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MILFF*: Mothers in the London Film Festival

Review essay

It’s an annual bonanza of tasty cinematic goodness: the London Film Festival (LFF) is winding down. Since this is probably my last autumn in the Big Smoke/Londonium, I went all out and got tickets for everything that struck my fancy. It wasn’t until my  fourth film screening that I realized there was a theme: motherhood.

Disclaimer: I’m not a mother and don’t intend to be. I generally resent it when podcasts and blogs I like get all hipster-parent-ocentric. Hell, I was mad when Lisa Bonet got up the McDuff and quit A Different World.  But, clearly, I must’ve been subconsciously looking for something. No, not a soul. For a different portrayal of motherhood. Something beyond a traditional natalist script of the perfection of motherhood, i.e. Katie Roiphe’s Double X article about her baby being like gak.

What’s mama-ing looking like in the 21st century? I’ll start with the titles that were mostly good, in their own way, but limited in saying anything new about motherhood, pressures (real or imagined) placed on mothers, and their expectations of children.

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

I’m cheating a bit with this one. It wasn’t part of the LFF, but it should’ve been. Maybe it wasn’t because…drum roll…it won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year. And, yet, I suspect it won’t have a very wide release Stateside, so if Netflix has it, do it/queue it.

This quiet, tense film focuses on Mia, a 15-year-old living on an Essex council estate with her mum and sister. Grim. Read on. Mia dreams of becoming a street dancer and she practices her moves, gleaned from hip hop music videos, in an  abandoned and  trashed vacant flat. It’s just Mia, some wacked out speakers, a CD player, and a 40 of cider. Fame, it is not.  The film ostensibly hits its  core dilemma when Mia’s mum, with a pathological love of boob tubes, brings home a new, hot boyfriend, Connor. Is he making moves on Mia, as well, or is he being affectionate as a father would?

No spoilers here, but what I will note is that Mia’s mum, Joanne, is a two-dimensional portrait of Britain’s Young Mum Problem broadly drawn. She’s a vision in trampitude with very little inner-life. She’s mostly outer-life and a caricature of “the culture of poverty”: unemployed, hard drinking, braless, unconcerned with having sex with the bedroom door open, yells at her kids, is killing them with second-hand smoke and just a generally shite mum. We do see some vague notion of love for her kids at the end of the film, but it’s as if the filmmaker oh-so-reluctantly decided Joanne might be a teensy bit human.

While the reviews for this film were mostly concerned with the young girl/possibly paedophilic boyfriend plot, I was once again enthralled by British filmmakers’ fetishization of blackness. Or perhaps it’s British culture’s fetishization of African-American blackness. British filmmakers love to depict blackness without black people. Mia practices her dance gyrations to an Ashanti video (she is, indeed, on a boat!). When Connor catches Mia in the act he says, “You dance like a black.” Not a black person. Not with black style, but like something less than human. I don’t doubt the frequency of such grammatical construction but, while I’m not a linguist, I read it as an articulation of white superiority.

Similarly, Mia’s mum Joanne falls way outside the bounds of “decent” white British womanhood. Race comes crashing into class to equate poor British white women with the Reagan’s American vision of a black welfare queen or Ricki Lake’s hoochie. Notably, the music that Joanne and her friends dance to when the pile into her council flat is dancehall with accompanying windin’ da body. Black culture is clearly a proxy for degeneracy. An affinity for blackness will only keep Mia and her mother rooted in a culture of poverty, not a cycle with institutional roots—an assumption that certain people are born to be poor, are born to never achieve.

All that makes it sound like I didn’t like Fish Tank, but in fact, I thought it was captivating in the cinematography, the rich performances that Arnold elicited from her performers, a funny and poignant script, and some clever jibes at modern-day Britain’s tabloid-induced hysteria over paedophilia and missing children.

The Absence (Mama Keïta, 2009): I had a hard time with this one. Maybe I was supposed to. In Keïta’s film, Adama returns home to Senegal thinking that his grandmother is deathly ill. She, in fact, is not, but Adama’s sister, Aïcha, so desparately wanted her brother to come home from France that she faked the message. We’re also led to believe that it’s Adama’s fifteen year absence that has resulted in Aïcha turning to prostitution. Adama cannot, of course, understand this since he sends plenty of money back to Senegal for his female relatives’ survival.

Again, without spoiling the film, once he learns of Aïcha and her disrespect for his reputation, Adama whips himself into a veritable frenzy of battering Aïcha. He must, however, later try and save her when she turns her own anger on the wrong, vengeful john.

I left this film feeling ambivalent. Was it my Western black feminism that had me reading the film as short-sighted and misogynist in its manichean dealings with the women involved? The saintly but naive grandmother, the beautiful dead mother, and the dirty-whore sister? It seemed like an excuse to make a Tarantino-esque film in Senegal. While I commend the effort to depict the struggles that people face with emigration, the people they leave behind, and the people left behind, a more nuanced approach might have made Adama less of a douchebag and Aïcha able to articulate her needs (literally—in this film she’s both speech- and hearing-impaired) so that her family would listen. The people in the audience who liked the film were so glad to have a representation of Africa that wasn’t destitution or despots that it struck me as a bit of Stockholm syndrome: grateful for any new representation. I’d give it a close, but not-quite-made-it.

London River (Rachid Buchareb, 2009): I generally enjoy Brenda Blethyn’s performances. I think she’s a British national treasure right up there with Peggy Mitchell and the Queen Vic. Alas, when I mentioned Blethyn’s performance to a friend and that she was simply a miserable punching bag, he quipped, “She’s the nation’s punching bag. When is she not?” True dat.

In this London River, Blethyn plays, Elizabeth, the mother of a daughter who has gone missing during the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 bombings that killed 52 people plus the four suicide bombers—all of Muslims of British-descent. This is important because the film plays with assumptions about nation, race, religion, and appearance. Elizabeth is thrown into the chaos of relatives searching for missing persons as she travels from her home on the isle of Guernsey to London. There she must grapple with a multicultural city that won’t easily tell her what happened to her daughter or where she might be. Everyone she encounters in this modern-day London—an Islamic landlord, a French Muslim detective, a black female constable—is Other to her. In her provincial mind, the people she meets are all evidence of London “crawling with Muslims,” as she cries to her brother down the phone.

Blethyn really rocks this role because you can see her coming to pieces when she encounters the father of the young African man her daughter was apparently living with, in love with, and…wait for it…taking ARABIC classes with! With this evidence she fears her red-haired, pale-skinned girl-child has been radicalized, Elizabeth is rude, hostile, and insensitive to the one person she’s in contact with who would most intensely know her pain: Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté), the young man’s father. Also a devout Muslim and a forester, we’re encouraged to see this elderly, dreadlocked man as a natural innocent, despite not having seen his son since he was six years old (more at the end of this post about fathers in these films).

The film maintains suspense as we follow both parents’ attempts to find their children.  With archival news footage of 7/7, London River perhaps too realistically conjours the horror of the time and the agony of not knowing. And, yet, everytime Elizabeth exhibited her racism and privilege, when others in the audience laughed at her, I just wanted to strike her. Neither reaction’s acceptable, but those were the limited options. Empathizing with her plight as a mother was difficult because it was too familiar and expected. Of course a woman who spends her days gardening on Guernsey in Wellies and sitting peaceably on rocky cliffs and making tea is going to be scared witless at the prospect of her only child living amongst the people constructed as boogey men by the BNP.

Ultimately, I think the film did do a good job of contrasting her religious rituals (Sunday church) with Ousmane’s. While she tossed and turned and mumbled to herself about her failings as a parent, Ousmane both sought help at the mosque and quietly hoped for the best, trusting that Allah’s will would be done. Being a non-believer myself, I could still appreciate the juxtaposition. As Western as Elizabeth was she couldn’t very well navigate the Western world as it evolved. The film did, alas, strike a Driving Miss Daisy Around Londontown note at times: sage, African man inserted to assuage the pain of mostly undeserving, self-indulgent white person.

Precious Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire (Lee Daniels, 2009)

I’d have to place Lee Daniels’ film on the border in terms of representations of motherhood, generally, and black motherhood, in particular. I’ve been holding my breath since it was announced that Daniels would dare approach Sapphire’s amazing book. Besides, I’m still mad about the Daniels-produced Monster’s Ball, so I wasn’t trying to like this film. Grudges aside, he had a dream, went after it, got it financed, and pulled some incredible performances from Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, and Gabby Sidibe. As an aside, Gabby needs publicity lessons. Walking on stage, saying, “Hi. Bye.” won’t cut it on Oscar night. There will be Oscar nominations, if not awards. Hollywood likes to give Oscars to our worst portrayals of black womanhood. Yea…Academy.

Mo’Nique pulled out all the stops as Precious’ delusional, force feeding, battering, sexually abusing mother, Mary. “Monster” is the word that’s emerging most frequently in the press on the film. And, indeed, her behavior and the rationales she give for allowing her man to abuse her baby are monstrous. But somewhere between Mary’s devestating insecurities that would make her want to keep her man—any man—at all costs and Mariah Carey’s turn as a social worker ultimately out of her depth, the film raises some compelling questions about motherhood. There’s a lot of handwringing over stereotypes, but as many media scholars have been saying for a while now, isn’t it time we push our critiques beyond good versus bad representations?

Hopefully, viewers will be encouraged to look a bit deeper into what society pushes women to think will happen if they become mothers. What is our investment in writing certain women (poor women, women of color, lesbian women) off as “bad mothers”? We seriously need to question the notion of a maternal instinct. Some socialist feminists have been trying to do this for years, if not decades. What are the perils that women and children face if they believe saintly notions of mother-on-pedestal and children at her feet? One of the best interrogations of motherly expectations is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Just because many women can biologically  have babies doesn’t mean that there’s anything natural about how we expect people to raise those babies.

The last two films I want to note blew the others right out of the got’damn water! Sky high. Totally rocked in their filmmaking and complexity in depicting mothers.

Applause (Martin Pieter Zandvliet, 2009): Paprika Steen. I’ll say it again: Paprika Steen. This is the moment I love: when I stumble upon an actor, a band, a TV show that’s been going for a while and I have a whole catalog to devour after falling completely in love with a performance. So, don’t stop by unless you’re up for The Paprika Steen Film Festival.

The film: Thea is a mother just out of rehab. She’s a recovering alcoholic, as well as an actress still at the top of her game. She struggles with her ex-husband Christian to see her two sons and make up for lost time. I know it sounds kinda True Movies/Lifetime, but the depth that Steen brings to Thea’s desperation is palpable. She’s blunt, self-depracating, but wholly believable when she expresses a need for her children. To be in their lives is clearly a selfish act. Her motivation isn’t wholly that she wants to prove herself to be a good mother, but to stay sober.

It’s a dynamic take on motherhood because it’s honest. Having children is, more often than not, framed as a selfless act, Never has so much self-lessness been trumpted and used to pull rank on the child-free: “When will you stop being so selfish and have kids?” This logic has always sounded ass-backwards to me. Just because  you can no longer go to the cinema when you want to or get shitfaced on a Saturday night doesn’t make you bloody Mother Teresa. It means you’ve made a choice about a lifestyle change. I can think of nothing more selfish than the need to have replicas of yourself watching Noddy or asking, “Can we go now?” Applause reveals a certain truth about motherhood: it’s entirely selfish and if one’s not honest about that need, who’s interests are really served? Thea’s final scenes with her children are revelatory to her and the audience as she twigs what she must do in order to fit comfortably in the role of mother.

Mother (Bong Joon-Ho, 2009)

Bong Joon-Ho reeled me in with his 2006 South Korean monster flick, The Host. He upended conventions by showing the monster very quickly and using that sighting to scare the beejesus outta me for the rest of the film. In this follow-up, Kim Hye-ja plays “Mother.” She appears to be much like Brenda Blethyn’s Elizabeth: an almost obsessive mother in her willingness to do anything for her child’s safety and happiness. In this case, Mother is determined to prove that her slow-witted son, Do-joon, isn’t responsible for the murder of a local girl. The frenzy with which Hye-ja plays the role always hints at something even more manic just beneath the surface.

I can’t say too much more about the film for fear of giving anything away, but the film made me think about the ways in which motherhood marginalizes women, particularly older women. The notion of an empty nest syndrome becomes even more terrifying if one is led to believe that one’s value only rests in being a mother and wife, perhaps a grandmother. What’s a mother to do when her raison d’etre is threatened? If you like mystery-thrillers with a societal statement to boot, see this. One Korean film site likened Joon-Ho’s work to Almodovar and I’d say that description’s not far off. As we’d say on Yelp: I’m a fan.

Word to your papa…

Fathers didn’t generally fare well, but given that so many of the mothers depicted were flawed what makes you think they’d make good partner choices? There was the absent father (Fish Tank, London River), the dead father (London River, Precious, The Absence, Mother), and the abusive father (Precious). Of these men, it wasn’t a far leap to think that the underlying message was that if the men were around these women wouldn’t be inclined to drink, be sexually promiscuous, have Islamophobic panic attacks, or become abusive themselves. Of all the films, Applause has a present father who is central to the mother’s relationship with her children. As a testament to the strength of the script and the fine acting, we didn’t get a cardboard cutout of a bad man wanting to keep a mother from her kids. Nor was he a good man dealing with an utter wackjob. Of all the dad’s, present or unaccounted for, he made the most sense and made me want to see more of fatherhood depicted as more than an after-thought.

* I play on the “MILF” concept reservedly. It’s rather creepy that patriarchy finds ways to sexualize women at any age and in any station of life: “milfs,” “cougars.” Not that women of all ages don’t want to be wanted, but isn’t it telling that as soon as women reclaim their sexuality (e.g. women in the 40s, 50s, and 60s), some jackanape comes along and undermines it with a new “demographic” term?


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