SXSW 09 Interview: “Motherland” Director Jennifer Steinman

By David Cornelius
Posted 03/11/09 21:41:16

The South by Southwest rundown on “Motherland”: Six diverse and remarkable women, each grieving the loss of a child, travel to rural South Africa to work as volunteers in an effort to find some positive meaning in the wake of their tragedies. The group, strangers to each other before the trip began but bound by the painful experience they share, contribute to and learn from a culture that deals with mourning in a way very different from what they're accustomed to in America. For 17 days on the other side of the world, these women cry and laugh, grieve and celebrate, and talk more openly than ever before about the kids they adored. And for the first time since their children's deaths, together in the Motherland, each woman finds hope and healing in the company of others who truly understand her experience.

Just what is "Motherland"?

Motherland is a documentary film that follows the journey of six American mothers, each grieving the death of a child, as they travel to South Africa to work as volunteers with children. The idea of the trip was to test the theory that "giving is healing." It is primarily a character story, following each of the six women from her struggles at home through her entire experience in Africa. I think ultimately this film is a story about the universal experience of grief, about what it means to "heal" when you lose some one you love, and about finding hope and positive meaning after a tragedy when it happens to you.

How did you discover these women, and what made you decide to document their journey?

The trip was actually something that I envisioned and organized myself after my good friend lost her son in a car accident (she is one of the moms on the trip). Initially I reached out to her grief counselor who helped me to locate several of the other women. Then, as the idea for the trip grew, I sent out a blast email-- to grief groups, counseling centers, children's hospitals, etc-- describing the project and looking for more moms who might be interested in taking part in a "healing service trip." I was absolutely overwhelmed by the response-- I received almost 100 emails within 3 days! Women were sending me letters and pictures, telling me stories about the children they had lost and all wanting to be a part of the trip in honor of their kids. It was an incredibly emotional and moving couple of days and, needless to say, it was pretty hard to narrow it down to just six women. I knew I wanted a diverse mix of women, and in the end I had to really just trust my gut and pick the women I thought would fit together best and get the most from the trip.

Each woman's story begins with inconceivable loss. How emotional did things get during production?

There were definitely some very emotional days, and lots of raw emotion for everyone (myself and the crew included). For most of the women on the trip it had been less than two years since they'd lost their children so the pain was very fresh and on the surface at all times. As some one who doesn't have children of my own yet, I was blown away by the strength and courage it takes for these amazing women to just get out of bed every morning and make the conscious choice to move forward. But I also think one of the most beautiful things about the trip, and about the human spirit in general, was the ability each person had to find laughter through the tears and huge amounts of joy even in the midst of inconceivable suffering. These moms truly are my idols.

Your movie's website mentions "our culture’s inadequacy for dealing with death and loss." What would you say about grief in American culture that's inadequate?

One of the things I kept hearing from all the American women in the film over and over again was the fact that they all feel completely isolated in their grief since their children have died. People ask them "how are you?," but no one really wants to hear the real answer. We live in a culture where people just want the answer to be "I'm fine" and any other answer makes them feel uncomfortable. Eventually, the American women all said it was easier to shut down and stop talking to people, and many of them feel like outcasts among their communities. I think in Western culture death and grief have become taboo subjects to discuss-- they are considered "bad" or "too hard" and people just don't want to talk about them. But the reality is that grief is one of the most universal human emotions, and something that people experience every day, and losing someone you love is an inevitable reality that will touch us all at some point in our lifetimes. What we witnessed in South Africa, where death and grief are larger community issues, was that these subjects were not taboo at all and that people supported each other openly through the healing process, together as communities.

The act of volunteering plays a large role in the movie's themes as well. What are your thoughts on volunteering as part of the healing process?

I have always believed that giving is a very healing thing to do, and that idea was the impetus behind putting together this trip. I think often what happens when people get hurt or are suffering is that they assume the way to heal is to turn inside, and to isolate in order to take care of themselves. While taking care of yourself can be a very necessary part of the grieving process, I have seen lots of people get stuck there. As a long-time volunteer, my personal experience has been that the most healing times have occurred when I have stepped outside of myself, outside of my comfort zone, and given myself in service to others. One of my favorite sayings is "love is not something you GET, love is something you GIVE." I think that when we give to other people we create love, and it is that space in which the most healing and the most personal freedom occur.

I also think that now, more than ever, the message of "Motherland" is timely, with the election of President Obama and his message of hope/change/calling us all to service-- the film really addresses this idea that giving of ourselves in service can be a healing thing to do, both personally and together as a community, a nation, and a planet.

You've worked on several film and television projects, and "Motherland" is your directorial debut. What got you started making movies?

I studied fine arts as an undergraduate and then fell in love with film. I had this crazy French film professor who had worked with Goddard and in his class we would watch a film and then he would rant on and on about it for 2 hours afterwards (he usually hated everything we watched). Half the time I had no idea what he was talking about, but his passion was totally contagious. Editing was my always first love... especially cutting real film on a flatbed (wow, I'm dating myself now!). It felt like collage to me, and I loved it when other people would go out and shoot and then bring all this rough "stuff" back to me and it was my job to find the story. Now, after 14 years as an editor, I figured it was finally time to get out of the dark, solitary room and make my own movie... it's been quite an experience and I have fallen in love with directing. I don't think I'll be going back to the dark room (at least not full time) after this!

Any lessons learned while making this movie?

Oh, so many I don't even know where to start! Making this film has been the craziest roller coaster ride of my life! I only hope the lessons, while they might never become less frequent, will eventually become less painful now that I have my first film under my belt. I think overall, the biggest lesson has been to remember to check myself, and to always stay true to my original vision for the film, not losing sight of who I made it for and why. There are so many things that try to steer you off course along the way and so many moments where I have doubted myself and the film, but every time I return to that original vision of why I wanted to do it, I am really proud and excited for the film and I know it will do its work in the world.

Are you nervous about coming to South by Southwest?

A little bit nervous, but mostly EXCITED! I cannot believe how many great and amazing things are going on at the festival this year and I am so honored and proud to be a part of it. I am so thrilled to be able to premiere my film in Austin! And I am especially excited for the women subjects in my film who are coming to SXSW, and for them to get to be honored and celebrated for their amazing bravery and strength.

What's next for you?

My business partner Geralyn Pezanoski (Director of "MINE," in the Doc Competition category) and I have a couple of new film ideas, and we are currently looking for potential partners/funding for our next project. I definitely want to keep directing, and hope that this is just the beginning!

Finish this sentence: If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd probably be...

An interior designer. I am obsessed with furniture design and picking paint colors.

Rock, paper, or scissors?

Scissors, definitely. (I am an Editor, after all.)

In ten words or less, convince the average moviegoer to watch your film.

Hope. Healing. Power of human spirit. My Mom LOVES it.

“Motherland” joins South by Southwest as part of its Emerging Visions series. It screens 11:00 AM March 15 and 4:30 PM March 18.

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