On Family and Motherhood

in 65th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Mohamed Tarek

Personal Stories from DOK Leipzig 65

On the 17th of October 2022, DOK Leipzig opened its 65th edition, where I was honored to be on the FIPRESCI jury, accompanied by two knowledgeable film critics, Peter Kremski (Germany) and Müge Turan (Turkey), to award a film the International Critics award. Our mission was to select one winner among 13 international feature-length documentaries. Outside of the theatre hosting the opening ceremony, a right-wing demonstration marched around the midsize German city of Leipzig. Inside the theatre, after presenting an animated trailer focusing on the festival’s dove, the juries introduced by the festival director Christoph Terhechte and the opening animation film No Dogs or Italians Allowed (Alain Ughetto, 2022) was screened. 

Between the opening film tackling immigration, Italian families struggling with their sorrows during the Nazi regime, and the warm welcoming of the festival’s team to people coming from all over the world, you could feel a juxtaposition between Leipzig DOK and those right-wing protests. It was a reminder of the role that arts and culture have always played, and still play, against regressive ideas. On the second day of the festival, our mission of finding our award winner started, a journey containing many screenings, discussions, food, coffee, and sometimes late-night parties. 

The well-curated competition made our selection harder, but away from the prize, you could quickly notice the themes of family, LGBTQ, microcosms, death, collective memory, colonization, and the environment in the films. Among them, family and motherhood were the most prominent ones. One Mother (Michaël Bandela, 2022) was our jury’s choice to receive the International Critics Award. In this article, I will focus more on the themes of motherhood and family by discussing several short and feature films that tackle the related subject. As the festival coupled shorts with feature films of the same topic/theme/style, the talk will also be about these films. In every subtitle, short films are marked with an (S) and feature films with (F). 

Will You Look at Me (S)/One Mother (F)

Two stories, one from China and the other extending between Europe and Africa, observe two human beings struggling with their complicated mother relationships. Will You Look at Me is a Chinese film made byShuli Huang, a young homosexual man who tries to get the validation and blessings of his mother, who is only concerned about him getting married. Huang depicts this struggle using raw film reels and handshaking camera movement, in addition to family photographs, which gives the viewer much closeness to his life. In addition, he uses juxtaposition between images of his open-minded friends living their age and calm, quiet pictures of his family. The contradiction between the happy photos of the family and the tense audio recording of Huang quarreling with his mother creates the essential drama for such a film. Will you look at me succeeds as a perfect artistic depiction of a personal story that carries a relatable contemporary issue.

In One Mother by Mickael Bandela, the filmmaker is the protagonist as well, as Bandela is confronting his biological mother, Gisèle, who placed him as an infant in the care of Marie-Thérèse, who cared for him for almost twenty years. As Bandela started building his own family, the question about her decision rose in importance, hence his personal and cinematic journey from his homeland of France to her’s in Congo.

In the film, we watch interviews of the two mothers, Giselle and Marie-Therese, in different settings and types of archival images (videos and tapes) to investigate Gisele’s seemingly strange decision. With the film unfolding, we feel great closeness and understanding for all the characters. We also reflect on questions of stereotypical motherhood and think differently about the biological mother’s decision as we discover different ways of maternal bonding from Giselle’s homeland in Africa. One Mother is a film about acceptance and healing through sincere communication and trying to understand different perspectives without prejudice. It is also a call to reflect on what we consider normal. 

Now I am In the Kitchen(S)/A Life Like Any Other (F)

The animated short Now I am In the Kitchen is the story of a woman who investigates her relationship with her mother in her kitchen during the pandemic times as she is far away from home. Yana Pan, the director, uses different animation techniques to tell of a reflective moment, where she rediscovers some ideas that seemed distant while she was physically close to her mother. This film’s paradox of close/distant-distant/close is fascinating. When the main character was close to her mother, she couldn’t see the closeness of the relationship. Still, when she went away, the distance enabled her to find similarities to her mother through something that she had refused in her old life (cooking) due to some misconceptions about the relationship between cooking and being a feminist. 

The film reflects on different issues of feminism and motherhood and gets us involved through the animated creative visuals and sounds of cooking. Cooking relates to every viewer’s experience and their relation to family, and food represents an essential link to our beloved ones, even though we don’t notice it that much. Afterward, we saw A Life Like Any Other by Faustine Cros. Here, Cros uses the archival family footage shot by her father. Even though she had watched it multiple times, she noticed a few years ago that her mother’s appearance told an untold story.

This notice took her on a journey of digging into the family’s history, interviewing her father and mother, and weaving this footage with the archival one to tell about a depressed mother. She had big dreams for her film career, but the gender roles embodied in society and the film industry caused her to cut her film career short. Cros here creates her mother’s story like a puzzle, telling about how all of this began, trying to go in all possible ways to know why her mother made the choices she made. The film reminds us of Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, one of the radical feminist books written in the 1960s, in which she says: “The male claim that females find fulfillment through motherhood and sexuality reflects what males think they’d find fulfilling if they were female.” The mother’s depression here is not accidental but rather a systematic one caused by norms, even if the father/husband is nice and caring.

Why My Mom Loves Russell Crowe(S)/Perhaps What I Fear Doesn’t Exist (F)

Another story about a woman and her mother appears in Why My Mom Loves Russell Crowe by Emma van den Berg, where she follows her mother. The film is also remedial, to rediscover why her mom obsessively loves the famous actor despite her refusal/rejection to be with a man for a long time. The filmmaker mixes staged, spontaneous, and interview scenes of her mother to dive into this mysterious question. Over time, her mother slowly opens up about how and why this happened. The film’s excellent quality comes from the great sense of humor and freedom of the mother and her friends, who dare to talk about horrible past events. The film shows reverse parenting roles, where the daughter plays the mother, trying to take care of her mother. 

Flowing to the feature film Perhaps What I Fear Doesn’t Exist by Corine Shawi, which quotes its title from a famous Arabic poem, we also see a reverse parenting role played by the Lebanese filmmaker towards her ill father. In the film, Shawi is devastated and confused between taking care of herself, fleeing all her family problems, and staying with her sick father, who doesn’t show any progress. 

Here, documentary filmmaking comes to the mind of the director as a way of trying to answer her questions and silence her anxiety. She interviews her brother and sister and shows her father and mother living between hospitals and home, in addition to a few poetic scenes of her personal life. This subtle appearance evokes how different tensions crush her life. In addition, she develops a great VR filmmaking healing technique for her father, in a moment where she proves that her art can play a role in the rehabilitation of her father. Shaw’s story is personal yet very familiar, especially in the Arabic communities, where marginal people face the hard choices of leaving their families for freedom or staying and losing their dreams. The film shows the hesitation of the director between all the options she has, told through other people’s talk. Even if the film doesn’t have a clear resolution, the finale gives some acceptance of this harrowing experience.   

These six filmmakers, coming from different continents around the globe, having no connection to each other, chose to tell these personal stories to the world, seeking healing, exploring, and acceptance through filmmaking. Although these themes have been in the documentary filmmaking scene for an extended time, every personal story has uniqueness. 

Such stories remind us of the stereotypes around family roles that have existed for a long time, trying to deconstruct the normalcy of gender and parenting. In these artworks, with all the artistic maneuvers of a documentary, we get the opportunity to think about these concepts again, hoping that we can have better ideas that bring us more peace and acceptance, which is also the festival’s goal.  

Mohamed Tarek
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger