DOXA Reviews, part 2: Sister and Forget Me Not

BW-sister

By Ljudmila Petrovic
Photos by DOXA Festival

In Ethiopia, one in 27 women die from childbirth-related causes. In Cambodia, it’s one in 48 women that die from childbirth-related causes, while in Haiti, it’s one in 44. Canada’s rate in the past several years on the other hand, has been 7.8 maternal deaths per 100,000 births.

This is the topic that Brenda Davis tackles in Sister, a documentary that follows the dedicated and resilient health care workers in three different third world countries. The film follows Goitom Berhane, a health officer in a small rural hospital in Ethiopia; midwife Pum Mach in Cambodia; and Haitian Madam Bwa, who provides contraceptives and health care for women, despite having received no formal training.

The film seems to follow several thematic threads that manage to pull at the heartstrings of the audience with shocking strength: the resilience of these women and those that work with them; the absolute necessity of the health care workers in mitigating the tragic barriers they face; and the juxtaposition and dissonance that we see between our own health care and that of the third world.

The women and individuals documented in this film face immense difficulties and barriers, including devastating poverty and lack of resources. The health care workers have varying levels of education and training, but they all have one common goal: to help these women.

“Whenever a dying mother survives, this is what enlightens you, this is what makes you happy and gives you meaning and sense to your life, that you are living a meaningful life,” explains Goitom Berhane in an interview.

Brenda Davis, the director and producer, was the last of eight children all born by an emergency cesarean section — in Canada, a relatively common and rarely fatal operation. In third world countries, however, the differences between the childbirth process and its results are strikingly different.

The health care workers seen in this film are single-handedly responsible for the life that does survive the devastating conditions of countries like Cambodia. Their sacrifices — things such as walking for eight hours to reach a remote town — are mind-blowing for an audience that is presented with resources like ambulance services and pre-natal yoga.

We are collectively reminded of the unequal distribution of resources across the globe — something that we are aware of, but often forget. The film leaves you simultaneously devastated and inspired to do anything you can to make a difference, and that kind of reaction is a marker of a successful social justice documentary.

 ForgetMeNot

Forget Me Not is a stunning and complex exploration of Alzheimer’s disease and the effects it has on individuals and their families.

Filmmaker David Sieveking goes home to visit his parents, only to find that his mother — once a robust and fiery individual — is slowly losing her memory and abilities. She is soon diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his father, Molte, is left to take care of his deteriorating wife as the formerly independent woman becomes more and more reliant and childlike.

The more time David spends with his mother Gretel, however, the more he learns about his parents’ history through Gretel’s diaries and photo albums. He goes through the physical memories that his mother no longer has and learns more of his mother’s radical political activism during the 60s, her feminist involvement, and his parents’ open marriage.

Molte, too, learns about his wife through this process, realizing years too late that their open marriage was really cause of emotional strain on Gretel.

Watching as Gretel deteriorates and the family deals with slowly losing her is devastating. It shows the dark and terrifying side of Alzheimer’s and other dementia disorders; on the other hand, however, the audience watches as the family grows closer, and as they learn more about one another. Once fierce and proud, Gretel softens and begins to tell Molte she loves him for the first time in their 40 year marriage; he, too, becomes more protective and caring of her than he ever was.

David goes back to Gretel’s childhood and realizes things about her that she can no longer explain. The film is simultaneously a heart-wrenching and torturing experience, and a humbling reminder to never fear getting to know the people in your life.

Usually, there is shuffling and exiting as soon as the film finishes; however, as the credits rolled at the end of Forget Me Not, the audience remained motionless in their seats. I looked around in the dark at the faces surrounding me, and saw people staring rapt at the screen, some sniffling, some wiping their eyes.

Forget Me Not is a humbling reminder of how fragile the human mind is, and of how complex and vast the concepts of memory and cognition continue to be, exhibiting the resilience of family. Gretel is no longer the woman that her family once knew, but in the process of coming to terms with this, her family discovers a woman they had never known.

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