The tightrope between documentary and fiction has always been a difficult line to walk on. In Li Dongmei’s debut feature film, Mama, she explores the tenuous connection between memory and real life through the childhood trauma of losing a loved one.
If translated directly from Chinese, Li’s film is titled ‘Mother and Seven Days’ Time’, which is exactly what is delivered. As an audience, we are guided through a week of rural life at a glacial pace—the long walk to and fro school under the heat of the sun and the cacophony of crickets, family members crowded around a square wooden table slurping from bowls, the preparation of fields, and so on. Here and there we are introduced to small deviations, but all in all life and its happenings remain strangely constant. Something inevitable is the coming of a new child—the mother character in the film is strikingly pregnant, but complications later arise, which results in her death during childbirth.
For Li, this is something she has thought about for a long time. Having lost her own mother in such a manner, the making of this film is perhaps her way of revisiting these painful memories and dissecting them with careful precision. While this film cannot directly be labelled as documentary—it is scripted and utilises (non)actors from the village she grew up in rather than the people of the past, who have mostly departed by now—its presentation calls upon the aesthetic and technical visions associated with the form.
There is no sentimental score to tell us how to feel, just a resounding mix of diegetic sounds of the countryside to accompany us on this journey. Dialogue is natural, mundane even, with no inflections of melodrama despite the events that befall the family; sometimes, people sit in a long, drawn-out silence. Li even re-traversed the route that her mother’s body was carried via stretcher towards the hospital.
It is evident that this film was deeply needed for Li to address, if not overcome, her life-long trauma towards the sudden death of her mother. Anne Rutherford had written that there is an ‘unspeakability’ involved in trauma that arises from the unknowable experiences victims have undergone, one that language can hardly put words to. While the effect of spoken language draws possibilities of evoking empathy, Li’s method of a somewhat aloof and non-verbal approach to telling her incredibly personal narrative to strangers both challenges what we should feel and how we should feel. Shock, solemnity, boredom, confusion, emptiness—the seven days that Li shows us enumerate the emotions beyond one-dimensional pain.
Now that the film is done and dusted, making small rounds on the festival circuit, Li mentions being able to talk about death openly, and being able to hear the beating drums of funeral music without fear. The question we have to ask is what part do we, as idle viewers, have to play in Li’s healing process? Why does she choose to bring us down this memory lane so overrun by thorny thickets and razor-sharp shrapnel?
Maybe it is similar to the same way we unearth artifacts from centuries prior—items whose temporalities are so removed from our current existence and yet hold such essential insights to our understanding of who we are and why we do as we do. There is a lot to learn if we choose to run our fingers along the grooves and grains of these objects weathered by time; but we can also easily write things off as debris, not worth looking into. For Li, she can only bring us to the riverbank of her memories—whether we choose to drop our defenses and drink from her hands is then up to us.