Jennifer Steinman’s “Motherland”: Mourning and Rejoicing in Africa

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.

motherland, the film, south Africa

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?

Jennifer Steinman: There were definitely some very emotional days, and lots of raw emotion for everyone — myself and the crew included. For most of the women on the trip, it had been less than two years since they’d lost their children so the pain was very fresh and on the surface at all times. As someone who doesn’t have children of my own yet, I was blown away by the strength and courage it takes for these women to just get out of bed every morning and make the conscious choice to move forward.

But I also think one of the most beautiful things about the trip, and about the human spirit in general, was the ability each person had to find laughter through the tears and huge amounts of joy even in the midst of inconceivable suffering. I think we all fell in love with each other on the trip, and with the idea of why we were there and what we were doing, and that was what held us all together.

How did you first meet Barbara? How did you find the other women involved?

Barbara and I had been friends for many years. We met doing volunteer work together several years before her son passed away. When I first conceived of the trip, she jumped at it, and she put me in touch with her grief counselor who gave me several referrals for other women for the film.

Then I decided to cast my net wider, and I sent out a blast email to all sorts of grief organizations, counseling centers, children’s hospitals — I thought I might be able to find one or two more people that way. In just a couple of days I received almost a hundred letters from moms who wanted to go! Needless to say, it was incredibly moving and emotional going through all of them, and eventually having to narrow it down. My original plan was only to take four women, but I think I ended up with the perfect six.

Were there moments where any of the women told you to stop filming — that it was too intense?

I don’t really think there were any times that anyone actually asked us to stop. There was a lot of trust that was built quickly between us, and with my amazing camerawomen, Mira Chang and Karen Landsberg.

Honestly, I think the women really forgot about the cameras after the first couple of days. Or, at least, they got completely comfortable with them being there as part of the experience. There was definitely a lot of footage I left out because I felt it was too personal or perhaps too intense. My goal was never to overwhelm people with sadness, but rather to give voice to these women’s stories as a means for starting a open, honest conversation about the universal experience of grief, and how we heal.

Had you been to Africa before you started shooting?

Believe it or not, no! It was my first time there, too. If only documentary filmmakers could have a scouting budget…(laughs)

From a cynical perspective, it’s very easy to look at a project in which six women from the US come to Africa to help the poor children, then flee right back to their comfortable first-world lives.

I think the much greater crime would be for people to live forever in their “comfortable” first-world lives and never leave! For me, it has always been an essential part of Jennifer Steinmanlife to experience other countries, other cultures, other ways of life. I think many of the problems that exist on this planet are the result of people staying isolated in their own comfort zones, and not exposing themselves to or understanding the ways in which other people live.

I believe a global perspective is essential in understanding and appreciating what we have at home, and that was why I felt it was so important to take these women to Africa — so they could really get a global perspective on suffering. I also think that while we might be economically more “comfortable” in America, there were so many lessons we learned in Africa about what it really means to be happy and what the source of true happiness is, and the answer was not necessarily material wealth. I know that all of us — the American women and our South African hosts — all feel that our lives were enriched as a result of the experience.

Tzedakah is one of the most important values that we have in Judaism. Motherland is an extreme example of helping people in need…but it’s also a pretty far reach from the ability of most people. What should other people take from this movie — those of us who aren’t able to take off to Africa? How has it made you rethink your own tzedakah? And when can we say we’ve done enough?

I have always believed that giving is a very healing thing to do, and that idea was the impetus behind putting together this trip. I think often what happens when people get hurt or are suffering is that they assume the way to heal is to turn inside, and to isolate in order to take care of themselves.

While taking care of yourself can be a very necessary part of the grieving process, I have seen lots of people get stuck there. As a long-time volunteer, my personal experience has been that the most healing times have occurred when I have stepped outside of myself, outside of my comfort zone, and given myself in service to others.

And you definitely don’t need to go to Africa to do that — there are opportunities to give in every community in the world! One of my favorite sayings is “Love is not something you get, love is something you give.” I think that when we give to other people we create love, and it is that space in which the most healing and the most personal freedom occur.

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