The arresting opening image of “A Mother” takes place so deep in the water, you suspect that it’s Agnes (Chérie Celeste Malone) who’s about to climb out of the womb, swimming towards the light, rather than the one who’s six weeks into a new pregnancy. With three young kids climbing the walls at home already, the thought of one more seems untenable practically, but even more so psychologically when news of the recent disappearance of a young Black girl named Zuri “Cherry” Hope has been roiling around in her mind as much as it has on the local airwaves, making the notion of subjecting anyone else to such a vicious world unthinkable.
Even without the echoes of “Night of the Living Dead” reverberating through the house as it plays in the background of getting ready for the day, writer/director Natasha Ngaiza finds Agnes wandering into a horror film that she had no part in making herself, cleverly continuing a trend in her films that explore the pressures of motherhood by having internal hopes and fears manifest themselves in unexpected external ways. While the filmmaker has often created premises around a mother’s need to entertain her children to educate them in 2011’s “A Creation Story” and 2013’s “Blackout,” often learning something about herself for as much wisdom as she imparts, her latest is a striking solo journey as Agnes considers terminating a pregnancy that sees its heroine create a fantasy for herself in which to understand the reality she’s confronted with, wrestling with what she knows to be true about how the world receives young Black men and women versus the unknown of a newborn child.
On the eve of the film’s online debut at Blackstar Film Festival, where Ngaiza will be part of the panel “Mothering and Laboring the Cinematic Revolution” on August 22nd and “A Mother” will be presented as part of the Nimbus shorts program on August 25th, the filmmaker spoke about getting inside the mind of Agnes at such a crossroads and cinematically bringing such a cerebral experience to the screen, as well as the possibilities and obstacles of filming in her hometown in Vermont and having the film’s festival run coincide with a pandemic.
I’m a mother to three girls and I was interested in telling a story about motherhood, specifically black motherhood and the feeling of threat that is hanging over you being a black mother in the United States. This is before the current iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement, but still having all these videos of police brutality and just being aware of the world that they’re coming into. When I was pregnant with my third daughter, Pro Publica released this incredible study about how maternity death rates are so much higher among black women than any other group and education had nothing to do with it, class had nothing to do with it. Race was the variable. So this was frightening of course and I had to stop myself from continuing to read it, but I was like, “Wow, from birth onward, all of these things impact the way we mother and the kind of anxieties that you feel.
Initially, I was interested in this idea of someone doing something morally unacceptable, but feeling for that character, so the idea of abandoning a child was the premise that I initially set out with to tell, and then from there, as I was dealing with all these kind of very real things happening in the world like the black mother maternity rates, the feelings of anxiety that kind of overwhelm you as a mother, I brought those two together. Then it was just a process of writing, rewriting, crying…[laughs] writing, rewriting and doubting yourself.
Was it exciting to flirt with the horror genre a bit?
Yeah, that was definitely something I was interested in exploring in many ways and I felt we could do that through sound. “Night of the Living Dead” is in there [on a TV at one point] and just exploring this idea of the ever-present threat, the anxiety that comes with having children and also considering an abortion, there’s something horrific about it all, so I wanted to explore that in many different ways. And when I was writing, that was very present in these kind of motifs like the pie with the red cherry juice like blood.
How did you find this fantastic lead actress Chérie Celeste Malone?
I felt so lucky to find her. I live in Vermont and there’s not really a film community here. The closest places are Boston has some film going on and New York, which is like five hours away, so I put out a national call on several of these casting websites. We got many actresses wanting to apply, but as soon as I saw Chérie Celeste Malone, I immediately wanted her to play the role. She has this kind of subtlety to her — her eyes are very expressive, and tell the story. She And it’s funny because this is way before COVID, but we were seeing all of our potential actresses over Zoom and I was like, “This is fantastic. Okay, I want her.” She doesn’t have to do much for you to feel for her and she just brings this sincerity to the performance that’s really nice.
What you do have in Vermont is this amazing scenery. Did you have some of the locations in mind from the start?
That’s the one good thing about Vermont is we don’t run into the same kinds of issues with locations that you do in New York or L.A. where it’s super difficult to get people to give up places. I really wanted the movie to be set here because I live here, but also because I have seen a lot of films where you see black characters in rural country environments that aren’t maybe related to slavery or the Jim Crow south. I wanted to see black characters in the countryside and then finding the locations was relatively simple. It’s a beautiful state and everywhere you look, it’s like mountains, lakes, and beautiful forests.
It was so wonderfully connected to nature I thought – what was it like to connect the camera to the character?
Arlene Mueller is the director of photography, and we worked together before on my previous film, “Blackout,” another short film about a mother, and she’s a friend and just a phenomenal cinematographer. We’re just in sync. I’d say something and she’d be like, “Oh, you mean like this film?” and I’d be like, “Yes, exactly like that,” and we’d talk about Lucretia Martel’s films a lot while we were thinking about the visual look of “A Mother,” so I watched “The Headless Woman” again. All of her work is very inspiring and another Argentinean director Lisandro Alonzo was another person whose films I thought of a lot and whose films really impacted me. They draw you in, like a psychological exploration is what I was interested in.
I’m telling a story about abortion, but I don’t want to focus on the abortion itself. It’s more about the feelings around the abortion, what it does to you. How is that connected to motherhood in general? And one thing I learned as I’ve been a mother now for nine years is women who are mothers are more likely to get abortions than single women, and when I thought about all the films I’d seen about abortion, mainly it’s about teenagers or very young women who aren’t married. Those are important stories to tell, but I really wanted to see a woman who on the outside, she’s got a husband, she’s got a nice house, not a black woman who’s poor, who’s struggling and is a single mother. On the outside, everything looks fine, so what’s happening inside then? There’s a lot of reasons why women abort that are not immediately obvious on the outside, and going back to Lucretia Martel, all of her stories tie in class and race in a really subtle way, so I was fascinated by that.
It’s got this wonderful impish saxophone for a score – how did you find the right musical accompaniment?
That was great. My husband, the executive producer on the film, is also a filmmaker and he had a whole career as a sound designer and he’s a musician also, so he has all these contacts with musicians. One of them is a friend in Chile, and this is an interesting thing about the film – most of the post-production was done in Santiago [because] my husband is Chilean and still works for a post production studio in Santiago. So they said, “Yeah, we’ll edit for you, we’ll do the sound, we’ll do that stuff for you.” And a good friend of his [with whom he] used to make music together had a collection of sounds that he recorded of Cuban musicians as part of this bigger piece that he had. He shared that with us and I basically just went through these little clips of music — 30-second, minute-long pieces — and it was a really fun process because we’re like, “We want something that’s horror-like, that’s really interesting, that’s going to draw you in, that doesn’t sound like things you might typically think about when you think about abortion.” We wanted to be experimental and there’s so many beautiful pieces, but we just ended up choosing the ones that were very eerie and scary.
Is there anything that happened that you might not have expected, but you like about it?
Working with children is always fascinating, especially as young as they are [in this], you just don’t know what they’re going to do. The little boy, her youngest son, was four when we shot the film, so coming to set, it was just like, “Hopefully he does what we ask, but also we’re just going to have to meet him where he is.” And I was just so pleasantly surprised by the kids on set. The girl, Cherry, is my daughter, and I didn’t want to use one of my kids for that. It took me a really long time to finally hire her — she kept wanting it — and I’m like, “I don’t know. I feel so strange having this missing child be my own child.” [laughs] But part of it is we’re in Vermont. There’s not a lot of black actors to choose from, so it was very difficult to get children and she was great.
There’s a lot of things when you’re writing that come through very clearly that don’t necessarily come through once the film is made. For instance, there was a lot more about the pie in the script, the juices of the pie and the making of the pie. We ended up cutting a whole line of dialogue with her and her husband about the making of the pie and it just didn’t fit in the end, but overall, it felt like what I imagined for the most part, and then of course, the kids brought their own stuff.
These are strange times to send it out into the world, but what’s it like to get to the finish line with this?
I’m glad you said strange times. It’s so weird now to have the film be in festivals and not be able to go. It’s bittersweet because you really look forward to the day where you can show the film to an audience and see the people’s reactions, but so far, in terms of the other festivals I’ve screened at, they’ve done a nice job of making sure that we get that kind of connection with the other filmmakers and what’s great is that now we’re screening virtually, I think many more people are able to access the film, so I’ve had people in our town tell me, “Oh, I bought a pass to see your film through another festival and I’m going to be watching it Tuesday.” That wouldn’t have happened before and it’s so interesting to see what people get from it. There’s things that people say where it’s like, “That’s a great point,” and I never saw that when I was making the film or writing it. People bring their own experiences to it, and that’s wonderful. I really enjoy that.
“A Mother” will screen at the Blackstar Film Festival on August 25th at 7:30 pm EST as part of the Nimbus shorts program. Tickets are available here. It will next play physically at a drive-in at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama as part of the Black Lens Shorts program on August 27th at 8 pm.
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