Review: Mother to Mother, documentary film, directed by Sara de Gouveia- “filmed account of the stage version of Sindiwe Magona’s novel” of the same name,

Mother to Mother is premiering at Encounters International South African Documentary Festival 2020 which is on August 20 -30, 2020. This film opens on Wednesday August 26 at 6pm, followed by a panel discussion. Film will be available until August 30 [until midnight]. There is a 400 view limit per screening at Encounters. ✅ Direct booking link at Encounters:

I saw Mother to Mother – the theatre production – when it premiered in Cape Town at the Baxter Theatre in September 2009. The play was adapted by Dr Sindiwe Magona from her book of the same name. The stage production starred Thembi Mtshali-Jones and was directed by Janice Honeyman. The documentary film, Mother to Mother which is premiering at Encounters includes footage of a staging at Theatre Arts Admin Collective in Cape Town, last year [2019], interviews with the creatives of the stage production, interviews with learners who attended the staging last year and teachers of those learners. We see Honeyman in rehearsal with Mtshali-Jones. We hear reflections about Mother to Mother which is a fictionalised story triggered by the murder of American Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl, in Gugulethu, eight months before the 1994 elections.

I interviewed Magona when the play premièred at the Baxter. She told me that when she heard about Amy Biehl’s murder, she was living in New York, working for the United Nation,. She felt anguish, but it was a “generalized kind of anguish”. Months later, Magona was in Cape Town while the elections were on the go. At the airport, prior to boarding her plane, back to the US, she was chatting a friend Lindiwe, about the elections. Somewhere in that conversation, Amy Biehl’s murder came into the conversation. “Do you know that one of the men is Nonthuthuzelo’s son?”, asked Lindiwe.  Magona and Nonthuthuzelo had been neighbours in Gugulethu. Magona asked:  “How is Nonthuthuzelo coping,” Magona told me: “That moment was an awakening for me. It gave me a new sense of awareness of her anguish – the anguish that mother, that parents of killers must go through. The mothers of killers don’t go on picnics you know. They too suffer”.

Magona said that she was shattered: “I was filled with sorrow. I thought – golly – that could have easily been me. I have a son. I come from the same kind of background. We both grew up dirt poor. We were both single parents … I thought poor woman – she never stood a chance. She is what I describe as a perfect product of apartheid. Her anguish and sorrow stayed with me for two years”. Magona attended a writers’ workshop in New York and the novel began to take shape as she began to navigate the layers and complexities: “Empathising with the killers’ family does not detract with the empathy you feel for the victim. It is another aspect. It is widening the scope of the tragedy. It is opening your heart to the hurt on both sides”.

That is the backstory to Mother to Mother – triggered by tragedy – novelised and then adapted into a theatre production and now a documentary. The documentary contextualises the story in relation to young people, now in South Africa. At the heart of Mother to Mother is Magona urging us to be empathetic and look beyond statistics and put ourselves in the shoes of so-called perpetrators and to think about the mothers and families who carry the pain and trauma. They are also victims. Grappling with “violence” is not a simple construct. In the documentary, Magona says that violence is not an answer, but…. But, we live in a country which has been ruptured by Apartheid. Many young people have been left to their own devices as their mothers have been working – often as domestics- mothering others. The fault lines run deep. This is conveyed in Mother to Mother – the book and the stage production and comes across profoundly in the documentary. In the doccie, Magona muses how classrooms are crammed – 50-60 – in a class. How is it possible to provide effective instruction- in that situation? She say that people pretend that things are “alright” but that is not the reality. “We haven’t really moved- which is the lament of the people who are disenfranchised”.

Watching, this documentary in the time of Covid and the national lockdown, I gasp at what is ahead. The school year has been effectively erased for young people attending schools with no access to funding and the mans to put in place distance learning. In the documentary, a teacher tells us that some of her students don’t have electricity and are unable to study and do their homework at night. In lockdown, things have got a lot worse. This documentary, made before the pandemic will resonate in many directions. The youngsters interviewed grapple with “violence”. It is not okay – but… “Listen to what they have to say.

The film belongs to Dr Sindiwe Magona –a humanitarian. I vote Dr Magona as president. In the film, she he talks about the fact that after Apartheid “ended”, we needed a Marshall Plan to get the economy going. The Marshall Plan aka The European Recovery Program, was an American funded aid programme put in place in Western Europe, after World War II. It was named after U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall and rolled out as  four-year aid plan – more than $15 billion was donated to assist reconstruction and to re-build infrastructure which was lost during the war. We need a Marshall Plan urgently – to help us chart our way through the devastation of the pandemic.

A friend of mine has a colleague who teaches in at a school in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town. Out of a class 40, she has mobile phone numbers for eight of the learners in the class- the mothers of those children. During lockdown, she has sent homework and assignments and the mothers of those eight learners have diligently ensured that their children have completed the work. Those learners are fortunate to have mothers who have their backs. They have mobile data to facilitate WhatsApp distance learning. What about the rest of the class? Yeah.

It is easy to say that “violence doesn’t solve anything” but try put yourself in the space -rage, fury, frustration, hopelessness and despair – that is the stark reality for many young people. Through her writing and now in this compelling documentary, Dr Sindiwe Magona has made a vital contribution to an intensely uncomfortable- conversation – engaging with “violence” in this county- and turning the gaze on everyone – perpetrators, victims; mothers, fathers, neighbours, friends. 

Mother to Mother – documentary- directed by Sara de Gouveia

Duration: 48 minutes

Language: isiXhosa, English

Director: Sara CF De Gouveia

Director Of photography: Gray Kotze

Sound: Craig Reyneveld

Editors:  Khalid Shamis, Ashley Smith

Composer: Tiago Correio-Paulo

Production Managers: Berenice Linderoth. Siphokazi Tekwane

Producers: Carol Shore, Maralin Van Renen, Dumi Gumbi and Cati Weinek