Imagine being dropped into the busiest maternity ward in the Philippines. It’s over-crowded. The main room is full of beds that are barely a few inches apart, all full of pregnant women and new mothers. And it’s all being held together by a staff of nurses and doctors, most of whom have worked at or will work at the hospital for 30 years. Shot in an observation, verité style, Motherland gives us an inside look at the lives of three women as they embark on motherhood.
“I wanted to drop you into this very different experience, in the middle of this hospital,” said director Ramona Diaz. When “There are no opening credits. It’s a cold open, and then the film begins. There’s only one lower third which gives you the place, and then you’re off. You just let yourself go on this journey.”'I wanted to drop you into this very different experience, in the middle of this hospital.' - DiazClick To Tweet
Motherland follows three women from intake to discharge as they go through giving birth and taking care of their newborns. Along the way, we learn about their lives, their culture, and the state of medicine in the Philippines. You also get a sense of the world they live in, which is steeped in patriarchy and misogyny. When hospital staff try to persuade the patients to do something, it’s always phrased as a way of making their husbands happy: get birth control so that you husbands can have sex with you; wash so that your husbands won’t be disgusted by you.
On the other hand, the hospital, because of its space limitations, is one of the few places men don’t inhabit. They arrive for an hour each day to visit, lining up around the block outside, and then they depart. This gives the women time alone with other women to talk frankly about their lives, their finances, and their sexuality.'I see them as really strong women. They won’t give it up for adoption.' - Ramona DiazClick To Tweet
“I see them as really strong women,” explained Diaz. “They decide to go through this experience. They won’t give it up for adoption. They’re strong. They’re funny. They’re very sexual, which I like. Usually, films about marginalized women, you don’t see them as sexual beings. But I wanted to show that side, too. They are sexual beings. That’s why they’re bursting out children. They’re very self-aware of their situation. Humour is very important in their lives. I think it’s really what saves them.”
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To prepare to make the film, Diaz spent a month at the hospital getting to know the staff and the hospital. “I had to know the inner workings of the hospital. I had to know the hierarchy. I needed to know who called the shots amongst the nurses, who was queen bee. I had to know who the labour nurses were. I had to know at what point, what time, visiting hours were, what happens. What was very routine, daily in the hospital, so that I could anticipate it.”'They are sexual beings. That’s why they’re bursting out children.' - Ramona DiazClick To Tweet
The major challenge when making the film was “to get real access into intimate lives. That is the true test of whether you can make this film or not, to get true, true access, not seeming access, but real emotional access.” For Diaz, it was about building trust between the subjects and herself. “You stick around, and you really listen to them. I needed to trust them, that they wouldn’t shut me out. They needed to trust me, that I would tell their story in the most authentic way possible. Once you get that trust, you’re off to the races.”
Usually, when Diaz makes documentaries, she has the luxury of getting to know her subjects beforehand, interviewing them, finding out who they are and what they’re comfortable talking about. That wasn’t possible for Motherland, because she had to find her subjects on intake at the hospital, when they were just about ready to give birth. “It was really going on instinct, choosing while shooting. It was very nerve wracking, but I really trusted there were stories within those four walls. We followed around six women and then chose three for the film.”'The true test of whether you can make this film or not, to get real emotional access.' - DiazClick To Tweet
“Once they gave me permission to shoot their lives, their time in the hospital,” Diaz recalled, “there was no conversation before or after. We were just following them. Whatever they did, whatever conversations they had, we recorded. Once they understood what we were trying to do, they signed off and they were cool. It’s very difficult work because all of your senses have to be turned on 24/7. While you’re there shooting, it’s very tiring. Once you get in there, you can shoot everything, and not shoot anything. It’s about shooting the right thing at the right time, and being very intentional.”
In addition to following the lives of her main subjects, Diaz also needed to capture the inner workings of the hospital itself. This would allow the audience to understand the context in which everything was happening, as well as provide certain functions like showing the passage of time. “There are certain things that are very routine, happen every day, like visiting hours, that long line outside of the hospital. That’s a very obvious get. You’ve got to shoot that.”'I try not to self-censor. I put it all in the film in the first cut, the first assembly.' - DiazClick To Tweet
Diaz shot each of these routine items multiple times until she got exactly what she’s looking for. “I think of it as different takes in a narrative film. I know when I have a good take of a man lifting a woman and laying her down in the bed. That happens a lot. But I wanted this particular look of this woman. When you get it, you’re like, ‘We’re done. We’re good. Let’s not do that again.’ Or at lunchtime, you film it every time. One day, you’ll get it. It’s a good take. It’s very routine: A,B,C,D. You know what’s going to happen next, so you can anticipate it. You know where to be to shoot it well.”
Motherland marks Diaz’s fourth feature collaboration with her editor, Leah Marino. While shooting, Diaz keeps a running list of her “golden scenes”, which she gives to Marino to look at first thing during the editing process. “[Marino] gives me her opinion. It’s either golden or not golden. Usually, we disagree. There are scenes that I love because I was there. But lived experience is very different from the experience through the lens. She’ll say that it’s really not golden. She goes directly to the list and starts cutting those scenes. It’s like a puzzle. You start moving things around and figuring out where things go.”'You can shoot everything, and not shoot anything. It’s about shooting the right thing at the right time.'Click To Tweet
“I try not to self-censor. I put it all in the film in the first cut, the first assembly. Then, as you edit down, everything should service the story. Once the film is put together, you start feeling like, we’ve seen that, it’s not necessary. That might be over the top. You only know that once you’ve put the film together, not before.” For example, “we filmed a lot of still births. We only put one in the film.”
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