Director Jennifer Steinman’s debut, Motherland, is a poignant documentary about six American women who have lost their children (and a brother) and find themselves together on a quest of healing. Previously strangers to one another, these grieving women travel to South Africa to volunteer for seventeen days helping at-risk children.
Steinman developed the idea for this documentary while watching her friend Barbara, one of the six women in the film, mourn the the loss of her son. She simultaneously considered the burgeoning numbers of mothers in Africa mourning the deaths of their children due to HIV, AIDS, and other disasters. She decided to set up the Motherland project in December 2006 in the hopes that women going through the same pain could find healing through one of the greatest gifts: offering healing to others in need.
Thus, six women thus found themselves among South Africa’s poverty and desperation—right where they were needed most. They volunteered at an orphanage to help care for 230 children in need of hugs, food, nurturing, and any and all types of love. Some of these children had lost their mothers to HIV. Notably, the volunteers were also asked to help teach a grief workshop for the children.
The brokenhearted women and children hugged, danced, laughed, played, clapped and cried with each other. It is impossible not to smile at the love and joy they enjoyed together when they could, and not to tear up at the consolation they bestowed on one another in their sorrow. We get to know the story of each mother and her dead son or daughter as well as that of a woman grieving her dead brother through stories, memories, and photos. There is no glitz, no makeup, or emotionally manipulative music to distract us from the raw emotion running through these women’s veins.
One mother took the trip as a chance to honor her dead son. A twenty-something had lost her brother, and their mother was in such a pit of despair that she didn’t leave her apartment, so the daughter went on the trip instead. All of the women were unable to let go of their overwhelming pain at the beginning, but were able to start healing as they let go and gave love to the children who needed it. These women, it turns out, found that they needed those children in return.
The director’s sympathy for the mourning women is evident through the screenshots and their nuances: Steinman’s attention to detail, the close-ups of faces, silent gazes, and smartly chosen landscapes. The authentic nature of this narrative and film is undeniable. I got choked up more than I’d like to admit. Consider that a warning.