Jennifer Dworkin’s epic 2½ hour docu explodes the right wing cliche of the “welfare queen” — the black woman with a lot of kids and a crack habit — not by avoiding the stereotype but by fleshing it out. Settling the viewer in to an unmediated intimacy with her subjects, Dworkin follows the fortunes of Diane, recovering addict and mother of six, and her daughter Love over a span of three years. Prizewinner at Locarno, pic’s tremendous emotional force and uncompromising honesty make for a strong presence on the fest circuit, and limited theatrical run could precede eventual PBS airing.
“Love” starts three years after Diane has succeeded in reuniting her damaged family, traumatized first by her neglect and then, after the law interceded, by separation, foster care and group homes. In the intervening years, they have become strangers. They fantasized a “happily ever after” ending once they reconnected, but deep-rooted scars and resentments remain.
Dworkin focuses on the most intense of these familial relationships, the mother/daughter duo of the title. Love, emerging from a horrendous hand-to-mouth existence on the streets but still seeking a bond with her mother, is HIV positive. She has just given birth to a boy, Donyaeh, similarly afflicted.
As characters’ histories are revealed, patterns emerge that threaten to engulf the principals in a hellish repetitive cycle. Diane is herself the daughter of an alcoholic mother who abandoned her when she was 3 years old. Love, who was removed from her mother when she was 8, sees her baby wrested from her and, like her mother before her, must surmount all manner of court-mandated obstacles to retrieve him.
Both Diane and Love had babies very young to fill the void created by their absent parents only to become absent parents themselves. Love feels like a pariah because it was she who, at age 8, told her teacher that her mother smoked crack, leading to the initial break-up of the family unit. Similarly, it is Diane’s mention to her therapist of a violent fight between Love and one of her sisters that leads to Love’s son Donyaeh’s being taken away.
No mere collection of talking heads, film’s p.o.v. subtly alternates between that of a privileged onlooker and that of a distanced observer so that Diane’s triumphant graduation from her job-training course is captured by lenser Tsuyoshi Kimoto in lively hand-held close-up while Donyaeh’s return home is framed in a long-shot tableau from the next room. Impressionistic imagery, often shot in dreamy, soft-focus black-and-white, accompanies voice-over monologues wherein Diane recounts her addiction or Love her time on the streets.
It could be argued that the presence of the camera gooses the women to greater efforts than they might otherwise have expended, but it soon becomes apparent that, being on public assistance, they already exist under far less benign surveillance, and are continually reported upon and judged.
Dworkin’s camera becomes a kind of friendly witness, recording a supervised visit between mother and baby or a meeting with a lawyer or the aftermath of a crisis. At other times, the camera wanders restlessly as couples fight in their separate corners or mother and daughter hammer out a fragile truce.
Haunting the whole family is the specter of Charles, the eldest son who kept his siblings fed and functioning when their mother couldn’t, and who had three years of college under his belt when he blew his brains out. Both Diane and Love, unsurprisingly, are diagnosed as clinically depressed. In the face of this legacy, the fact that they keep striving seems amazing. That they often succeed seems semi-miraculous.
The confluence of relatively inexpensive video stock and the all-important precedent of “Hoop Dreams” have led to the opportunity to follow a sweeping story in depth and through time. Dworkin brilliantly uses the form to involve the viewer in a warts-and-all complexity that confounds facile judgment, while recreating the frustrating slowness of a system of social services that often nurtures the very ills it attempts to cure.