Film Review: Motherland

Affecting documentary about grieving mothers on a humanitarian trip to Africa.

Jennifer Steinman’s debut feature, Motherland, captures the heartbreak of several women who have lost their children but who are trying to overcome their grief by helping others. It is hard not to be moved by this simple but effective documentary.

Motherland is being streamed digitally to households by Gigantic Digital Cinema. It may end up working better on a small screen than in theatres, given the intimate nature of the material. Viewers who seek it out will be glad they did.

Steinman, who directed and co-produced and co-edited, follows six American mothers whose grown children have died (in different ways) as they take a 17-day trip together to South Africa to care for youngsters at risk, including children with HIV. The journey proves both heartrending and healing at the same time.

Truly, the most memorable parts of Motherland are the individual stories of the mothers, told in their own words in straightforward talking-head interviews, abetted by home movies and photos of the deceased children. There is nothing fancy here, but it works very well thanks to Steinman’s decision to refrain from extraneous melodramatics.

One standout story, Anne Magill’s description of how she found her daughter, Grace, after she committed suicide, is all the more stirring because Magill candidly confesses—during the more upbeat contemporary scenes in the South African villages—that she doesn’t feel much better than she did before she left on the trip. The moment provides an honest and needed corrective to the idea that “good works” alone will cure grief, which the film otherwise suggests at times.

We applaud Steinman’s first effort as a feature director for her ability to cover the details of several storylines without either seeming to cram too much into the relatively short running time (80 minutes) or glibly skimming over matters.

Overall, Motherland should inspire anyone who has been through great challenges while promoting the humanist ideal of helping others as a way to help one’s self.

This review was revised on August 27, 2009.