It looks less like a hospital than a production line. Rows of stone-faced women endure contractions in silence as they wait to be processed by overworked receptionists. They’re soon wheeled into giant rooms partitioned off into narrow hallways by sheets and dividers, each bearing long lines of expectant mothers crammed into beds like soldiers in a barracks. Broken crucifixes hang from the walls next to pictures of Jesus duct taped up like watchful guardians. Doctors and nurses come by and throw blankets over the writhing women, but these are soon soiled by blood and feces and are discarded by the time they give birth to squalling infants. Many of the babies are sickly and premature, and many of the mothers are malnourished, some only having their first periods around 18 years old. Without proper sex education or family planning resources, many average one child a year after menarche. Here’s one mother having her second baby while only 19 years old. Here’s another having her fifth at only 24. And here’s one more having her sixth at only 26. Regardless of age, all the mothers congregate together in the Kangaroo Care Unit where they wrap their newborns to their bare chests, the first timers listening in half-petrified silence as the older mothers swap war stories of massive families, miscarriages, and difficult births. Elsewhere social workers try to explain the benefits of getting their tubes tied or an IUD to nervous women. But whether for religious reasons, social stigma, or fear of modern science, most flatly refuse.
And so they’re destined to return in a year’s time to the maternity ward here at the Fabella Hospital in Manila, Philippines. Averaging 60-100 births a day, this ward is the busiest in the world and caters almost exclusively to the desperately poor. Many of the mothers can barely afford the cost of traveling to the hospital, let alone the $60 delivery fee. But still they come. Ramona S. Diaz’s Motherland takes us into the center of this beehive of human activity, watching as these mothers undergo delivery and neonatal care we in the First World might find rudimentary at best, utterly horrific at worst. But this is messy, thankless, necessary work, and the hospital staff knows it. To watch Motherland is to share in their frustration and exhaustion. But to watch it is also to marvel at the wonders of humanity in its most basic, defenseless, yet compassionate form.
And yet the documentary suffers from severe structural issues, almost as if Diaz took its cinéma vérité stylings as license to disregard any serious attempt to organize her incredible footage. One could imagine such a film giving a kind of guided tour of the maternity ward by following a group of mothers as they progress through the various departments, from intake to delivery to recovery to outpatient. And though there are a couple of mothers we specifically follow, there’s scarcely any rhyme or reason to the ordering of the footage until near the end where it focuses almost exclusively on the mothers grappling with the hospital’s outpatient bureaucracy. Instead we get a broad smattering of women at all different points in their hospitalization all jumbled together—one moment we see mothers in the Kangaroo Care Unit introducing their newborns to their nervous fathers, the next a completely different mother giving birth. (Curiously, only two actual births are shown and the film never explores the mothers who receive caesareans despite a number of shots of the hospital’s registry which reveal a staggering number of daily C-sections.)
I feel a deep-seated discomfort with bringing forward these complaints. I think part of this has to do with the fact that we humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to take care of babies, so my brain mistakes my issues with the filmmaking with issues towards the newborns themselves. But I must fight my biological predispositions and proclaim Motherland flawed. If anything, this film is a powerful cry for the necessity of family planning education in Third World Countries and a celebration of the health care professionals who sacrifice so much for those with so little. I think if the filmmakers took another shot at the editing booth, they’d have something truly compelling instead of something just mildly interesting.