Setting out to explore reproductive justice in her native Philippines, documentarian Ramona S. Diaz discovered the vibrant chaos within a drab medical complex. The result is far richer than an issue doc. “Motherland” is an extraordinary vérité portrait of Manila’s Fabella Hospital, where an average of 60 babies are born daily, making it the busiest maternity ward in the predominantly Catholic country, and reportedly in the world.
The assured film, immersive and astutely observed, recalls the work of master chronicler Frederick Wiseman as it plunges the viewer into the day-to-day workings of the facility, from admissions to the delivery room to family-planning counseling sessions, where entreaties to consider an IUD or tubal ligation often meet with resistance. One patient, a 24-year-old who lives in poverty and is about to have her fifth child, is hardly an anomaly.
Most of the film unfolds in wards, thick with tropical heat, where women recover with their premature babies. They’re taught an ingenious substitute for expensive incubation, a system involving tube tops. Visiting fathers don them too; a conversation between two such dads, clutching their tiny newborns to their chests, is especially memorable.
Patients share beds, breastfeed each other’s babies when the need arises, and generally keep one another shored up with humor and emotional support. The clutter and crowding might at first be shocking to Western eyes, but it’s the power of communal interaction that’s unforgettable.
In Filipino with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica