Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jennifer Steinman's MOTHERLAND makes "streaming" debut; Q&A with filmmaker

Grief is a tricky subject for a filmmaker. How do you do it justice without alien-
ating your audience by providing a near, non-stop downer? The best use Trust-
Movies has lately seen of the grief motif came from Incendiary, the adaptation by Sharon Maguire of the Chris Cleave novel, which went straight to video. This week another film on the subject -- MOTHERLAND, a documentary about a particular, maybe the most difficult, kind of grief -- also goes straight to video. In this case, the release is via streaming, as Motherland makes its debut from up-and-coming distributor Gigantic Digital, the company that earlier this year brought us the very unusual documentary Must Read After My Death.

What kind of grief, you ask, is the most difficult? Experiencing the death of one's child. In Motherland, producer/director Jennifer Steinman (above) tracks six women -- each of whom has lost a child and is still attempting to come to terms with her grief -- as they journey to South Africa to spend some time helping orphaned children cope with life without their parents. As is pointed out during the movie, taking an active/positive step in helping others seems to do more to assuage grief than remaining alone and wrapped up in it.

Motherland is a fairly simple movie, simply told. Steinman allows each woman to provide the back-story of how her child died, and the reasons are as varied as you might expect: murder, suicide and accidental death (whether the fault be the victim's or not, we don't always learn. It doesn't matter, of course: Death is death). Some of the deaths are more recent than others, and this, too, does not seem to matter: Grief goes on. Four of the women are white and two are black, providing the documentary with the double meaning of its title. For these women, Africa is indeed the motherland, even as the movie itself offers an unusual look at the inclusive, unending landscape of mothering.

During the course of the film, it is one of the two black women, Mary Helena (shown above), who has the most difficulty. She suffers not just from her grief but from the results of a recent stroke, from which she has only partially recovered. Perhaps because so much of the movie seems a bit cut-and-dried -- the women suffer; they go to Africa; they work with the children; they are helped -- Mary Helena provides the film with pretty much its only sense of immediate conflict. Her story and struggle holds our interest perhaps a bit more than do those of the others women. By the finale we are fairly certain that the others in the crew have found renewed strength and courage through their South African work; about Mary Helena, we are not so sure (see the interview below for an update on this).

Steinman's very winning movie -- considering the subject matter, it maintains an almost preternaturally positive attitude -- has already won this years' Emerging Visions Audience Award at the South by Southwest Film Festvial, as well as the 2009 Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival's Jury Prize for Best Feature and Best Documentary at the 2009 California Independent Film Festival. I would call it a "must" for anyone interested in a means of getting through and beyond the grief state. It should also prove worthwhile for those interested in South Africa today -- and in the role of women as caregivers. (Try to imagine a film like this about men making a trip abroad to deal with their grief? Not likely.) Motherland make its streaming debut this Wednesday, August 26, and Gigantic Releasing's very affordable $2.99 price (which allows viewers three full days in which to watch the film as many times as they want) is another plus factor.


TrustMovies talked to filmmaker Jennifer Steinman -- in NYC for a brief time preparing for the release of her movie -- by phone last Friday morning for perhaps a half an hour. Here's what we learned:

TrustMovies: I notice there was no writing credit for the film. Why?

Jennifer Steinman: I didn’t think that I actually wrote this film; it’s primarily a verité film. So, really, I didn’t write that much except a little bit of introduction. I certainly did not write the story – I think that it wrote itself.

That’s fine with me: In fact, I often wonder, when I see writing credits in a documentary, what exactly this means. It always seems a bit “fudged.”

Can you tell me something about how you first got involved in this subject and the consequent film.

One of the women in the film is actually a really good friend of mine. When she lost her son in a head-on automobile collision, I saw the depth of the pain she had to go through. She was really my inspiration for the film. I had watched her over the years, dealing with her grief. I had never known anyone who lost a child before, and when it happens, it is so specific and different than other types of grief. I also saw how this really brought out in me, and in others, the reaction of, Wow -- could I survive if this happened to me?

I think we all know that we will lose our parents and perhaps a spouse or partner, but when the death involves a son or daughter, this brings up that sense -- for everybody, I think -- How can I deal with this?

Around this time, I was actually planning a trip to Africa for myself, and I was interested is doing volunteer work there. I had ten years of volunteer work under my belt already. I believe that volunteering is a really healing thing to do: the idea being that giving becomes a kind of healing. People often think, after tragedy strikes, “Oh, I must take care of myself now.” But actually, taking care of others is a much more "healing" kind of thing to do.

So then, the two things came together: Africa – and the mothers who had lost their children?

Yes. I called my friend and asked her, “What do you think of this idea?” She immediately burst into tears, and she said, “Yes, this is what I need. Let’s do it.”

Where did the other women come from?

I contacted my friend's grief counselor first and through her got several more referrals. Then I sent out a blast email to grief groups, counseling centers and children’s hospitals. By then I had three women and had only planned on taking four. But then, within a three day period, I got hundreds of responses, with women sending letters, pictures and stories about their children. Now I had to figure out how to somehow get the number down. So I ended up taking six instead of four.

How long was it between your first idea of doing this until you actually left on the trip?

About five months.

That’s fast.

Yes -- we were definitely on “warp” speed. It was pretty amazing. I conceived of the idea in July, and I was thinking maybe we’d have things together by the following spring. But then when we started to put it together, we realized that with everyone's hectic schedules the only time people could conceivably do this was in December. So the next thing I knew, just five months after I conceived of the idea, we had six women and a film crew and we were on an airplane headed to Africa.

How long were you actually over there?

I was in Africa for a month, and we shot for 17 days.

Wow -- it seems longer when you are watching the film.

It felt longer for us while we were there, too. It was sort of like time slowed down for us.

As much as I liked and identified with all the women, it was Mary Helena who proved by far the most interesting in so many ways. Perhaps because she is the one having such a difficult time. What has happened with Mary Helena?

I talk to her quite often and she is doing well now. She really is. In fact, when she saw the film, she said, “Oh, boy, I sure was a mess here. I hope people know that I am OK now.”

That is really good to know.

Yes, because she had the physical problems -- the stroke -- in addition to the grief of her loss. Her son Aaron had started a book before he died that never was finished and so she is now finishing it.

The other thing to come out of the trip – and the film – is that program begun by one set of parents….

Yes, Anne and her husband Jim have started a program dedicated to their daughter Grace called the Grace Magill Memorial Project. It’s a school-based mental health program run by The Edgewood Center for Children and Families in San Francisco. The program's purpose is to educate teens about mental illness and and to try to eliminate the stigma attached to it. The other Moms in the film are also very active in their communities as well. I think they all realize that if they can find a way to give back and to help others, that helps to create some positive meaning out of their tragedies.

How did you come to release you the film via the “streaming” mode – and via Gigantic?

After the documentary premiered at SXSW last March, I had several distribution offers, and I was wading through all of them and trying to figure out the best strategy for the film: Should I self-distribute? What would create the most revenue? And most important, how can I get this out to the widest possible audience? We looked into a limited theatrical release in NY and LA. But for the amount of energy and time and money this would take, it just didn’t seem practical. I thought about my audience: Who is it, really: only a few art house viewers in New York and LA, or is it moms in Iowa and Idaho who can’t go out this weekend but would really want to be able to see the film now, at home and at a reasonable price? I realized it was the latter. My ultimate goal is for my film to reach as many people as possible. And I was most impressed with Gigantic as the platform for making that happen -- both their model and strategy, and the support of people who work there.

Did you work with Mark Lipsky?

Oh, yes, and he is amazing and so dedicated, and he loves the film. He really wants to get our film out there! This is on-line cinema and the goal is to show that people are really watching movies on their computers. We hope this will also show that a first-time movie can reach a really wide audience. And maybe even make some money!

Anything else you'd like to say while I've got you?

Just that Motherland will be available online starting Wednesday, August 26, via Gigantic Releasing. Meanwhile, it is still playing on the festival circuit, so for those who want to see it on a big screen, you can check out the playdates here.

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