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(The Maryland Film Festival kicked off May 3 and ran through the week to May 7. Our own Chris Reed lives in Maryland and will be all over the fest like tourists on a crab buffet so stay tuned.)

Courtesy of noted documentarian Ramona S. Diaz (Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey), we enter the “world’s busiest maternity ward” – Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, in Manila, capital of the Philippines – as a fly-on-the-wall observer of the incredible variety of experiences that take place within in the documentary MotherlandThe women are poor (it’s a public hospital), mostly uneducated, and destined to a lifetime of copious procreation unless they take steps to limit or end their fertility (via IUDs or tubal ligation). Some take it as a matter of course, without complaint, that their job is to have children, while others dread what comes. It’s a largely Catholic nation, however, so birth control – or “family planning,” as the harried nursing staff refers to it – is not an easily discussed option.

In the grand tradition of cinéma-vérité filmmaking, there are no talking-head interviews or interstitial title cards to guide us through the narrative space. Rather, there are just the women and the unfolding of their individually moving tales, revealed without commentary. Many of their babies have been born prematurely, and so we watch as the new mothers learn about KMC (Kangaroo Mother Care), a simple treatment, in lieu of expensive incubators (which the hospital does not have), which involves the wrapping of the child between the pouch of the mother’s dress-top and the skin, allowing the warmth of the latter to wash over the newborn. In theory, this leads to better health and weight-gain, a requirement before mother and child can be discharged back into their regular lives. They can always choose to leave beforehand, against doctor’s orders (HAMA, or “home against medical advice”), and some do. We see it all.

This is truly a remarkable work of documentary storytelling, raw, intimate and subsequently quite profound. We cannot help but marvel at Diaz’s apparently unlimited access to her subjects. She and her team remain in the background at all times, though there are a few moments when the women inadvertently acknowledge their presence. Some of the footage is hard to watch, such as when tiny babies are left momentarily alone, crying, or, even worse, when one delivery ends in a DOD (“dead on delivery”) result. Still, there is also humor and, above all, the sheer palpability of existence; we learn much about the resilience and perseverance of the human animal in these ordinary extraordinary circumstances. After all, what greater drama can there be than that of birth, life and death? Motherland has it all.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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