Warning: When watching Ferris Wheel and The Scavenger, déjà vu may be experienced. Nevermind that one takes place on the borders of Myanmar and Thailand, and the other in a rubbish heap in Cambodia. Mother is trying to make a better life for herself and her son. Son goes missing. Mother cries. Which film is this? Both. In fact, the same goes for the general structure of For Ofelia, but more on that later. It is time to admit that there is a problem of representation: women are (figuratively) disappearing once they give birth. So consider this article the equivalent of an INTERVENTION (all in bold, on a banner).
What Ferris Wheel and The Scavenger present are not women who are mothers, but Mothers. With a capital M. These films portray a monolithic ideology of Motherhood, where the identity of Mother is all consuming. Despite plenty of screen time, the women stubbornly remain strangers to us. We know nothing about their personalities or interests other than they once bore children. In contrast, their sons get to be quirky and have hobbies. They get to obsess over bicycles. They get to eat candy. In short, they get the privilege of being people. Perhaps it is an occupational hazard of Mothers to be comparable to a black hole that provides food, clothing, affection and shelter for the child. It is as if the mother is written without a personality in mind, leaving only a creature with endless patience in its place. The monolithic presentation of mothers in these films may be a result of programme curation or further proof of the pervasive ideology of Motherhood. It is probably the latter. These short films may paint a portrait of trauma and overcoming hardship, but they are also entering into a critical discourse on Southeast Asia and how we think about mothers.
The key problem with the one-size-fits-all version of Motherhood is not that it assumes all mothers will be Mothers in the same way. No, it is more aggravating that the collateral damage of Motherhood is having the woman ‘disappear’. A person with all her life history and experiences that have made her into a unique human being is now suddenly less, suddenly a Mother. There are at least four (out of twenty) films featuring mothers in the SEA Short Film Competition alone. That makes representation a problem.
As mentioned, the plot points of For Ofelia are similar to Ferris Wheel and The Scavenger. Yet For Ofelia presents a refreshing take on motherhood. While it doesn’t claim to do Motherhood the right way, it does do it differently. The woman in this story has four sons who have been forced to wear dresses at some point, to satisfy her desire for a daughter. The film has an energy that comes from having characters that are not archetypal, especially the mother. She imposes her own desires on her children, disregarding their attempts to run away from pink frilly dresses and headbands. It could be seen as an act of violence, forcing them to play the role of a daughter for her own fulfillment. Did she not get the memo about how Mothers should act? She is a bad mother. A misbehaving mother. She is a person.
We need more of those.
There are so many stories we can tell. There are missing women; hordes of women who are mothers who are not being represented at all. It is time for them to be seen.