Seahorses, kitchens, war and memory: motherhood through Sheffield Doc/Fest headliners

The figure of the mother is one of the oldest archetypes in myths and literature so it’s no surprise that it remains so prominent in today’s filmmaking. Sheffield Doc/Fest, which ran this year 6-11 June, took a closer and more complex look at this concept and the expectations that come with it. This article is the record of my journey through some of the headliners of the UK’s biggest documentary festival.

My first approach into motherhood is an interactive one as a huge portion of this year’s festival has been dedicated to the new frontier of filmmaking and entertainment: Virtual Reality. As I step into the Site Gallery, one of the two venues in which VR projects are set up [the other one being Sheffield Hallam Performance Lab – editor’s note], I spot a little bookshelf in the corner, next to a set of headphones. Turns out the books are tablets, each of them presenting the same interactive game, My Mother’s Kitchen created by writer and performer Maeve Marsden and Tea Uglow, creative director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney. The game, which is available to play on a mobile phone or a tablet, consists of a sketch of eight rainbow-coloured kitchens while you, the protagonist, are a little rolling ball that can move around the space and listen to eight LGBTQA individuals, mostly writers and comedians, recounting their memories of those kitchens and their relationships with their mothers. The result is funny, bittersweet and melancholic. Just like in a real stranger’s kitchen, it takes a while to understand how to move around, how to look for things, how to be nosy. Sometimes there are walls; sometimes you can roll past the furniture, never knowing what emotion you’re going to feel next. The spots that are harder to reach hold the most painful and complex memories.

The creators have made a smart choice: kitchens are intrinsically generational spaces. The memories soon scatter past the mothers to grandmothers and grandchildren and the different ways the people in the house saw and used the space. It’s often clear that, despite spending most of their time in there, women weren’t happy about being confined to this role. Annaliese Constable, one of the game’s storytellers, calls her kitchen’s table “the stage, the surgery and the dining place.” Another, Sophie Harper, reflects: “On the surface people were polite – there weren’t any slammed doors. Not a lot of words were exchanged either.”

We are asked to consider what ‘caring’ means, why we consider it a feminine trait, and if that’s why we expect so much of mothers, almost believing their gender grants them some magical nurturing gift

Questions about motherhood pop up in the film section as well, again tied to the concept of memories. Memory is the core of Kristof Bilsen’s Mother, which had its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Mother is a subtle and empathetic reflection on Alzheimer’s patients through the eyes of Pomm, a worker in a Thai care home that caters to Western patients. To be able to make a living, Pomm has to spend most of her time away from her children, only seeing them once every month or so. “Pomm was a very obvious choice from the start,” the director tells me during our Skype interview. “When I first got there, all the other women in the care home were playing the role of the caregivers so well. They were acting like very typical sweet, petit Thai women and I knew that wasn’t gonna work on film. But Pomm wasn’t like that. She shifts a lot. She’s definitely not [a] cliché.”

In the filmmaking process, Kristof renounced some of his power by giving Pomm a little camera that she used to record herself. She uses the camera as a therapeutic tool, confessing to it the difficulties of being away from her children and the guilt she carries on her shoulders. Guilt also haunts the Swiss family of Maya, a 54-year-old woman in an advanced state of Alzheimer’s. Her family comes to the decision of bringing Maya to Thailand, admitting to themselves they’re not the most suitable carers. But the film never places blame or expectations on any of its characters. The director limits himself to being an observer and, by putting Pomm at the core of it, he allows us to see just how much she expects of herself. She works, she makes a living, she helps people, yet she can’t forgive herself for the time she spends away from her children. When she’s with them she’s a much stronger, composed person than the one we see breaking down during her lonely monologues. Through a series of lingering close-ups on Pomm, Maya and Elisabeth, another elder woman in the care home, we are asked to truly see these women whose absence, either mental or physical, leaves such a great hole in their families’ lives. The viewer is compelled to consider what ‘caring’ means, why we consider it a feminine trait, and if that’s why we expect so much of mothers, almost believing their gender grants them some magical nurturing gift.

The question of care and nurture and how they relate to gender is also explored in Seahorse, the latest accomplishment by director Jeanie Finlay. The film, which had its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, explores the pregnancy of trans man Freddy McConnell. While the story will undoubtedly spark conversations, the film itself doesn’t seek sensationalism and actually maintains a certain British flair throughout. Named after a species of animals whose males carry pregnancy and give birth, it is an intimate, domestic and dreamlike piece of cinema. Jeanie pairs the journey of Freddy with images of nature, subtly questioning what is biological and what is a social construct.

Although Freddy is giving birth, he remains the baby’s father, and it’s painful to watch him cross off the word “mother” from several medical forms he has to complete during the whole process. “Everyone could be a child’s primary caregiver if they wanted and were given the chance to. Men especially need to hear that and be able to talk about that,” he states during our Sheffield interview. Freddy’s words resonate even more during the Q&A after the screening once it becomes obvious his experience is linked to that of many other trans men who have carried a pregnancy to term and whose stories have been overlooked so far. While it might not be common, neither is it as rare as the general public might assume: trans director Jason Barker raised the subject in his recent documentary A Deal With the Universe. And, Freddy jokes, there’s actually countless Facebook groups offering advice for those who seek it.

As a cis woman I find it refreshing to contemplate that the expectation of bearing children might not be just on us forever. Freddy is also open about the privilege he has: nobody ever guessed about his pregnancy unless he told them and medical professionals (except for one) always treated him with respect, something that he partly attributes to his passing as a cis white man. “I was never talked down to or second-guessed,” he explains to me during our interview. By contrast, director Jeanie offers that during her pregnancy fifteen years ago she was never referred to by her first name, but as “mother” by her midwives and surgeon, as if her persona had suddenly become one with that of every woman who had a child. It’s Jeanie’s and Freddy’s intention to make sure the film is seen by healthcare professionals and Seahorse is expected to have a theatrical release in the UK and will be screened on BBC 2 later this year.

The film is often praised as a rare “account of war from a female perspective” but it is so much more than this; as a Syrian woman who lived in Aleppo for a good chunk of her life, Waad had the access, trust and sensibilities that foreign journalists often lack

On the other hand, every question, conversation or controversy is silenced by sobbing during the next film I see, the highly anticipated winner of Cannes’s Best Documentary Award: For Sama co-directed (with Edward Watts) by journalist, war-reporter and mother Waad Al-Kateab. For Sama is a film about motherhood as an act of resilience, of survival and of hope. The film asks the question: why do we have children? “To live a normal life is the most powerful act of rebellion against the regime”, Waad’s voiceover explains in the documentary. Set during five years of the Syrian war, the film portrays the lives of Waad and her husband Hamza Al-Kateab from when they first joined the revolution against Assad’s regime in 2011 to their eventual evacuation from the city in December 2016.

For Sama doesn’t shy away from the most raw and terrifying images of war, carefully selected from over 500 hours of footage and paired with equally tender moments of familiar life. When I ask Waad during our Sheffield interview about the excellent portrayal of gender parity in the film she replies bemusedly that there’s little time to worry about gender roles when you’re trying to survive. Both she and Hamza cared for Sama, their daughter, and the pair were both part of the resistance: Hamza as a doctor and Waad as a filmmaker. The film is often praised as a rare “account of war from a female perspective” but it is so much more than this; as a Syrian woman who lived in Aleppo for a good chunk of her life, Waad had the access, trust and sensibilities that foreign journalists often lack.

“When she filmed surgical operations, it was like she was part of the room,” Hamza explains. Waad’s face is almost never on camera and yet she’s present everywhere, carefully observing. The film wasn’t called For Sama until the editing process, when co-director Edward Watts picked up on Waad’s tendency to focus on children and mothers as an attempt to deal with her own fears of dying and losing Sama. So, the film became a dedication to Sama, an attempt to make sense of the horrors they’ve been through and an attempt to answer the most complicated question of all: “How do we do right by our children?” For Waad and Hamza, this meant choosing between teaching Sama the importance of fighting for their country’s liberation and leaving the city to save their lives.

The longing for Aleppo is clear in everything Waad talks about. “Where are you from?” she jokingly asks Sama when the Q&A after the festival screening starts. “Sometimes she says Aleppo, and sometimes she says London,” explains Waad. She still doesn’t know whether Sama will love her or resent her for her choices, but she hopes she’ll go back to Aleppo one day. The film is currently prepping a theatrical release and will be screened on Channel 4 in the autumn.

It is tricky to say which of the projects works ‘best’ – it was impossible to watch For Sama without crying, it was impossible to watch Mother or play My Mother’s Kitchen without feeling a sense of gratitude towards the women that raised us, and it was impossible to watch Seahorse without itching to have an in-depth conversation about the topic. They all exposed some of the prejudices we still have, such as that raising children is not done well if it doesn’t involve sacrifice, that women are more suitable for child-rearing and that it’s ‘natural’. But at the end of the day, they showed the greatest truth: that having children should be a choice. People make this choice for a variety of reasons: from a sense of calling, to the need to hold on to life by any means necessary. But, equally, it is not a choice suitable for everyone – a child is not an added value, an accessory or a duty. While it breaks our hearts to see Pomm driving herself into the ground to care for her children and other people, it also gives us immense joy to see Freddy and Waad gaining so much strength from having their babies. None of them are superheroes, but they often act like it because it’s what’s expected. Hopefully this will be a first step into opening up the conversation about humanising mothers and primary carers.

All images courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest. Images description:
1. Elderly white woman with a wrinkled face and white short hair is sitting next to a young Thai woman. They are stretching their hands in front of them. It’s a still from Kristof Bilsen’s MOTHER.
2. [Photo by Manuel Vazquez] A man is holding a baby close to his chest, with baby’s face invisible. It’s Freddy McConnell (subject of Jeanie Finlay’s SEAHORSE) with the son he carried and gave birth to.
3. A little girl wearing a party dress and a pink hairband with a flower is standing among the ruins of Syrian city Aleppo, holding a banner that reads THIS IS ALEPPO, WHAT’S JUSTICE. A still from Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watt’s FOR SAMA, the girl is the eponymous Sama, al-Kateab’s daughter.