I'm Too Young for All This Pain
You should be happy you knew your parents.
For seven-year-old Saif Slaam, life is trauma. A Kurdish orphan in Baghdad, he’s surrounded by ongoing chaos, in the streets, on television, and in his own memories. His eyes wide and red from crying, he’s hurt when other boys call him “Majuda,” his mother’s name. He can’t even remember his mother.
Saif doesn’t say much else at the start of In My Mother’s Arms. But if the boy’s experience seems beyond words, this remarkable documentary—screening this week at the San Francisco International Film Festival—makes clear what’s at stake, for him and for the 31 other orphans living with him in a two-bedroom rented house in the city’s notorious Ali Sadr neighborhood. The man who looks after them, Husham Al-Dhbe, has no government support. Instead, he must cobble together funds from neighbors and occasional local businesses, each week another adventure in soliciting. Husham’s wife resents that he spends so much time at the orphanage, his own young son and daughter hardly see him. And when he consults a doctor for advice on how to deal with the boys’ “emotional problems,” he’s told he should provide female caretakers, an impossibility: the only volunteers he’s found are six men. “We off the best we can,” he says.
And yet, for all the pain so visible in the children’s faces, In My Mother’s Arms offers hope. In part, this emerges in relationships among the boys: Saif finds a friend and music teacher in Mohamed Wael, a former swim team champion, now a teenager feeling afraid. The film keeps close on the boy’s face when Husham scolds him for teasing Saif at first, for not remembering his own past, how he felt when he lost his parents. Husham comes up with a strategy for helping the boys share their experiences. He invites a theater instructor to help them perform a play—about lost mothers. For days Saif lies on the floor or cries or fights, his incredible eyes sometimes tearful, sometimes startled, always searching. When at last Saif takes the stage for a play about lost mothers, the audience members, all neighbors in the same grim neighborhood, are tearful, and then enthusiastic, applauding the performance, a first step out of trauma and into community and a sense of order.
As In My Mother’s Arms observes this process, this movement from silence to art, from past to future, it resembles another film at the Festival, Meanwhile in Mamelodi, which follows a family living in Extension 11 in South Africa. “It’s not a real city,” explains 17-year-old Moskito Mtsweni as the film begins. “It’s what we call a township, divided into many sections, like extensions and phases, just like in a science fiction movie.” As she rides in her father Steven’s pickup truck, the camera first shows them from a position mounted on the hood, a wide, warpy, jostling frame that does look a little out of this world.
Moskito and her dad share a devotion to football (soccer): she plays and he watches. The film is shot as 2010 World Cup is starting, just a few miles away. Moskito has a chance to attend one match at Loftus Stadium: the camera follows her as she makes her way inside, the crowd loud and blurred. The scene cuts to Steven, back at his shop, where the black and white TV makes it hard to tell the teams apart, but still, he leans into the screen and cheers when the south African team scores a goal. The scene is stunning, in its seeming visual simplicity and its tremendous emotional range: the camera stays focused on Steven’s face in profile, in the doorway, so you see no TV. But as the sound indicates what’s happening and Steven’s expression turns euphoric, a rush of people from inside the room, also watching, overwhelms the small frame of the door: bodies and colors and hands and smiles fill the image, gorgeous and chaotic and utterly joyous.
On one hand, the scene suggests the multiple effects of sports, as a distraction, a source of identity, and also an industry that has little to do with Extension 11. On the other hand, it illustrates Steven’s great passion, his capacity to share and believe even in the dire life he leads. As Steven imagines Moskito at the stadium, he also imagines the future before her. It will be better than his, he says, because she is getting an education. As the film reveals, going to school and having even meager access to images of a world beyond Extension 11, Moskito is hopeful. She and her best friend Nonhlanhla put off flirtatious boys or shop for clothes. She keeps focused on her schoolwork, she looks after her mother, suffering from an unnamed but plainly taxing emotional illness.
When her mother—also framed in a doorway—says she hopes Moskito and her sister won’t “make a mistake,” the offscreen interviewer presses for details. “So, you don’t like to see her hanging around with boys?” The mother smiles, noting, “I was speaking more indirectly,” then says it plain: “If you hang yourself with boys,” she declares, her smile bright and painful too, “You are going to suffer, you are not in a right life. You are going to suffer.”
The film never reveals how Moskito’s mother came to this idea, though the fundamental stress of her daily life may shape it. Her children are looking ahead, and at least as they speak with the filmmakers, they’re at once careful and confident. As Moskito and Nonhlanhla describe their friendship, they smile, shy and delighted too. When Steven takes their ailing son Thabang to the hospital, where he is duly poked and prodded, the camera hovers nearby as the child bursts into tears, finds comfort in his father’s arms, and then distraction in the doctor’s tongue depressor. His face, like Steven’s and Moskito’s, is open and curious.
And, as Steven describes his daughter’s chances for going to medical school, and as you see her on a soccer field or see her and tiny Thabang sleeping during a World Cup match the family has gathered to see on TV. They’re both too exhausted to stay awake, and besides, Moskito says, “I want to play, not to watch.” Her love of the game comes from her father, even if he had to change his thinking about what girls can do. “My dad started recognizing I can play soccer,” she says over lovely shots of practice. “He started saying, ‘Go on, my girl, play soccer. You’ll be like your dad someday.”
As Moskito and Steven believe in a future, so too does Husham, in spite of all the obstacles he finds in In My Mother’s Arms. The layers of trauma can’t be forgotten, but Saif can smile, he can find happiness in pleasing others, in sharing his memories. Brilliantly evocative and deeply sensitive, the movie reminds you of what might be.
In My Mother’s Arms
In My Mother's Arms
Meanwhile in Mamelodi