Motherland is heartbreaking and transformative 

Communal Grief

Gigantic Digital Cinema has a novel way to distribute their films — They don't. At least not in the traditional way, with films first being released in theaters and then to DVD. Gigantic's films are available for viewers across the nation to stream digitally on the same day they are released in big-city theaters.

Director Jennifer Steinman's Motherland — which will be released strictly online by Gigantic — is in many ways an ideal candidate for this 21st century exhibition style. Its heartbreaking subject matter — the loss of a child — makes it perfect for home viewing. As cathartic as the film can be, no one necessarily wants to find themselves in a movie theater weeping as openly and as often as one does in Motherland.

Steinman's intense, important film follows five mothers and one sister from different parts of America contending with death. Among them is Anne, an earthy, yoga-practicing San Francisco woman whose beautiful, mentally ill daughter committed suicide at 15. And there is the grief-ravaged Mary Helena, a single mother in Wisconsin who seizes up with despair as she describes seeing her son Aaron's body for the first time after he was shot in a parking lot.

All six women are coping with the same debilitating trauma: the loss of a child. In some cases it has been years since their children died. But their grief lives on, a pernicious wound that just won't heal. Every time Kathy talks about her son Mike's death in a motorcycle accident, her voice trembles with emotion. Debbi, a California paramedic with a Sarah Palin hairstyle and quiet strength, confesses to sleeping in her son Garrett's bed after coming home from the accident scene where he was killed by a drunk driver.

The six women travel together on a 17-day odyssey to a South Africa where AIDS has devastated the country. The visit is a traumatic but intensely healing journey for the women. "For 17 days, I don't have to pretend I'm happy," explains Debbi.

The visit feels almost mythic in its dimensions. The women are plunged back into the early days of their own motherhood, caring for very small children touched by death and poverty in South Africa. In one heart-wrenching moment, children at a daycare center for destitute families line up like visitors to a theme park ride, all waiting for their chance to be lifted up and embraced by Kathy. The experience of watching Motherland can feel relentless: the emotional volume just keeps getting amped up until it's almost deafening. The women visit a community of orphans, they spoon-feed severely disabled children, and they walk to the grave where their South African host Hazel's daughter is buried. It is both tragic and in some ways darkly funny: they compliment Hazel on the beauty of the headstone.

But rather than traumatic, the experience is clearly transformative for these women, and for us. For the first time, the women talk openly about their grief and they connect with a whole nation experiencing death — but also devastating poverty — on a level that dwarfs their own loss. Motherland is transparent — some might call it manipulative — in its efforts to wring tears from viewers with both music and flashbacks to each woman's story of their child's death. But then again, that is undeniably part of the point. Motherland articulates a stark divide between the experience of these women in America and the way grief is handled in South Africa. Despite the magnitude of loss there, the South Africans seem better able to cope: they live in close communities surrounded by others touched by tragedy. Their sadness is not denied, as is the Americans' who seem as trapped in their often remote-feeling suburban homes, as they are trapped within their grief. "I feel like an outcast," one of the women says of the American intolerance to grieving that lingers too long to be "healthy."

And the South Africans do something else. They sing: children, mothers, men, in church, in school, in cramped living rooms. It quickly becomes apparent that this is its own catharsis. If there is a complaint about the film, it is how abstract the suffering of the South Africans becomes. At times they can feel like props in the larger story of the six women: a sea of orphaned children and grieving mothers whose stories — beyond that of the homestay host Hazel — we never learn.

As the mothers gather around the kitchen table in their South African homestay, Anne notices the uncanny familiarity of their situation. "No one's been voted off the island yet," she laughs. The circumstance — six women together in a strange land — is the ultimate reality TV scenario. Only this is a profound, painful reality many Americans would rather not see. And it doesn't stop when the cameras go away.

Beginning Aug. 26, stream Motherland for $2.99 for three days of unlimited viewing at


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