La Casa de Mama Icha


Mama Icha, left, doesn’t like what her daughter and granddaughter have to say.

(2021) Documentary (PBS) Maria Dionisia “Mama Icha” Navarro, Gustavo Navarro, Alberto Navarro, Epifania Ortiz, Michelle Ángela Ortiz, Oscar Molina. Directed by Oscar Molina

 

As you reach a certain age, you long for the familiar, a longing that becomes almost obsessive. You yearn for the things that comforted you as a youth; the sounds, the smells, the people that were around you. For someone who has immigrated to another country, that pull can be powerful indeed.

93-year-old Maria Dionisia Navarro – known affectionately to her family as “Mama Icha,” is deep in the grip of that pull. She moved to Philadelphia to help out her daughter Epifania, who has hammered out a comfortable living running a catering business, where her own daughter Michelle helps out. Mama, over the years, has been able to put away money to maintain her old house in Colombia, in the picturesque village of Mompox (it is a World Heritage Site, according to UNESCO) where Mama Icha grew up.

Epifania tries to talk her out of it. She reminds her that she will lose her social security benefits and Medicare if she leaves this country. Mama Icha is adamant, though; her little house has been waiting for her and calls to her. Her son Gustavo has been looking after the place and she cannot wait to get back. Reluctantly, Epifania gives her mother her blessing, perhaps knowing deep inside that she will never see her Mama again.

When Mama Icha arrives in Colombia, she is shocked to find her house a shambles. The tiny house is in sore need of cleaning, trash is piled up in every room, and many of Mama Icha’s things are missing or have been befouled. Mama is so upset she throws Gustavo out of the house. Gustavo responds by insinuating that his brother Alberto has been planting ideas in their mother’s head. It is clear that there is no love lost between the two brothers. The money that has been sent to pay the bills for the house apparently wasn’t enough – or perhaps, as Alberto hints, Gustavo has been using it for his own expenses. Certainly Gustavo doesn’t appear to have a job of any sort.

It isn’t too long after she arrives that Mama Icha begins to feel poorly. It has taken almost all of her money to pay the bills on the house that Gustavo hasn’t kept up with and there is little left over for medicine and doctor visits. Gustavo decides that the best course of action is to sell the house and take his mother to a neighboring town where Gustavo is sure he can find lodging. Mama is very much against this idea, but she may have little choice in the matter.

Colombian documentary filmmaker Molina followed around Mama both in Philly and in Mompox. While he doesn’t appear on-camera, he can be heard posing questions to Mama and her family, often asking for clarification when things don’t make sense (which happens fairly regularly). It is in many ways a heartbreaking film; Mama Icha just wants to spend her last days in dignity, surrounded by the familiar sights and people of her town. As it looks increasingly likely that she will be denied even that, the sadness that fills her face is palpable and as she is driven away from her tiny home for the very last time, it is hard not to feel pain for the old woman. Little regard is given to her wishes, especially by her sons who are convinced they know better, and Gustavo clearly has been taking advantage of his mother for many years now, and Alberto comes off only marginally better.

Which makes the early scenes all the more poignant in retrospect. In Philadelphia, at least she was surrounded by family that cared for her and eventually because they wanted her to be happy, let her go. There she had money coming in from social security, and she had Medicare to cover her medical needs. It makes me wonder that Mama Icha might not have listened to the very sage advice (as it turned out) of her daughter and granddaughter because they are women, and women in Latin culture have traditionally not been given much respect. It’s one of those things of the machismo culture that I find absolutely mind-boggling.

The film is currently available to view for free on the POV website (see below) for American audiences. It reminds us that we have a tendency to cast the elderly out as if they have outlived their usefulness, something that even families will do to one another. It makes me want to go and hug my own mom.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics in Mama Icha’s family are both fascinating and heartbreaking. Certainly a wake-up call for those entering their golden years.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could use just a smidge more detail.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first in a planned trilogy of films by Molina concerned with the topics of roots, migration, belonging and poverty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: POV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Not a Burden
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Velvet Underground

We Are the Radical Monarchs


The youth speak truth to power.

(2019) Documentary (PBS/POV/LadylikeAnayvette Martinez, Marilyn Hollinquest, Isa Noyola, Indelisa Carrillo, Laticia Erving, Rene Quinonez, De’Yani, Diana Martinez, Cheryl Dawson, Dulce Gareta, Stacey Milbank, Eduardo Garcia, Lupita Martinez, Alicia Garza. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton

 

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a hotbed of progressive ideas and thought, a region whose watchwords are “tolerance” and “acceptance.” When community organizer Anayvette Martinez’s daughter Lupita expressed interest in joining the Girl Scouts, Anayvette had reservations. She was concerned that her daughter was growing up in a world in which girls of color were marginalized and made to feel inadequate. Standards of beauty and success were (and are) almost all oriented towards the viewpoints of European descendants.

She wanted her daughter not to be an outsider, but at the very center of the organization, but she was certain that could never happen in the Scouts. So she and her close friend Marilyn Hollinquest – who like Anayvette is a single mom who identifies as lesbian – decided to form an organization in which young girls of color were shown that they were just as important, just as worthwhile as any other person. Thus, the Radical Brownies were formed.

The group eventually changed their name to Radical Monarchs (although not explicitly mentioned in the film, I would imagine that the GSA had some concerns with the group using the name “Brownies”) which is more meaningful; like the butterfly which is in their logo, the Radical Monarchs promote the beauty of color and symbolize the butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

The film follows the first Radical Monarchs troop from 2015 through 2018, documenting the formation of a second Bay Area troop and the financial challenges faced by both young mothers as they balance the needs of the organization with the needs of their full-time jobs and of course the needs of their children as well. If ever the term “supermom” was deserved, these two ladies deserve it.

The girls are taught the joys of activism and their meetings are almost like school classes in which various social subjects are taught, from the need for Black Lives Matter to body image to social justice. And yes, the girls get badges for completing the work in each module. The founders mention the inspiration of groups like the Black Panthers, the Brown Panthers and other radical groups (the uniforms of the girls include a brown beret and vest that is reminiscent of 60s radical chic) which of course will no doubt set alarm bells ringing among more conservative viewers.

Still, the young girls are very well-spoken and thoughtful. I don’t get the sense that they’re merely parroting the concepts that the troop leaders are trying to teach; one gets the impression that these girls have given it some thought and have brought their own life experiences into their way of thinking, as brief as those lives have been to that point. The girls are even brought in to address the Oakland city council regarding a bill that would protect renters and while it has a bit of the school project to it, the sincerity of the girls is nonetheless heart-warming.

In fact, Fox News has done some pieces on the group and no less a talking head than Sean Hannity professes that the youngsters are being “indoctrinated” which, for those looking for a lesson in semantics, should note that when a parent teaches their children the values of evangelical Christianity, the Second Amendment rights and conservative economic philosophy, that’s instilling their children with values. When a parent teaches their children the values of social justice, tolerance for those different than themselves and the importance of activism, it’s indoctrination. Words are important, aren’t they.

Several times during the film the founders remark that they have been swamped with requests to start troops all over  the country, but they don’t have the financial viability to do it yet (although they have since received a grant that will keep the group going at least through the end of 2020).

Knowlton seems to be overly-fawning at times and while at one point one of the young girls talks about whether white girls would be made welcome in the group, while it’s never explicitly said one way or the other there is a strong sense that they wouldn’t be, which seems to perpetuate a culture of exclusion and an us vs. them mentality. I get that groups like this are desperately needed for young girls of color to find an opportunity to develop, and bond with other girls and that there are plenty of similar groups that white girls are welcome to join. But the tough question that’s never asked is how do we ever learn tolerance of other views when we aren’t exposed to them? How do we learn to be inclusive of others if we’re going to keep our children segregated? I don’t know that is the intention of the leaders of the Radical Monarchs to create a divide but it’s a question that deserves to at least be addressed, and it simply isn’t.

Still, this is an inspiring group of young ladies who seem well-poised to be the activists and leaders of tomorrow. If you think that those protesting social injustice now are just going to go away, you may find it troubling (or comforting) to know that the next generation is already learning the ropes. The struggle continues, and will continue until girls like this get the respect, opportunity and equality that they deserve. That we all deserve.

The film is streaming on the PBS website for their documentary series POV up through August 19, 2020. You can click on the link below to view the film. Check with your local listings to see if the film will be broadcast again on your local PBS station.

REASONS TO SEE: Inspiring watching young girls of color being taught to stand up for themselves.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the topics discussed here are on the adult side, although the troop leaders discuss them with their young charges in a mature and safe manner.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Radical Monarchs were founded in December 2014 as an alternative to the Girl Scouts, with an emphasis on subjects of interest to the Black and Latinx communities.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: POV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Beautiful
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom

Son of Saul (Saul fia)


Oscar-winning intensity.

Oscar-winning intensity.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Gergö Farkas, Balázs Farkas, Sándor Zsórér, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Orbán, Kamil Dobrowolski, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Attila Fritz, Mihály Kormos, Márton Ȧgh, Amitai Kedar, István Pion, Juli Jakab. Directed by László Nemes

When we think of the Holocaust, it is truly hard to wrap our minds around it. The absolute ghastly nature of it; essentially Nazi Germany created death factories in which living people were brutally and efficiently processed into corpses, then those corpses disposed of. The horror of it fails to penetrate our skulls because we simply can’t conceive of it, even when we see pictures and newsreel footage. Our minds won’t let us.

But it did happen and perhaps one of the more astonishing things is that the Nazis had help in the orderly disposal of the Jews – from the Jews themselves. The sonderkommandos were tasked with cleaning the physical mess left behind by the dying, scrubbing the gas chambers to remove the bloodstains made from bloodied fists beating against the iron doors in vain trying to escape, as well as the excrete of a human body in extremis. They are the ones that process the clothes and take them for sorting, act as cowboys herding the masses of those getting off the train at Auschwitz into the waiting chambers. They are the ones who drag the corpses – now called pieces by the German guards – to the ovens, or out to mass graves. They dispose of the ashes when the ovens get full. And their service buys them only a few months before they are herded into chambers of their own.

Saul Auslander (Röhrig) is just such a man. He walks with a purpose, his visage grim and unsmiling, revealing nothing of what is occurring inside while he does his grim and grisly work. He cares for no-one and nothing; he aids the resistance somewhat, reluctantly agreeing to fight although he says very little about it. His life is a perpetual tunnel vision of task and survival, even if it is only for a few short weeks. Perhaps the war will end before the Nazis get a chance to kill him.

Then he sees a young boy who survives the chamber – barely. German doctors are called in to see the boy, still breathing, lying on a slab. Then they suffocate him. Something inside Saul snaps. He determines to see that this boy, who fought so valiantly to survive, gets a proper Jewish burial with the rites of kadish read by a rabbi. He even claims him as his son, which he may or may not be.

However, there aren’t many rabbis left and those that are aren’t likely to advertise their rabbinical status. Finding one in the hordes of the doomed coming in is highly unlikely. Hiding the body of the boy amid the chaos and paranoia of Nazis and prisoners alike, improbable. Getting both the body and the rabbi outside of the camp for the burial is nigh-on impossible.

The opening shot, shown from Saul’s point of view as chaos comes in and out of focus as he herds new arrivals towards the waiting gas chambers, shows that this is going to be a different and excellent film. Everything outside of what is immediate to Saul is blurred, as if seen through tunnel vision. The style reminds one strongly of the Dardennes brothers who employ a similar technique.

The entire film in fact is shot this way, which is a double edged sword. It allows us to see Saul’s perspective which is very much on immediate survival, and excludes anything beyond that narrow focus. Saul’s world is by necessity a small one, limited to the task at hand of the moment and of avoiding the indiscriminate wrath of Nazi soldiers who aren’t above executing him for a minor infraction.

However, as someone who is prone to vertigo, the whirling camera rapidly goes from being an innovation to an annoyance to being downright disruptive. I found myself unable to look at the screen because I was getting way too dizzy. That kind of defeats the purpose of a movie; how are we to make sense of the images when we can’t see them?

That’s not a minor quibble, but it really is the only one. Everything else about the movie is simply awe-inspiring, from the strong, internalized performance by Röhrig that reveals little about what’s inside of Saul as it in fact tells us everything we need to do. Who is this boy to Saul? Is it his son, as he claims? A representation of the son he lost? Or is he a symbol standing for all the Jews who the Holocaust has taken?

These questions are at the center of the film and they are not easily answered. Saul himself is an enigmatic character who defies us to get to know him even as he gives us nothing to hold onto. For Nemes, he orchestrates this narrative masterfully, telling us a grim and dark story from a brand new perspective, one which we as a cinematic audience have never experienced before. For that alone, the movie richly deserves the Oscar it won last month for Best Foreign Language Film.

This is, simply put, a must-see film. Some audience members, particularly Jewish ones who have family members who were victims of the Holocaust, are going to find this hard to watch. I did, although mainly because my vertigo made me look away more than the stark and often gruesome images. Still, it is worth us to remind us that the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man is nearly boundless, a lesson we still haven’t learned more than 70 years later.

REASONS TO GO: Searing and emotionally powerful material. Röhrig delivers an amazing performance. Innovative camera style.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky cam caused legitimate dizziness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and cruelty as well as a lot of graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is supposed to be from Saul’s perspective only; we never see anything that isn’t within his field of view or hear anything that isn’t within his range of hearing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gods of Egypt