Multicultural Motherhood (REVIEWS: Fill the Void, Mother of George)

14 05 2017

For two years, I’ve been thinking of running this piece on Mother’s Day. And twice, I’ve put it off in favor of posting something else. The procrastination ends in 2017!

I watched Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void” and Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George” in short succession and was struck by some surprising parallels. Both are films that explore the complications of maternity outside of a dominant Western understanding but do so in wildly different – yet tellingly effective – ways.

“Fill the Void” unfolds in an orthodox Jewish community following the tragic death of Esther during childbirth. In the wake of her passing, Esther’s younger sister Shira (Hadas Yaron) faces a difficult choice. At 18, she has her whole life ahead of her and looks forward to an arranged marriage to a man she quite fancies. But the hole in the community demands her action, and Shira’s family comes to her with an unconventional plan: marry her former brother-in-law Yochay and raise her nephew Mordechai as she would a son.

The film’s tightly contained action and deliberation have the dimensions of a stage drama, yet Burshtein films it as anything but. She trains her director of photography Asaf Sudry to direct the lens towards Shira’s face, framing it tightly and making her internal tussle play out in prolonged close-ups. With this technique, Burshtein achieves that strange paradox of cinema: the film becomes more universal as it delves into the specifics of its insular community.

Mother of George” takes place on the opposite side of the world, in a Nigerian community nestled in Brooklyn. A newly married couple, Ayodele and Adenike Balogen (Issach de Bankolé and Danai Gurira), begins working towards building a family since expecting is the expectation for them. But their pregnancy journey hits a rocky patch primarily due to male-factor infertility from Ayodele. His patriarchal attitudes make him stubborn and reluctant to receive any kind of help since, in his mind, any impediment to conception comes from the female end.

Unlike the searing intimacy of “Fill the Void,” Andrew Dosunmu’s film takes a much wider look at his character’s struggles. Cinematographer Bradford Young (who has since shot “Selma,” received an Oscar nomination for “Arrival,” and is currently filming the Han Solo spinoff) uses long shots to reflect just how small Adenike feels in her time of anguish. Stricken by the seemingly arbitrary force of infertility, she’s left with few options – and one involves Ayodele’s brother.

So as we celebrate mothers today, in all shapes and forms, let us never forget the many paths that women can forge towards maternity. And, on the flip side, there are plenty of women who are not celebrating Mother’s Day but so desperately wish to be. Let us be understanding of their current standing not as a final destination, but rather just one point on their journey. Shaming women who do not follow conventional trajectories, whether by choice or by chance, helps no one.