DOXA reviews: Forget Me Not's ode to unwed mothers, Birth Wars' look at Mexican midwives, Landfall's trip through posthurricane Puerto Rico

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      Here are a few of the striking films at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, which streams from next Thursday (June 18) to June 26 via doxafestival.ca/.

      Forget Me Not

      (South Korea)

      In one of the most unforgettable moments at DOXA this year, a filmmaker makes the difficult decision to lay her camera down to comfort someone. We are left to watch sideways, the sound cut out, as she throws her arms around a distraught girl.

      It’s just one of the heartbreaking moments in Sun Hee Engelstoft’s empathetic look into Aeshuwon, an institution for unmarried young women on the lush South Korean island of Jeju. The girls face a stigma that endures in a country where they have to keep their pregnancy secret from school and workplaces—a shame so unbearable their faces have to remain blurred, though not distractingly so.

      We follow them from the entry forms to their therapy sessions, to brutal negotiations with angry families and boyfriends who hang their heads, to the delivery room. The journey of motherhood ends, for many, with the soul-ripping process of handing their infant over to strangers.

      They have support in the home’s strong-willed manager Mrs. Im, but choosing to keep the baby is almost always impossible. Engelstoft gives it all a dreamlike feel where time slows down, intercutting the moments between the girls with shots of the home’s empty rooms and the swaying trees outside, where many of the women are forbidden by their families to venture.

      What gives the film poetic resonance is the director’s own quest to understand the choice of her mother, at the same home, to give her up for adoption in the 1980s and sign away the right to ever contact her. Social strictures leave a legacy of pain that forever links child and parent, and you’ll feel it viscerally long after the film ends.

      Birth Wars takes us to the remote villages of Mexico, where women prefer to give birth at home.

      Birth Wars

      (U.S./Mexico)

      Director Janet Jarman attends deliveries on dirt-floor mats and in white-washed hospital rooms to chronicle the struggle going on in Mexico between doctors and midwives.

      Set in the states of Chiapas and Guerrero, it introduces us to Indigenous women who fear surgery and hospitals, but face legal consequences for practising their traditional birthing methods. And we meet passionate young graduates from midwifery schools who can’t get hired in a system that prefers hospitals. Just wait till you see the lengths they go to in reaching more remote regions to aid villagers: one midwife rides a horse-drawn ferry across a raging river.

      But perhaps the most telling moment comes when a male ob-gyn says goodbye to a new mother by quipping, “See you at your next cesarean.”

      Aside from capturing the miracle of birth from every possible angle—watching a village midwife revive a struggling newborn mouth-to-mouth is gripping—the film offers an unfussy, keenly observed look at a messy situation. It becomes obvious that racial discrimination and gender inequity are preventing bridges from being built between the two opposing sides.

      Landfall shows a Puerto Rico still struggling to rebuild.

      Landfall

      (U.S.)

      Cecilia Aldarondo’s pastiche of a posthurricane Puerto Rico captures the complex realities of a nation still trying to rebuild, amid inept leadership and a decades-long debt crisis.

      On one hand, we get images of a resilient people: young activists protesting governor Ricardo Rosselló, farmers using cattle to plough land ravaged by the storm, and a community turning an abandoned school into a shelter for those left homeless by the 2017 storm. On the other, Aldarondo shows the sharks descending to “rebuild” the broken economy: the real-estate agents ready to hawk ultra-luxury condos to foreigners, and American blockchain hucksters trying to sell cryptocurrency tech. (“There’s no better place for an American to live from a tax perspective,” one seminar leader says.)

      She interweaves promo film from the nation’s history, from postwar tourist appeals about its beach paradise to propaganda pushing the island’s industrial future. (One boasts that hands that once swung machetes and picked tobacco leaves can now work the factory assembly line.) And we also see lingering shots of the destruction that remains across the island—buildings crumbling into the sea, mountains of water bottles, and tarped roofs—cut with first-person voice-over recollections of the horrors when the hurricane hit.

      In the end, Aldarondo’s impressionistic, kaleidoscopic take offers a more accurate picture of the chaos than any standard narrated documentary ever could.

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