I started developing a film about reproductive rights and reproductive justice back in 2011. Initially I had wanted to follow the social and political drama swirling around the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill. As originally conceived, the film was going to follow the bill as it went through the legislative process. While researching the film, I visited the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, the busiest maternity ward on the planet; it averages 60 births a day—and at its peak, as many as 100 babies within a 24-hour period. Fabella is the final safety net for very poor pregnant women, most of whom cannot afford either contraception or the $60 delivery fee. The images I saw at the hospital - the nurses who did their best to tame the noisy chaos of Emergency Room arrivals, the crowded corridors, the premature births and cramped recovery rooms with double occupancy of single beds – gripped me and wouldn’t let go. It was soon evident that the story I was looking for, a story about reproductive justice and maternal and women’s rights, unfolded within the hospital walls.
As I shifted the gaze of my camera, I also decided on an exclusively cinéma vérité approach to capture the daily rhythms of the hospital. Day in, day out, the routines at Fabella repeat themselves. Pregnant women arrive, mothers with babies leave. Outside on the street, visitors line up. Inside the ward, pregnant women, fanning themselves because there is no air-conditioning, await the signs of labor that will advance them to the delivery room and eventually the delivery staff’s cry: “Baby out!” As in most immersive experiences, once the routine washes over you, the real story emerges. And the story I found was one of community and humor. The women talk unabashedly with each other about sex. A nurse counsels them on hygiene, speaking into a microphone like a stand-up comic, teasingly instructs them to bathe hidden body parts so their husbands and boyfriends will still want to have sex with them—and not chase after other women. They shared not only stories but also their bodies, literally – breastfeeding other women’s babies is not an uncommon sight. The narrative that emerges is a tableau of not only poverty, but also of warmth, generosity and fortitude. The fleeting but profound relationships forged on those cramped beds are the emotional bedrock of the film.
The story that unfolds in Motherland, while taking place in the Philippines, is universal. The wondrous mystery of motherhood is apparent in every frame of the film, in the sweat and screams of a first-time mother in labor, in the peace of her newborn being placed at her swollen breast, in the awkward laughter as she flounders to diaper her squirming baby. The joy in Fabella is no different from the joys experienced by mothers worldwide. However, because this takes place in the Philippines, this film invites audiences to witness analogous situations from the starkly different perspective of a poor, densely populated, Catholic country.