Mama Bears – Fragments Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Directed by: Daresha Kyi

Filmed in the heart of Republican America, documentary Mama Bears follows the stories of families with LGBTQ+ children.

Director Daresha Kyi, from the start, sets up the initial conflict. Living in communities that are seeped in religion, the families are told (in no uncertain terms) that homosexuality and being transgender is a sin. There is no get-around, no equivocation. Kyi uses archive footage of preachers with their feverish declarations. Despite the age of this material, it is clear from this documentary that those words, the power behind them, has not altered.

We are first introduced to the Shappley family in Texas. Mom Kimberly talks about her personal history. She was, by her own admission, the personification of “biblical motherhood”. This was until one of her sons, Kai, began to present as trans. Insisting on being addressed as a girl, Kimberly winces as she recalls punishing Kai, but “the child persisted”. Realising that she needed to accept Kai as a trans girl, or risk losing her altogether, Kimberly chose to put her child first.

The documentary doesn’t shy away from the price paid by these families. Kimberly laments that she has now been ostracised by her friends and family: “I am now the enemy”. The stories of pain and persecution are horrific. The film also features adults who recall their experiences growing up gay and lesbian. Interviewing the Morris family, Tammi tells us that when her baby nephew unexpectedly died, a family member told her the death was a judgement on her homosexuality.

Mama Bears starts to pick at the threads of these beliefs, the power structures behind them, but Daresha Kyi decides to head for the light and this is where the film really comes to life. A group of parents decide to set up a support group online. It is a private Facebook community page – Mama Bears. Sara Cunningham, a founding member, confirms that this group is both advocacy and network. Their focus turns to politics, as local government tries to push through a ‘Bathroom Bill’ – supposedly protecting girls and women from men posing as trans people. This, of course, has a direct impact on Kai who is unable to use the girls’ bathroom at school.

The film follows the growing army of Mama (and Papa) Bears as they take their message of acceptance across state lines. They attend Pride marches, offering Free Mom Hugs. Kyi charts this grass-roots movement against a growing ultra-Conservatism as Trump is elected President. This is not just a case of religious and personal freedom, but a country divided.

Mama Bears excels as a character study, and Kyi is an empathetic film-maker who is careful not to judge the participants. Tammi’s mother, although supportive of her daughter, is persuaded by her church to stop filming, citing editorial concerns.

While the documentary acknowledges trauma that may never be fully healed, it does point to the possibility of a better future. The Mama Bears community is 30,000 members and counting, and hugs are still freely available.

Mama Bears is screening at the Fragments Film Festival 2022.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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