on the PA system counsels them on hygiene like a dry witted stand-up comic.
This does more than highlight the remarkable mystery of motherhood, but gives the film a universal quality. The flurry of emotions felt in Fabellas are the same of those in Winnie Hospital in Florida. The differences lie in the wildly disparate circumstances– poverty being the chief among them.
Another of the themes that run throughout the film is that of Family Planning. Each mother that delivers is offered a free IUD to prevent further unplanned pregnancies. This sounds like a sweet deal but due to lack of information and a predominantly Catholic population, there are few who take Fabellas up on this offer.
There are mothers in their 20’s and already on their seventh child. They come back year after year delivering another baby while they’re struggling to support the children they already have. It is a vicious cycle. Despite this, nurses attempt to persuade mothers to get the IUD and gain some control.
Motherland could have been a very different film. I am used to documentaries preaching at me. But with Diaz’s expertise, Motherland did no such thing. There is not a hint of condescension or supplication in the film. First world guilt isn’t heaped upon the viewer in an effort to stir up donations. There was no grand aesop about Family Planning or over population. There could have been. But there wasn’t.
Diaz masterfully stepped out of the way and let the lives of the women in Fabellas speak for themselves. What emerges is a narrative that shows these mothers are not defined by their poverty. They are defined by their warmth, generosity, and immense fortitude.
With Motherland, Diaz proves herself a visionary force to be reckoned with.
Motherland opened September 22, 2017 at LA’s Laemmle Santa Monica Film Center followed by a national rollout.
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