Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hot Docs: Mama Illegal

Mama Illegal, by Ed Moshitz, was part of the ‘Made in Southeastern Europe’ strand of Hot Docs. It was about women from the impoverished Republic of Moldova (a European country that’s not part of the European Union), who leave their husbands and children to work as maids in foreign countries. They pay smugglers to sneak them over the border and they travel to Austria, Italy, Germany etc.; anywhere they can earn decent wages so they can support their families back home. Their ultimate dream is to become legal workers and get their official papers.

Culturally, it was hard for me to relate to the women’s struggles, but I liked the fact that they weren’t always sympathetic characters. This wasn’t just a story about poor women doing whatever it takes to provide for their families. It was also about women who put themselves first, who saw an escape and took it, justifying their decision because they could send money home. Yes, they ached for their families and cried through Skype chats with their children, but they also enjoyed their freedom in liberated countries.

There was one woman (whose face was blurred on camera) who had a six-year old girl at home who she hadn’t seen since she was a baby. But when she received notice that she’d have to leave the country she was living in (can’t remember which one) she collapsed in the immigration office. You’d think the thought of going home to her daughter would provide her with comfort, but she was desperate not be sent back to Moldova. Another woman, Aurica, returned to Austria to work even after her husband committed suicide during her first trip home. She left her pre-teen children to fend for themselves and they spoke on camera about how they resented it. They understood that money was important, but they also swore they would never leave their own children. Even the most sympathetic of the featured women returned to Moldova and immediately started to criticize her husband for his housekeeping skills. Great – it’s not like he was raising the children solo for the last 3 years or anything.

But are they building a better future for their families? In Aurica’s case she is now a legal worker in Austria and has been able to bring her children for periodic stays. They are hoping they’ll be able to attend University in Austria. Does the end justify the means? It’s a tough call – and I won’t pretend to make it.

Whatever the case it’s an interesting issue because absentee mothers are a country wide epidemic. There was a great scene in the film in which a teacher asked all the students in her class where their mothers were. Over half of them had mother’s who were working in maids as foreign countries and many hadn’t seen them in years.

It wasn’t my favourite film of the festival but it was well done. I had a hard time warming up to the characters because I gravitate towards documentaries where I feel an outpouring of love and sympathy for the people involved. But that wasn’t how this film was structured. It was a realistic personal story with no heroes or villains.

It’s interesting to note that the director of the film was actually one of Aurica’s employers in Austria. After speaking to her about her life, he became intrigued and decided to investigate the subject further, tracking down other women with similar stories.

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