Our Mothers (2019) (Nuestras Madres)

Our Mothers by Cesar Diaz is a very moving story of the long-lasting aftermath of genocide and civil war on survivors’ lives.

Mother and Child Reunion

by Alexa Dalby

Our Mothers

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The civil war in Guatemala between the government of generals and groups of guerillas lasted from 1960-1996. Thousands were killed but the genocide remained largely unknown in the rest of the world.

Our Mothers is Cesar Diaz’s first feature, though he is known for his documentaries. The film follows a single theme.

Ernesto is a forensic anthropologist, working in the capital for a truth and reconciliation foundation, identifying the exhumed bodies of victims of the civil war. He is searching for information about his long-dead father, whom he believes was killed in the war. We first see him in his lab painstakingly piecing together the bones of an as yet unidentified skeleton.

Nicolasa, an indigenous Indian from a remote village in the mountains, comes to his office to bear witness to the torture and death, years earlier, of her husband Mateo. She asks Ernesto to recover Mateo’s body for a proper burial and she knows where the site is. Like all the men of the village at that time, he was massacred and thrown into a mass grave by the army for giving food to the guerillas. The women were raped.

This strikes a chord with Ernesto, for reasons that will be revealed. With a colleague, he travels to Maria’s village to do his job and investigate her testimony. There is no one left to give a DNA sample as they were all killed.

The film is titled Our Mothers and at first it seems to refer to the mothers of the village. Diaz’s experience as a documentary maker shows as his camera pans one by one the patient, care-worn faces of the assembled indigenous widows of the village.

But there’s a twist. Ernesto lives with his mother, a nurse (Mexican star Emma Dib). In contrast to the scepticism about the civil war of the indigenous women, her middle-class birthday-party guests sing The Internationale instead of Happy Birthday. She recounts her story: the film needs to be reassessed.

Our Mothers is a very moving film, about a subject we in Europe need to inform ourselves about. But it is also rather slight with a single theme, and feels rather like a drama documentary. 

Ernesto is sensitively played by Armando Espitia, a well-known actor in Mexico. Nicolasa (non-professional Aurelia Caal) is wonderful, always politely persistent.

First films are like poems, using a metaphor as a way into the theme. Is it a coincidence that the central character in both Our Mothers and Traces is an anthropologist: the writer/director’s device for examining history?

<em>Our Mothers premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Camera d’or and the SACD Award. It was Belgium’s entry to the Oscars. It is released on 10 May in the UK.</em>

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