This is as real as it gets.
The Philippines’ Dr. Jose Fabella Hospital is purportedly the world’s most active maternity ward. An average day tends to boast between 60 to 100 births, but numbers have been known to be much higher. In Motherland, the latest award-winning documentary from Ramona S. Diaz (Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey), the hospital locals call “baby factory” lives up to its reputation and then some. But Motherland is so much more than a documentary about lots of people having babies.
Since her debut, Spirit Rising, Diaz has become synonymous with films that are compelling and immersive, with a particular focus on the Filipino experience. This one is no different. Motherland provides us with a firsthand account of the Manila hospital’s daily routine and offers a glimpse into a third world culture beset with poverty, poor education, overpopulation, and a strong religious stranglehold.
The documentary introduces us to a variety of different women. There are teenage girls giving birth to their first offspring and middle-aged women seemingly stuck in a perpetual motion of giving birth. The opening scenes introduce us to a 24-year-old woman visiting for the fifth time, and she’s one of several people we meet intent on having a large family. The film is a snapshot of a country whose population is rapidly increasing at all times, with high birth rates spread across a variety of age groups.
A profile piece published by the BBC earlier this year found that while the Philippines contains over 7000 islands, the majority of the population is squeezed into 11 of them. In a sense, the hospital can be viewed as a metaphor for the nation itself — it’s overcrowded, underfunded, and contending with countless disadvantages. In fact, the Dr. Jose Fabella maternity unit is so overwhelmed with patients that it’s commonplace to see at least two women in labor sharing beds because there aren't enough to go around.
Diaz also subtly touches on the prevalent religious consensus ingrained in the national psyche. The most prominent religion in the Philippines is Catholicism, and the Church, which still wields significant power over the population, is vehemently opposed to birth control. Earlier this year the nation’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, signed an executive order to provide free birth control to over six million women. The idea of contraception is a new and misunderstood phenomenon to many citizens, and one which doesn’t correspond with their religious viewpoints.
The doc shows hospital staff try to encourage patients to consider birth control and other family planning methods. Despite their poverty-stricken situation, however, most patients want nothing to do with their suggestions. While the film reveals numerous issues regarding the country’s health care system, it also sheds some light on its poor education system for society’s disenfranchised members.
The biggest strength of Motherland, though, lies in its ability to transport us into the heat of the action. A kinetic energy is maintained throughout as we spend time with staff and patients during their most intimate moments (including childbirth, graphically). In many ways, it feels like a world far removed from our own here in the West, but Diaz does an excellent job of establishing a universal affinity with her subjects. When the end credits roll, you’ll be able to empathize with all of them.
Motherland kicks off its theatrical run in New York on Sept. 8th.
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