The 15 films of this collection range widely, exploring the mythology of motherhood and the difficulty in inhabiting that mythology; the uncertainty and the ambivalence; the affront to personal and bodily autonomy; the sheer bodiedness of the experience. What’s perhaps most impressive is just how thoroughgoing the commitment is in looking at the subject from an array of different angles and perspectives. It’s a commitment that’s apparent both in terms of the different identity positions and in the very different formal approaches (all the more impressive given the lockdown conditions in which the films were made), which create a gorgeously complex, layered meditation on the subject.
We see motherhood through the apprehension of pregnancy, and then through a more elegiac looking back. We see motherhood from the perspective of the friend left behind; from the perspective of a trans woman – acutely aware of the elision of womanhood and motherhood; and from a woman without biological children, who becomes ‘Mummy Number Three’ to another woman’s child. Motherhood is seen by a woman who decides against it – and has, as a result, finally arrived in herself. Motherhood from the perspective of an ‘abandoned’ child; and from the perspective of someone whose disabilities make its demands all the more formidable.
The formats vary: the straight statements to camera (Juno Dawson, Lemn Sissay, Athena Swan) leaven the dramatic monologues, which are themselves very various, with different degrees of polish and narrative complexity. The Queen’s Head (written by Katherine Kotz), for instance, makes nimble comic use of the Zoom format as the pregnant protagonist breaks down during a work presentation, but it’s simply put together. Others are more complexly structured: A Letter to my Baby by Anya Reiss is particularly ingenious. A young man (Tom Rhys Harries) reads a letter written by his mother in his infancy, and while his subjectivity is limited to what we can interpret of his face and clothes, she emerges vividly through the words he reads aloud, working to dramatize her sense of the child ‘holding all of my identity’.
With 50% of ticket sales going to Refuge, domestic abuse is a significant theme. The account written and narrated by Siggi Mwasote sits at the heart of the collection. It’s a matter-of-fact account of abuse and survival, told without a shred of self-pity. Mwasote’s words and delivery are strong enough to stand alone, so it feels a misstep to overlay her narrative with rather generic, uplifting music. In Number 1 by E. V. Crowe, a grown son’s memory of the abuse meted out to his mother emerges in fragments; the piece is written with great precision and delivered with equal skill in a virtuosic performance by Landry Adelard.
It’s interesting that some of the most thoughtful insights come at the subject obliquely. This is not to say that the more obvious perspectives or subject positions are not well drawn. The pregnant woman and the mother mired in the firestorm of parenting are vividly captured and their testimonies are hugely satisfying for anyone who has longed to hear the corroboration of such experiences; Venus of Whitechapel (by Naomi Sheldon) capturing the dreamy inwardness of pregnancy (pregnant with twins – ‘I am full of babies’ the protagonist thinks); while Inside Me (Morgan Lloyd Malcolm) is a beautifully economic piece of writing revealing the hidden despair of an exhausted mother and the unravelling triggered by the kindness of a stranger. Suited (Hannah Khalil) attends to an impossible litany of demands and imperatives, while, in the poetry and beauty of its imagery, also offers a salve of sorts.
In Baby Yoga by Suhayla El Bushra, however, it’s the friend left behind (a riveting performance by Tsion Habte) that notices not only the loss of intimacies beyond the bond between mother and child, but also the wider loss of an outlook that acknowledges a connection to the world at large. The contribution by disabled rights activist Athena Swan also notes the risk of exclusivity in familial relationships, acknowledging how hard her own mother fought for her education, an education that allows her ‘to be for everyone, not just those in my family’. Meanwhile, Lemn Sissay suggests that ‘the privilege of family is you don’t have to forgive’ and tries to parse the demands he placed upon his biological mother, attacking her wellbeing in pursuing his. And trans rights activist Juno Dawson offers a thoughtful analysis of the expectations of nurture placed upon women, pointing out the ways in which boys are not socialised to nurture, while girls are.
Engrossing and often very moving, this collection has been curated with great care, and we are left with the sense that the multiplicity of its approach could be the paradigm for many other such investigations.
Available here until 25 April 2021