Heroes of the ‘Motherland’
If ever there is a movie about women that men must watch, this is it!” said a young male teacher at the Philippine “homecoming” of documentary maker Ramona Diaz’s “Motherland.”
Set at the legendary “baby factory,” Jose Fabella Hospital, “Motherland” presents the stories of the mothers who flock in droves to Manila’s premier maternity hospital. But the fathers likewise play crucial supporting roles, either as bad examples of paternal (ir)responsibility, or heartwarming exhibits of gender-fair parenting.
One of my favorite scenes is between two fathers of babies who are born prematurely. In one of their periodic visits to Fabella, the fathers are asked to perform “Kangaroo Mother Care,” an innovation in the care of very young and underweight babies. Because of the lack or absence of incubators, the “preemies” are made to shelter close to their mothers’ bare chests, snugly fitting into tube blouses, benefiting from the warmth provided by “skin to skin” contact. The fathers are asked to relieve their partners during their visit, sitting side by side, the babies nestled to their chests, chatting about their babies and their feelings (!) for their vulnerable progeny.
I suddenly remembered a community organizer recalling that one of the things he liked most about Filipinos was the sight of bare-chested men in urban poor areas proudly carrying their babies and holding them up for some sunlight.
It is a charming sight, but it has an alarming backstory. For the state of motherhood in the country is deteriorating. In most other countries in the world, maternal mortality and infant mortality rates have plunged in the past decades. But in the Philippines women continue to die in increasing numbers due to causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. And we have not been able to address either the dismaying number of children who die at birth or shortly after.
If Fabella is indeed a “motherland,” it is also a land of continual chaos where the wailing of babies is a constant soundtrack.
I remember praying at the start of the film that there not be a scene of a mother or infant dying. And indeed, while there is much blood and body fluids assaulting our eyes, there is no tragedy, at least not in the dramatic sense of a cinematic demise.
But tragedy hovers around the main characters. There is the 17-year-old who has had to stop her studies and begs her visiting mother not to weep because she feels like breaking down herself. There is the mother of five who does a “hada,” the Fabella term for “home against doctors’ advice,” because she is worried for her young family even as her premature baby still needs time to fight his illness.
Continually, I am astonished at how ill-prepared the women and their mates are for the birth of their children, even if they had at least many weeks to anticipate their needs. (One father, who barely raised the needed amount for the hospital bill, doesn’t even know how he’ll bring his young family home, settling for a tricycle.)
If there are any heroes in this documentary, these must be, first of all, the mothers who soldier on despite the hardships they must endure and who, in typical sisterly bonding, end up sharing what little each of them has with the others in the ward, be it crackers, breast milk, or cheering up.
Then there are the staffers of Fabella, from the security guards who double as maternity escorts, the orderlies, the nurses, the doctors, the social workers. I don’t know how they manage to go to work day after day knowing the confusion, the frustration, the utter mess that awaits them. And yet here they’re shown wheeling one woman after another into the delivery rooms, welcoming infant after infant to the world, treating the mothers with tough love.
“Motherland” has won a slew of awards at international film festivals but this is the first time it will be shown here. It forms part of the Active Vista Human Rights Festival, along with a photo exhibit on human rights, performances, forums, and other movies shown in various venues. Check out www.activevista.ph for the festival schedule.
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