Wri/Dir: Peter Kerekes | Drama: Ukraine, 92’
This candid look at motherhood in a Ukrainian prison makes for grim viewing but it is fascinating nevertheless, and there’s stark honesty in the faces of these women who have brought babies into the world in harsh circumstances. All are criminals, but none are odious as they talk direct to the camera about their lives and misdemeanours. Most are murderers. One woman killed her husband’s lover with a piece of piping. A crime of passion, but one that comes with a certain sense of satisfaction. At least he’s alone now too.
Czech filmmaker Peter Kerekes melds reality and fiction in a documentary that features professional actress Maryna Klimova (as Lesya). A convicted felon cuddling a cherubic-faced newborn baby is the ultimate is contradiction, but maybe the experience of motherhood will offer redemption of sorts as they stare at stone walls and prison bars. Tenderness and torture in a cold climate. A woman punished emotionally and viscerally, unable to love and care for the child who’s been her most intimate companion for the past nine months.
There’s a grudging camaraderie amongst these females of all ages as they shuffle from one vast room to the next, exchanging words and glances, facing uncomfortable facts and surroundings, rather than the love and gentleness that normally surrounds motherhood, a woman’s ultimate goal; her raison d’être, reduced to nothing. Expressing milk from the breast to the bottle – and then pouring it down the plughole feels like a terrible travesty. Surely better to drink the precious elixir of life, than pour it down the sink? And the babies are the ultimate victims, torn from their mother’s warmth, they languish in metal cots crying pitifully until the orphanage or a family member claims them.
But prison is also a reductive experience. And these women are in no doubt as to what they really wanted out of life. And the sad circumstances that led them down the wrong road, their emotions taking over in the heat of the moment. Regret and endurance are now their only bed fellows Even the prison guard Iryna (Iryna Kiryazeva) has missed her chance at happiness, and it’s her own mother who tells her as much, once the gruelling work day is over and the two sit in solemn silence, the mother lamenting her lack of a grandchild. In the morning, Iryna reads through the inmates’ personal letters, to her chagrin, before posting them in their respective mail boxes. One man writes to his girlfriend: “I’ll bring you tights and red lipstick, we’ll fuck for three days when you’re free”. Some have already managed a covert conjugal visit. There are ways and means, even in prison.
Motherhood behind bars is an unusual subject for a male filmmaker but one that Kerekes delivers with sensitivity in a delicate colour palette. There’s a rhythmic quality to his framing and mise-en-scene that makes this ‘docudrama’ appealing despite the subject matter. Social realism would have been too grim. 107 Mothers is compulsive and memorable despite its flaws. MT
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL HORIZONS WINNER | BEST SCREENPLAY | MANNHEIM HEIDELBERG FILM FESTIVAL 2021