Filmmaker Jennifer Steinman has completed projects for PBS, the Discovery Channel, The Food Network and The Gap. Her first feature-length film, the documentary Motherland, follows six women, all survivors of a child’s death, to rural South Africa — where they worked in a rigorous two-week volunteer program to better living conditions for children.
The women had nothing in common except for the fact that they had all lost a child. The process — the first time that most of the mothers had spent time with other survivors — was the first time they didn’t have to put up a front for the rest of the world. It was also the first time that many of the participants actually confronted the experience — including the director’s best friend, Barbara, who was the impetus for the film.
It sounds like a depressing movie. In a way, it is. There’s no holding back, not much talk of a better life or a Higher Meaning or mercy. Death sucks, and these women don’t mince words. They also don’t hold back from their experience of being survivors — which is at least as intense.
But there’s also a lot of joy. When one woman talks about visiting her son’s grave and lying on his headstone every day before working as a paramedic, it’s tender, almost religious. And then there’s the whole Africa thing — all these inner-city Americans discovering the wackiness and wildness of a third-world country. They discover African culture, and they discover the limits of poverty in South Africa. It’s a very Job-like experience, in which they’re pushed to the limits of faith, questioning the meaning of everything. But there’s also a measure of Job’s triumphalism: when these women succeed, they really succeed; and when they rejoice, they really know how to embrace joy.
MJL spoke to Jennifer Steinman about making the journey, making the film, knowing when to turn off the camera, and her own experiences with doing righteous deeds.
MJL: The movie starts out with six very emotionally-fragile women and only gets more intense from there. How did you keep it together for the entire filming?