Motherland (2009)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on July 17, 2009 @

I'm afraid criticizing a movie such as Motherland is like booing at a funeral.

It's almost out of place to have doubts about a movie that so earnestly wants to offer healing. Almost.

I have a soft spot for an endeavor such as Motherland, so in some ways I want to give it a pass, but I also realize its limitations, calculations, and glaring omissions. When a movie wants to be uplifting, it had better be true to its vision.

Motherland is a documentary about six women who suffered a death. Five were mothers, one a sister (when the mother wouldn't participate). Two victims were murdered, three died in accidents, and a daughter committed suicide.

The credible mantra is that no one but a mother understands what a mother suffers when she loses a child.

The six bereaved women join together for a trip to South Africa -- staying there less than a month -- to help with children who have HIV/AIDS. It's a trip that is supposed to let them face their grief in a new, liberating, communal way.

The six women lack memorable personalities. Because one has been stricken by a tragedy does not make that person interesting. It's nice that these women found each other. They seem sincere, ordinary folks, but sincerity and ordinariness do not make personality.

The woman who seems under the most duress is African-American Mary Helena from Racine, Wisconsin, but her grief is morose and one-note. Her son was shot and killed in a parking lot, she had a stroke, walks with a crutch, and isolates herself.

Anne finally breaks through to Mary Helena, but it's less than profound. Anne (who co-produced Motherland) is the most thoughtful, well-spoken of the six, and her coping with the suicide of her daughter Grace shows sensitivity and mettle.

A documentary about Anne alone might be more substantial than the hit-or-miss conglomeration.

What may be the film's greatest lapse is that it seems to want to put a smiley face on grief. When the grieving sextet of women go to South Africa, almost all the kids there are adorable. Even the ostriches are adorable.

In Africa there's a lot of dancing, singing, clapping, and swaying. Then they leave.

In Motherland there's little if any conflict -- between the women, or between the children, or between the women and the children. A good fight would have added a little credibility. But Motherland is a sanitized world. It's Utopia. Of course, it's Utopia with HIV.

It's too antiseptic, which demeans the positives.

Motherland was directed, co-produced, and co-edited by Jennifer Steinman. The original music was composed by Eric Holland. The cinematography was by Karen Landsberg.

No writer is credited. Even a documentary needs a writer to clarify, emphasize and help tell the truth.

Motherland is a well-meaning tribute, but Steinman doesn't trust truth enough.

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