Losing a parent is a life phase, something we're conditioned mentally and perhaps biologically to endure. Losing a child so reverses the pattern that parents grieving for children feel they've entered a strange and solitary new world. That world is the subject of a touching and informative new documentary "Motherland."
Soon after her friend Barbara lost her son, filmmaker Jennifer Steinman read a book on Africa that described the war- and AIDS-ridden nations there as "an entire continent in mourning." Barbara, Steinman realized, might feel more at home in such a place than she did in her small California town. Acting on this insight, Steinman sent Barbara and five other similarly grieving women to South Africa, where they worked as volunteers among orphaned children.
In a place where grief is the new normal--"a place I don't have to pretend I'm happy," says one participant--the six women find their footing, and find words for their separate experiences: Anne has lost her daughter to suicide; traffic accidents claimed the sons of Barbara, Debbie and Kathy; Mary Helena's son and Lauren's brother were murdered. They unashamedly communicate in what sound to the rest of us like melodramatic cliches--"It's a hole in your heart that can't be filled," we hear, and "I don't want to stop grieving because that would mean forgetting." All words fail, after all, these will do, and as the film goes on we slowly grasp the bitter truth they serve to carry.
"Motherland" has particular meaning for Mary Helena, an African-American actress from Racine, Wisconsin, who among the six seems to have made the least progress in overcoming her grief. The visit to Africa--the land of her patrimony that ended with her son--only seems to bewilder her further. She broods alone, often sitting on the ground, until her mission-mates corral her toward them.
When she finally speaks, Mary Helena's insistence on grieving slowly, not giving up her pain until it's been given its due, argues against the notion of progress, at least as any of us would recognize it. We want these women to be healed, to come back from Motherland. By the end of the film we realize they won't. Their job is to survive and live in their new landscape