Original in intent but flawed in structure and lacking analytic focus, Bethany Yarrow’s first documentary, “Mama Awethu!,” follows the lives of five black African women as they face the daily realities of the apartheid regime in Cape Town. Despite its shortcomings, however, the opportunity to listen to firsthand information, from a strictly female perspective, about oppression in South Africa should insure this docu screenings on the film festival circuit, public TV and in political venues.
What makes pic distinctive is its spotlight on ordinary, grass-roots women rather than the leaders of the South African resistance movement. Yarrow sees her docu as a corrective to works that have centered on men.
The women’s personal observations are always interesting. Iris, a community health-care worker, recalls how she lost two children in violent incidents and talks about her arduous struggle to put five others through school.
The beautiful and articulate Sheila discusses her political activism, ever since she was in high school, where she would hide banned documents in her bible. In contrast, Dinah, who lives in a tiny house with her family of nine, became politically engaged only when her neighbor was murdered.
First-time director Yarrow, daughter of folk singer Peter Yarrow, lensed this in summer 1992 while a student at Yale. Her lack of experience shows, for her film offers only glimpses of these women’s existence.
It also fails to provide the political context that would give broader meaning and significance to the often fascinating stories. As it stands, “Mama Awethu!” doesn’t delve deeply enough into these women’s lives or motivations, which is partly a function of its short running time.
Some of the footage is remarkable, but overall quality is uneven. Pic also lacks analytic control as it shifts from one woman to another, talking about different issues.