Review: Mother (2019), by Kristof Bilsen

The Belgian documentarist Kristof Bilsen tackles a multitude of dualities in his newest feature-length work Mother. The film deals with topics of sickness and health, caring and being cared for, East and West, parents and children and is centered around a nursing home in North Thailand, a caregiver named Pomm and her patients Elizabeth and Maya. Mother is on a long and healthy festival tour since its world premiere at Sheffield Doc Fest last June, visiting places like DokuFest in Prizren, Athens International Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam and DocPoint Helsinki.

Pomm works as a caregiver in a nursing home for patients from the West suffering from Alzheimer. It is a tough and demanding work, but the establishment operated by a Swiss man named Martin seems well organized, both for the patients who get taken care of 24/7 and a well-trained staff that is not too overworked, since every one of them is focused on one patient in their shift. Pomm’s favourite patient is Elizabeth, once intelligent and high-spirited woman despite her dementia who became unable to speak due to her stroke. Pomm takes care of her in the same manner as she would do it for her own mother.

However, Pomm faces more challenges on her home front. Being away and immersed into work in order to provide much needed money to her family, she has left her children behind. The youngest daughter lives with Pomm’s ex-partner and there is a possibility that he will get full custody. The other two children from Pomm’s previous relationship live with her mother.

The question is whether Pomm is compensating at her work for not being able to take care of her own family and it will come to light with her new patient, a Swiss woman named Maya and her family, a caring husband and three daughters, facing a devastating decision to leave her at the nursing home. Unlike other patients, Maya is relatively young, in her fifties, and able-bodied, but she still suffers from quickly progressing Alzheimer’s, becoming more and more forgetful, disoriented and dependent on care from other people.

Different angles and points of view (Pomm’s is usually alternated with Maya’s oldest daughter Joyce, since both women serve as the film’s narrators) are interconnected masterfully in Bilsen’s moving documentary. It seems that intertwining different perspectives is his principal modus operandi also adopted in his previous feature-length work Elephant’s Dream, in which he studied the daily life in Kinshasa (DR Congo) in depth from different points of view. As he stated in interviews, his first idea was to make a film about the disease itself and his motivation for doing so was quite personal, but the other stories explored in the film found him in the process.

Other influences in this very ethical and emotional observational documentary can be read from the names of the people involved on the project. The most significant is Kirsten Johnson, who served here as an executive producer, known for cinematographic work on Laura Poitras’ documentaries and autobiographical directorial work on Cameraperson. Her last film Dick Johnson Is Dead, dealing with similar subject of saying goodbye to one’s parent, has just premiered at Sundance to critical acclaim.

Autobiographical moments are also present in Mother, but they are coming other way around: Pomm assumed control and took over as a part-time filmmaker and cinematographer, a highly accomplished one, also keeping a video-diary on her own and doing some of the shooting (visibly rougher than professional) at her work and on the journeys home that ended up as the integral part of Bilsen’s documentary. In that way, the whole contraption of “Westerner’s gaze”, relegating Pomm to the role of willing or unwilling subject or even a storytelling tool is avoided, and she is able to tell the story on her own terms. Therefore Mother is an honest and emotionally charged documentary piece that collects the dualities in a comprehensible whole.

Year: 2019.
Runtime: 82′
Country: Belgium, The Netherlands
Director: Kristof Bilsen
Written and developed by: Kristof Bilsen and Xan Márquez Caneda
Producer: Kristof Bilsen
Exectutive Producer: Kirsten Johnson
Camera: Marko Milovanović, Kristof Bilsen, Chutimon Sonsirichai (Pomm)
Sound recording: Xan Márquez Caneda
Editing: Maarten Janssens
Music: Kyle Bobby Dunn
Sound design & mix: Hugo Dijkstal
Production Companies: Limerick Films, Man’s Films Productions, HALAL Docs
International Sales: Deckert Distribution