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Kristof Bilsen’s Mother: A deeply moving documentary on love, loss and sacrifice

Kristof Bilsen meditates on different forms of caring in his profoundly moving documentary Mother.

Written by Ishita Sengupta | New Delhi |
Updated: February 2, 2020 9:44:48 am
Kristof Bilsen, mother, Kristof Bilsen documentary mother, Kristof Bilsen mother documentary, IFFR, indian express, indian express news The documentary was screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam. (Source: IFFR Video Platform)

Can caring, a deeply intimate act, be rendered by strangers or can we care only for those who had once cared for us? Is physical proximity imperative or can watching over from a distance also qualify as a legitimate form of caring? Kristof Bilsen does not address but meditates on these questions in his profoundly moving documentary Mother. Narrated mostly by Pomm, a caregiver at a home in Thailand, it largely takes place at Baan Kamlangchay, where Westerners suffering from Alzheimer’s are tended to by a group of locals around the clock. Unmoved by recollection, they need to be reminded that they are remembered.

The documentary begins with Pomm pressing the wrinkled hands of Elizabeth, an elderly woman who can no longer string a sentence together. She looks around vacantly but is rewarded with a smile. The caregiver goes on to disclose how when angry, she unburdens herself to Elizabeth. The latter, on her part, listens compassionately and later, as if on cue, forgets. Contrary to what it might seem to be, this is a strangely symbiotic relationship. The gaze then shifts to Switzerland where another woman, Maya is being prepared by her husband and daughters to come to Thailand. The 57-year-old woman is losing her memory and her husband decides she can be better looked after at Baan Kamlangchay. 

The premise serves as a cogent commentary on the wide economic disparity between the East and the West, a classic scenario of more privileged households choosing others of their liking to fulfill their responsibilities. It deftly illustrates how in the world we reside in, caring and being cared for are no longer benevolent activities. Some are obligated to care and only a few can afford the luxury of being cared for. But Bilsen’s intimate documentation ensures that Mother is also, concomitantly, an affecting ode to suffering, selfless love and mostly loss. This is achieved by letting events unfold mostly from Pomm’s perspective. 

The Belgian-born director had met her when he was stranded in similar personal turmoil: his mother suffered from dementia and he was seeking a place that could adequately care for her. Pomm then was looking after Elizabeth and, as he later learnt, was staying away from her children and fighting hard to retain that bond. One of them stayed with her estranged husband, and the other two with her mother. The distance was making them grow increasingly detached from her as passage of time was blunting the pointed edges of her absence, no longer hurting them the way she secretly hoped it would. In a heartbreaking scene, she goes to visit them and asks her daughter to unblock her so that she can message. Pomm then embodied the curious dichotomy of a caregiver who, while forging ties with strangers, was simultaneously witnessing the breaking down of her own personal relationships. Through her, the documentary explores the hardships and selflessness of a caregiver but also the misery of those who are compelled to leave. When seen from her lens, the act of leaving someone no longer seems like an abandonment — the way it is commonly perceived to be — but becomes an act of sacrifice. 

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And this is where Bilsen’s documentary is most rewarding. This recognition impedes one from judging those who put their parents in such homes and entreats instead to look at the dejection they undergo for doing so. Her forcible separation from her children and the consequent longing mirror the way some are impelled to do the same with their parents. The plight is similar if not the same, and the analogy is most emphatically underscored when she video calls her youngest daughter and requests with an unconcealed helplessness to talk some more. Later, Maya’s husband does the same, repeating her name in a familiar tone so that she would look at him once like she cared. The documentary here no longer remains preoccupied with the disease but locates and acknowledges an oft-ignored despair: to be forgotten is as hurtful as forgetting. The most humane lines are voiced by Pomm as she contemplates on the circumstantial necessity of certain separations and makes a case for those who left and those who have been left behind. “Nobody forces us to say goodbye but necessity forces us to take the decision.”

Bilsen foregrounds the extreme sacrifices self-denying tending entails, validates looking over from afar as a form of caring and stresses on how unconditional care closely resembles the principles of motherhood. This is evidenced in the way Pomm either identified those she was supposed to care for as her mother (she called Elizabeth ‘mother’) or took care of them like she hoped her children would some day — “I think of myself if one day I get like this, what will I do? Who will take care of me? Will my kids do it? Will they love me?” ‘Mother’ here becomes a metaphor for yearning, compassion and empathy. Like that alone could justify such selflessness.

(The documentary was screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam)

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