Sundance doc depicts a land of mothers
It goes inside the world’s busiest maternity hospital
The camera in “Motherland” acts as the ghost in the room, allowing viewers to observe the world’s busiest maternity hospital.
Scenes in the cinéma vérité documentary offer a glimpse of chaotic and crowded hallways at the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, the Philippines’ capital city. As the camera pans across the maternity ward, it shows beds fitted to sleep four women each. Other shots in the documentary follow the stories of first-time mothers and those who gave birth for the seventh time.
“Motherland,” filmed in a narrative style, will premiere Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival. Its filmmaker, Romana S. Diaz, hopes to connect an American audience to the subtitled documentary’s accounts of motherhood and the need for reproductive health care in the Philippines.
“My job as a filmmaker is to invite audiences to experience things they otherwise wouldn’t experience,” Diaz told The Park Record. “I also want to give them some kind of epiphany in the process.”
Born and raised in Manila, Diaz has in interest in the Philippines’ political climate, which is what compelled her to make a documentary on reproductive healthcare.
She originally wanted to explore the dispute behind the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012, which is meant to provide reproductive health care to low-income women, but has seen opposition from many in the predominantly Catholic country.
“It’s a very simple, straight-forward bill that is very controversial in a Catholic country, because the bishops were opposing it,” Diaz said.
The filmmaker originally wanted to cover the debate in the Filipino Legislature, but instead found her story in the maternity ward in Manila’s Santa Cruz district.
“Everybody said you have to visit the hospital,” Diaz said. “That is ground zero for your story, they told me. I visited it as part of my research trip and realized the story was really there and not in the Legislature.”
For “Motherland,” one of 12 films in the festival’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, Diaz and her crew spent six weeks filming at the hospital.
Rather than pulling aside mothers for interviews, Diaz just shadowed them.
“I feel like form should serve the story,” she said. “With this particular film, there was no need to pull them aside.
It was so experiential and immersive. They gave me such access to their lives at that moment.”
Each mother shadowed in “Motherland” gave birth to a premature baby, which Diaz said is common in the Philippines.
“I wanted to film them through a few weeks, so I chose mothers who had premature babies,” Diaz said. “There were lots of them. A lot of mothers give birth to premature babies in the hospital, simply because they have no prenatal health and prenatal screenings.”
The women were at the hospital for weeks, nursing their babies back to health with Kangaroo Mother Care, a skin-to-skin technique that uses body heat to keep premature infants warm.
Lea, a mother predominantly featured in the film who gave birth to premature twins, had never used the technique.
Diaz said finding women such as Lea to follow was an important part of the filmmaking process.
“Lea’s experience came out to be such a great story, because she didn’t know she was having twins,” Diaz said. “It’s really sometimes luck of the draw.”
Diaz found Lea through a labor nurse, who felt Lea’s story was important to depict. Other mothers made themselves known to Diaz.
“I call them my peacocks,” Diaz said. “They make themselves known to you. They almost choose you, instead of you choosing them.
One such mother was Lerma, who would oftentimes joke with other mothers staying in the ward.
“I admit I’m nuts,” Lerma said at one point in the film. “Why wouldn’t I be nuts? The children keep coming one after another.”
Diaz sometimes finds it difficult not to help film subjects, especially in the case of those in “Motherland.” Lea, for instance, had money struggles, and the father of her twins had to beg for money so she could pay to for Lea to leave the hospital.
The filmmaker, however, feels her job to inform is much more important.
“I have to be really clear that I’m the filmmaker filming them,” Diaz said. “I have to be sort of brutal about it, because all of them actually need help.”
Diaz, nonetheless, hopes “Motherland” will inspire people to do their part in assuring that women all over the world have rights to reproductive health care. She said Sundance attendees who watch her film can do their part by donating to Planned Parenthood.
“Make sure Planned Parenthood doesn’t go away in this country,” Diaz said. “This is almost a cautionary tale.”
“Motherland” is in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition and will screen at the following times:
- Saturday, Jan. 21, 3:15 p.m. at Temple Theatre, Park City
- Monday, Jan. 23, 1 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 2, Park City
- Thursday, Jan. 26, 6:45 p.m. at Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City
- Friday, Jan. 27, 12:15 p.m. at Holiday Village Cinema 2, Park City
- Saturday, Jan. 28, 9:15 a.m., at Holiday Village Cinema 2, Park City