MOTHERLAND (2017): Review by Malin Jörnvi

“How many children do you plan on having?” “Just five.” Filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz’s Motherland takes her audience to the Philippines and the world’s busiest maternity ward. With a population number of over a 100 million, the hospital’s babies are delivered like a factory assembly line, and all patients are simply referred to either as “Mother” or to the number written on the string hanging around their necks. Motherland is a powerful insight into the lives and the struggles of women and mothers far away from Western society’s planned C-sections. It is also a documentary far away from the male-dominated spaces usually portrayed in cinema. (MJJ: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Intern Malin J. Jornvi

Ramona S. Diaz’s Motherland takes place within, or in the immediate surroundings of, the most female space there is: the maternity ward. As reflected in the title, this documentary is filled with motherhood: “Mother” is likely the most reoccurring word in the 94-minute run time as every woman giving birth is referred to by this label. The women are sometimes also referred to by the number they have been assigned at the registry in order to keep track of everyone because, in Motherland, there are mothers (and babies) everywhere. The abundance of people is illustrated in one of the most prominent shots of the film in which the camera moves across the big hall with lines of numbered beds set up bedframe to bedframe—each bed being shared by two women. The set up forces the viewer to compare the women in the ward to cattle in industrial animal farming. But soon the association to animal rights videos is replaced, because Diaz’s neutral and observing tone does not tell the viewers of what to think.

While Motherland starts off in what, to the Western viewer, looks like a chaotic abundance of mothers and children—an impression amplified by the fact that we only get to hear glimpses of the stories of some of the hundreds of women passing by—it eventually settles in one corner of the ward with the women temporally claiming those beds. In this more intimate second half of the documentary when we get to hear more from these particular mothers, the initial chaotic sense evades, and the hectic, but efficient, system of the charity-sponsored maternity hospital becomes evident. 

Motherland gives a strong insight to the reality of millions of people, women, in the world: a world in which old traditions clashes with modern knowledge, and a world in which people have to make the best of what they have. The mothers in Motherland are promised that no women in active labor will be turned away, social workers try to convince the young mothers to accept IUDs, and due to the complete lack of incubators, the nurses make sure the mothers follow the Kangaroo Care Technique and carry their babies on their chests at all times. Yet, the young mother with no money who just gave birth to a pair of twins (named “A” and “B”) will be given medicine and food until her premature babies are well enough, and then she will be turned back to the street.

When the credits stopped rolling, my female company and I—being the only two people in the theater—sat quiet. Because Motherland is one of those rare eye-opening experiences that left me stupefied in front of the fact that what I had just witnessed is real, yet so far removed from my own reality that it seems like fiction. After a moment, my initial reaction was that no woman, no creature giving life, should be treated in the way these mothers are. But then I remembered two things: first, I am looking through my individualized Western lens of sterile insured health care, and two, as long as women are not equally represented in positions of power, female concerns, such as giving birth, will not be prioritized. Until then, this documentary and cinema like it, will continue to pass under the radar. Meanwhile, Motherland continues to illustrate the reality of millions of women.

© Malin J. Jornvi (9/12/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Motherland poster.

Middle Photo: Mothers and children in the ward.

Bottom Photo: Premature babies in makeshift light treatment.

Photo Credits: FilmRise.

Q: Does Motherland pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 


Though the women gossip about their husbands, there is (believe it or not) plenty of other issues to talk about in a maternity hospital.

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