“Slap me if it’s painful,” the nurse says, and this gets a laugh. She knows how to keep a casual but not glib demeanor in situations like this, because mostly the women that sit across from her are overwhelmed, and very often they’re scared too.
Across from her is a 19-year-old woman, and this is her second pregnancy. She is skittish at the recommendation—which is to get an IUD to prevent further pregnancies—and looks down at her feet, around the room, rubs her wrist. Her mom told her not to get one, she says
“Your mother is not gonna give birth for you,” the nurse retorts.
She’s charmingly pushy—and that’s a pretty good barometer of the vibe at the Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, documented extensively in Baltimore filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz’s film “Motherland,” which returns to the Parkway next week after it screened at the Maryland Film Festival back in May, and at taste-making festivals like the Berlinale and Sundance.
“Motherland” patiently and earnestly follows a few days in the lives of women who give birth at one of the busiest maternity wards in the world, where the staff delivers about 60 babies a day.
Prior to an executive order last year by President Rodrigo Duterte mandating free contraceptive access, the Catholic Church and anti-abortion interests had been largely successful in restricting access to contraceptives and abortion procedures. According to a 2013 report by the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unplanned.
Women seek out Fabella because it’s cheap. The patients come from some of Manila’s most impoverished populations, where information about reproductive health, let alone preventative or prenatal care, is not widely available. Most of the women here already have multiple children whom they can barely afford to support.
The ward is basically one cavernous hall, with white concrete walls and aging equipment. Diaz’s camera tracks down an endless row of mothers and babies, two or three to a bed, attempting sleep amidst a symphony of squealing infants—it’s grandiose, in a way, spare yet crawling with the endless around-the-clock vitality of kicking and screaming human fucking life; this is actually the most glorious yet impersonal shot of the film, as it frames the women and children into grand cinematic spectacle.
Lerma, a regular (this is her sixth time here), is uniquely boisterous, almost glib when she talks about having babies and getting by in Manila. She lives in a squat and “sells cigarettes and eggs by the station,” she declares to the others.
“The children come one after another,” Lerma says. “I don’t have enough love to give all of them. I should have more love to give. But they came one after another. I can’t give enough love.”
Lerma’s confidence is clearly soothing to the others, and slowly, they start to feel comfortable opening up—about their families, their husbands, what they don’t have, what it’s like to give birth. They share food and make jokes, sometimes sardonic and dark ones about how crazy the shit they deal with is. .
Mostly we learn about the lives of these women though their paperwork as they are questioned by nurses filling out forms. The film is contained completely within the hospital grounds, and omits any omniscient narration or text explainers. Rather, Diaz uses camerawork and editing alone to guide to story, allowing the experience of the place to speak for itself.
A pan around the waiting room reveals the check-in desk, where a woman with a microphone announces when mothers may meet their husbands in the lobby (visitors are not allowed into the ward, “to avoid infection,” and the fathers wait in a single file line that stretches outside and down the block) or when they get to go home. When to leave can get dicey, and a plotline about one mother’s headstrong will to leave early despite her baby’s illness (she has three other infants at home, she argues, and thus needs to “go to HAMA,” or home against medical advice) loops in her feckless husband. The two have a marital confrontation in the lobby of the hospital, and she calls him an idiot, and this is all ignored amid the everyday commotion of the hospital.
Diaz is incredibly attentive, and her camera lets life play out as it is without poking or prodding. It’s clear that these scenes were accomplished by sitting in one place for hours on end, just waiting for life to happen. This patient method allows the film to focus on the remarkable strength of the mothers, rather than dwell on their circumstances.
The hospital, and maybe birth itself, becomes somehow both a vortex of the anxieties that drag on poor women in developing countries and an extraordinary haven. It’s an all-woman space where men are, at least for a little bit, not in control. It’s a space where women are in charge of their own decisions, where they nurture and comfort each other.
The woman working the front desk—who frequently takes the microphone to deliver pep talks, gentle scolds about cleanliness, and stand-up jokes—observes that there is so much socializing between the mothers that they’re sticking around even longer than they need to.
“Some of you are here even after you’ve been discharged,” she says. “You are vacationing here. Go home. Go on a real vacation. This is not a hotel.”
This gets a laugh from the patients. And again, briefly, life isn’t so scary.
“Motherland” opens at the SNF Parkway Theater on Dec. 1. There will be a Q&A with director Ramona Diaz on Dec. 2 following the 7:15 p.m. screening.