Chicago Film Fest ’19 Interview: Kristof Bilsen on the Ties That Bind in “Mother”

There’s an immediately intriguing dichotomy at the start of Kristof Bilsen’s “Mother,” opening in Chiang Mai, Thailand where a phalanx of local caregivers can be seen tending to a select group of Westerners, disassociated from the world around them as a result of debilitating cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s. The Belgian-born documentarian had been considering the difficult decision to place his own mother in such care once her needs became overwhelming, and you can quickly see why from the remarkably airy atmosphere at Baan Kamlangchay where the staff is able to provide round-the-clock attention, even if it would mean sending her a world away.

But while Bilsen’s natural interest began with how a loved one would be cared for from afar, booking a trip to Northern Thailand and gravitating towards the oldest patient at the center named Elisabeth, who can no longer speak after a stroke and has lost much of her memory, he soon started asking her primary attendant Pomm about her life, coming to realize that in working all hours of the day to support her own three children, who are looked after by her mother in a village that’s a four-hour drive from Chiang Mai, that it is just as easy to lose touch with your children at the beginning of their lives as it is towards the end, and told across two continents, “Mother” elegantly depicts both the pain and beauty of the fight to maintain that bond and do what’s healthiest for all.

As Pomm cares for Elisabeth in Thailand, Bilsen travels to Switzerland where a family is debating whether to enroll their matriarch Maya at Baan Kamlangchay, and the filmmaker is able to draw a parallel between the difficult choices Maya’s children are confronted with when the mother they knew doesn’t resemble the woman they see in front them now and how Pomm has had to make decisions that have been in the best interests of her children, if not her own relationship to them. Not eliding the obvious cultural inequities that require Pomm to spend more time at work than with her kids while Maya’s family has the luxury of time and money to pay for such intensive care, the filmmaker manages to illuminate how forces outside of a family can ultimately shape them, particularly when the subjects can be seen second-guessing themselves based on what society will think.

Yet putting all that aside, “Mother” can be seen first and foremost as a lovely portrait of Pomm, who may admit to speaking freely to Elisabeth in a way she can’t do with anyone else, knowing that she won’t remember it anyway, but still confides quite intimately to the camera in both video diaries that convey the present-day challenges of balancing her personal and professional lives and candid recollections of her past and relating to her own parents. After premiering at the Sheffield Film Festival earlier this year, the film is set to stir things up in North America when it premieres this evening at the Chicago Film Festival and venture east to New York at DOC NYC shortly after and Bilsen recently spoke about how his own experience caring for his mother informed the film and weaving together stories from different countries into one cohesive and powerful story.

How did you get interested in this?

Initially, it was a search to find a solution for my own mother. She didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but she did have some scope of dementia and was going downhill in early 2016, and my siblings and I felt my father is really exhausting himself in giving informal home care. We were all either working or [starting] families [of our own], so it was really tough to find a solution and I started researching [care facilities].

I found this place in Thailand, which was rather fascinating, and then I went for the first time for two weeks in was October 2016 and made a short little documentary. I stumbled upon Pomm and [saw] her relationship to Elisabeth, which was really beautiful to see that dialogue without language in between them. I started talking to Pomm about her family and I just felt like, this is not all about Alzheimer’s, it’s not about dementia, it’s about something much bigger. It’s about motherhood. So the film was almost dictating to me what it should be about rather than the other way around, which is so often the case with my work.

When it’s a story that’s close to you, but doesn’t involve you directly, were there ways that your own story informed how you wanted to present this one?

Yeah, in the sense that we are all driven towards an eternal youth. Capitalism is not really a big help in that we all want to do anything we want and we all want to pursue dreams. But then actually, we all grow old and we all are confronted with loss and grief, and I think the film is inviting you to reflect on that. We’re all on a path to growing older and the film really forced me to reconsider what’s at stake in a human life.

When you mention capitalism, it was striking to me that you’ve got this parallel of a Swiss family that can afford the care and the Thai caretaker who has to rely on her family for help. Did that emerge organically as something to look at?

Initially, that discrepancy was inherent to the film because [the Thai care facility] is a place that literally only takes 14 patients, and in a U.S. or European context, it’s insane that it’s even possible, but you have to go all the way to Thailand and obviously, it comes at a cost. But finding Maya, that was serendipity [because] I knew I wanted to find a patient, moving from Europe to Thailand, but that was not straightforward because it was quite a traumatic event in the family’s life. That decision is stigmatized by family and friends who think you’re absolutely heartless to [send a loved one away] and suddenly, there was this family who I met who said, “Yeah, I actually think it’s important that somebody shares this story,” so [it was the story of] a mother basically who leaves her three children because she can’t afford to live with them – Pomm – versus a mother who has lost her memory and the ability to be a mother to the three daughters in Switzerland, so if it’s fiction, you’d think like “Ahh, it’s too extraordinary,” but actually documentary gives you that.

It’s always like that. I have an idea and I go after that and start financing, but then you meet people [and your ideas change]. Documentaries are really about people, human connections and their stories, so when I met Pomm, it’s like that’s it. That’s motherhood, and through that came the Swiss story because it focused me much more on the universal topic of motherhood and far less so on the issue of disease.

When you went to Thailand for the first time, what attracted you to Pomm?

She’s such a strong and charismatic woman and has this mystery about her. I’m always very wary of characters that are wanting to please you too much. So it is somebody more who’s teasing you into a story, but you don’t know where it’s leading you, then I know I’m onto something. And Pomm gave me that. From the first interview onwards, she was talking about her children with so much love — and so much tragedy as well — I was like, “Okay, this is it.” So you could say it’s love at first sight, but love at first sight is a word for luck. [laughs] In this case for three years, it needs to work and Pomm gave that mystery and charisma exactly and then also the fact I was able to give her a camera and she delivered those video diaries, which are quite extraordinary, right?

Yeah, and I understand those came as a surprise to you as far as when she sent them and what they conveyed.

Well, I knew from interviewing her that she’s a really good storyteller and she has this helicopter view on her own situation, which is another requirement of a good character – that not only she has good drama and internal drive, but is also able to communicate that to an audience. And we thought [giving her a camera] was an easy tool to keep track of her story [while I was abroad]. But when she came up with the first batch of footage, I was amazed with the strength of the footage and the urgency of it, so we felt like this [should be part of] the film and actually integral to the storytelling.

Did the Swiss footage and the Thai footage immediately speak to each other?

Yeah, the first footage with Elisabeth in Thailand — before we met with the Swiss family — I found Pomm doing Elisabeth’s nails, amongst other things, and I saw the sense of respect towards the elderly. Regardless of having Alzheimer’s or dementia, still you’re a lady and you want to be treated that way. So when we went to Switzerland, filming the daughters of Maya, doing exactly the same [when] Maya was getting her nails done, it was striking that that could be a perfect leitmotif through the film, because [those scenes] of the caregivers giving them a proper spa treatment have this beautiful elegance to them. Then secondly, the whole description of landscapes — the Swiss landscape [during] the fall and winter [with snow], obviously, and if you juxtapose that to the lush greenery of Thailand, it gives the base of the material another feel and that really worked quite nicely.

Given the subject, screenings of this film must be pretty emotional. What’s it been like to see the response?

It’s beautiful and rewarding in that sense that it’s something that we all shy away from, but we all have a father or a mother or becoming a father or a mother, so we’re all involved. Often, it’s the elephant in the room and it’s universal, but it’s not the big political topic, so it’s fragile. I know it strikes many chords and I’ve noticed every time that we do a Q & A that people are deeply moved. I had [one] where even a few days later, three teenagers come up to me and say, “We were in the screening, but one of our friends has her brother who’s disabled and they’re really struggling with home care,” because it’s taboo [since] everybody says they need to do it at home, “and they’re exhausting themselves.” So it’s really a conversation starter and it fulfills that role quite well.

“Mother” will screen at the Chicago Film Festival on October 21st at 8:30 pm and October 22nd at 3 pm at the AMC River East 21 and DOC NYC at the Cinepolis Chelsea on November 8th at 10:30 am and November 9th at 3 pm.

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