Too many cradles, not enough hands

PLEASE don’t leave me. Jomo, one of the children of Kibera, with Elena, the central protagonist of Zornitsa Sophia’s film Mother, which features on this year’s European Film Festival South Africa. Photograph courtesy MQ Pictures.

WHAT DO YOU think you were put on this planet for? To hone your artistic instrument? Make babies? Save the world? Whatever the question, the answer sometimes comes rather unexpectedly and with great gusto, from the universe itself. The Bulgarian film Mother, written, directed and produced by Zornitsa Sophia is a moving, beautiful tale about transition that touches on all the hot points of following your dreams, colonialist values and the unending discrepancies between haves and have-nots in this world. You can see it on this year’s European Film Festival, which is online as well as at cinemas in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, between 12 and 22 October, in eSwatini between 20 and 22 October and Lesotho between 26 and 28 October.

A film that will grab you by the eyes and lead your heart in tow over rough terrain, Mother is both shattering and extraordinary, but it is not a tale that is completely foreign to us, as South Africans. It’s a yarn, the gist of which you can imbibe from the life story of people of the ilk of Rosemary Nalden (founder of Buskaid South Africa), Sylvia Glasser (founder of Moving Into Dance Mophatong), Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba (co-founders of Sibikwa Community Arts Centre), to name but a few. It’s the kind of story that made Bill Ainslie (co-founder of the Johannesburg Art Foundation) buck police instructions during apartheid and enabled people such as Martin Schonberg (founder of Ballet Theatre Afrikan) to point the careers of youngsters in directions they would never have considered. These are people who have had the gift to be able to look at poverty-stricken slums full of typhus and vomit and see instead human beings with thwarted dreams.

And it is here, in a contemporary artworld that we meet Elena (Daria Simeonova). She’s an up-and-coming busy theatre director with premieres opening on stages all over Europe, all the time. She’s married to Leon (Leon Lucev), a conductor in demand from institutions of the ilk of Julliard in New York; the western avant-garde art world is their oyster. Until a project of a different stripe crosses Elena’s path, wrapped around her own sense of reproductive inadequacy. It’s about orphans.

As Elena stands before little boys and girls in Bulgaria and helps them to articulate their dreams, while she instructs her troupe of performers not to snuggle or parent them, something begins to waiver in her self-reflection as a director of works of art that take themselves immensely seriously. When Kenya comes knocking on her door, with the hand of an NGO, she’s quietened. Proverbially, her ears are pricked; the die is cast.

In many respects, if you’ve looked at the stories of art in Africa and its strands of social empowerment, speaking for others and perceived untapped skills, its morass of poverty and filth in the name of how the world turns, you will know how the story flows. Elena faces horror. She confronts rejection in the eye. The things that she considered most important to her, are threatened. There are naysayers who see her as a white woman with superficial values. But there’s a core of fire in her being, which says no. And her desire to change the world, even if it is for one little child, who grows confidence under the mask of a lion, is allowed to grow into something bigger.

There is a moment in this work in which a crass white American tourist arrives in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya. She arrives in the same vehicle as Elena. And she takes a selfie with an arbitrary and suitably snot-stained little child, before she crudely saunters off to find the ‘Big Five’ or whatever safari-driven event is next in her African itinerary. It’s a grotesque moment, but an important one. Elena is this, but she is not this. She is white and from the west, but she has to prove that her mission is not this obscenity of trauma tourism.

Rich with the kinds of cliches that keep us believing in our ability to give back to the world, the story told is a feel-good one, with romantic undertones about privileged eyes on the dire need and embarrassing filth of the unprivileged ones. But cynicism and colonialist faux pas in the guise of brand exposure or shoving western art values into poor slums, aside, it is an important tale told with earnestness and heart.

  • Mother is directed by Zornitsa Sophia and features a cast headed by Daria Dimitrova, Leon Lucev, Euan Macnaughton, Steve Matias, Lamar Munene, Daria Simeonova, Peris Wambui and Thomas Zerck. Written by Miglena Dimova-Kumitski and Zornitsa Sophia, it is produced by Zornitsa Sophia and features creative input by Darko Markovic (music), Krum Rodriguez (cinematography), Victoria Radoslavova and Martin Savov (editing), Mina Zarkovic-Mihaylova (casting) and Zorana Petrov (production design). In Bulgarian, English, Swahili and Masai with English subtitles, it is part of the 10th European Film Festival South Africa, screening at The Zone in Rosebank Johannesburg, The Labia in Cape Town, Gateway in Durban and online from 12-22 October, with satellite programmes in eSwatini from 20-22 October and in Lesotho from 26 to 28 October.

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