Motherhood is universal – none of us would be here without our moms. For some, that relationship is loving and supportive; for others, it’s fraught with complications. Especially if Mom is famous or trying to change the world. Or both.
These filmmakers examine what it means to be a mother, a daughter, and a woman in a not always kind world.
For Sama (2019)
Directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts
For five years, journalist Waad Al-Kateab filmed what she saw happening every day in her home city of Aleppo, Syria. From the first heady, hopeful days of the revolution to the unspeakable horrors of bombings and shattered, bloodied bodies, her camera captures everything without blinking. She dedicates the film to her daughter, Sama, and questions whether staying and fighting for freedom is the right thing to do. Her husband, Hamza, is a doctor and is just as dedicated to staying and saving lives as she is in documenting the regime’s brutality. It’s a wrenching, tough watch, but one that also captures what joy, humor and hope can be found in the midst of such devastation.
The film debuted at SXSW, where it won Best Documentary. It also won a jury prize at Canada’s Hot Docs festival. A broadcast version will premiere on PBS’s FRONTLINE later this year.
Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West
While she was arguing landmark equal rights cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court she would eventually join, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also raising two children. Some nights, she admits in this Oscar-nominated documentary, she’d only get about two hours of sleep. In one scene, her husband, Martin (who passed away in 2010), admits he still has to tell his workaholic wife to go to bed and to eat something.
We meet her children, Jane and James, in the documentary, and it’s worth noting that both their careers are inspired by their groundbreaking mother (who loves opera as much as she loves the law): Jane also studied law at Harvard, and is now an expert on copyright law and a professor at Columbia Law School. And her daughter, Clara Spera, graduated from Harvard Law School in 2017. James founded Cedille Records, a classic music label in 1989. In 2009, he was named Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune for his work championing the city’s musicians. (Source: Refinery29)
Bonus: See below for Julie Cohen’s own list of favorite films for Mother’s Day, sent to us for this piece.
Directed by Peter Bratt
Activist Dolores Huerta was in the trenches fighting for farm workers’ rights alongside Cesar Chavez: They founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, but he got the headlines, the holiday and the prestige, while she was often mistaken for his girlfriend. (They were never romantically involved, but she did have a relationship and four children with his brother, Richard.)
Her motivational phrase “Sí, se puede,” (“Yes, we can”) was taken up by the Obama campaign; she later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama on 2012, who admitted he’d stolen her catchphrase.
In this award-winning documentary, we see how hard her cause often was on her 11 children. They’d be at her side during demonstrations or they’d have to live with relatives for a time while she fought for workers’ rights. Today, nearly all her children are activists in their own way: Son Emilio Chavez is a lawyer and politician and daughters Camilla Chavez and Juana Chavez-Thomas work with her at the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which was founded in 2002.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016)
Directed by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom
When the filmmakers persuaded the famous mother-daughter duo to open up their lives for the camera, they had no idea that both Carrie and Debbie would be gone by the time the film came out, which makes this film all the more poignant.
Bright Lights is an intimate, sometimes wry look at their sometimes thorny relationship. As Carrie notes, “Family-wise, we didn’t grow up with each other, we grew up around each other. You know, like trees.” Her parents divorced when she was quite young – father Eddie Fisher famous left her mother, “America’s Sweetheart” for Elizabeth Taylor. Along came several stepfathers, and her own fame with Star Wars. After several stormy years with her mother – which inspired Carrie to write Postcards From the Edge – the two settled into houses next door to each other.
In the film, Carrie says, “Debbie deserves it,” about taking care of her mother, who is in increasingly poor health. Debbie continues to perform even after her “retirement,” but relies on Carrie to join her on stage to give her a breather. (Carrie had a terrific singing voice, but chose not to pursue a career as a singer as she didn’t want to follow in her mother or father’s footsteps.) The song Debbie picks for Carrie to sing at her (ill-advised) Vegas show, “I’ll never say no to you. Whatever you say, I’ll do.”
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Directed by Liz Garbus
This Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning documentary follows legendary singer and activist Nina Simone from child prodigy to Carnegie Hall and beyond. Daughter Lisa Simone Kelly both produced the film and appears in it to talk about the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her husband – and often dished back out to her daughter. It’s a clear-eyed look at a very difficult woman.
As Kelly told NPR in 2016, “It’s a part of my truth. It’s a part of my family’s truth… My mother sacrificed on so many levels, beginning with her heart. The kind of people that were in her life – – my father, for example — that were supposed to protect her was not there. And no matter what, I think my mom is probably one of the most courageous people I’ve ever known.”
Dear Mom, Love Cher (2013)
Directed by P. David Ebersole
In this hour-long Lifetime documentary about Cher’s mother, Georgia Holt, we learn that Cher comes from a line of tough women. Georgia tells how her grandmother, who was only 5’2″, came to her mother’s rescue when her drunken father was about to hit her: “She cracked off this old ginger ale bottle and when Daddy made a lunge at my mother, she shoved it into his face and just tore the heck out of it. He was stunned, because no woman had ever hit him back.”
Holt appeared on I Love Lucy and nearly landed the role in The Asphalt Jungle that became Marilyn Monroe’s first major part, but went through several lean years. And several husbands.
Says Cher, “She was married so many times, but there were really no men in the house. It was like a tribe of women.” Adds sister Georgeanne: “There were no social programs for single moms. Mom was kind of a pioneer. Women tended to stay married in those days because you had no social standing.”
When Cher won her Best Actress Oscar for Moonstruck, she thanked her mother, saying, “When I was little my mother said, ‘I want you to be something.’ I don’t think that this means that I am somebody, but I guess I’m on my way.”
Single Mother, Only Daughter (2017)
Directed by Ellie Wen
In this short film, Ellie Wen records a pivotal conversation with her mother, Fabienne that touches on their sometimes troubled history. For just under 10 minutes, it’s a moving encapsulation of one mother-daughter dynamic.
In The Makeup, A Mother’s Day Story (2012)
Directed by E.R. Flynn
Flynn films his wife, Debra Rapoport, as she puts on her makeup, a daily routine that reminds her of her late mother. “I see her in my cheekbones… I miss her every day. Maybe that’s what keeps her alive in me. I can see her every day, reflected in my mirror back at me, putting on her makeup.”
You Look Nothing Like Your Mother (2017)
Directed by Ava Young
A celebration of Young’s beloved stepmother, whom she is constantly told she “looks nothing like.” This short film won 1st Place Documentary and the Jury Prize Winner at the Film Now Festival.
Favorite Mom Films Picked by RBG filmmaker Julie Cohen:
“Moms really don’t get their due in film. Movies have been so obsessed with women’s sexual desirability and had such minimal focus on the rest of our beings, it sometimes feels like a woman on screen is more likely to be a hooker than a mother.”
“That said, here are some of my favorite films with Moms in key roles:”
Roma: “Sofia’s (Marina de Tavira) struggle to keep it together as a mom after her husband splits is central to the film. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) has a role as a mother, too–both because of the major part she plays in raising Sofia’s kids and because of her own yearnings and ambivalence toward motherhood. I won’t spoil it beyond that.”
Norma Rae & Monster’s Ball: “Raising kids isn’t the main thing you think of when you picture Sally Field and Halle Berry in these films. But both play working moms.Their desire to provide for their children drives some of the key action and is at the core of who these characters are.”
Lady Bird: “A great plunge into the complexity of the mother/daughter relationship with brilliant performances by Laurie Metcalf and Saorsie Ronan.”
Postcards from the Edge: “Another great (and even darker) plunge into the complexity of the mother/daughter relationship with brilliant performances by Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep. The fact that Carrie Fisher’s script was strongly informed by her issues with her own movie star mom (Debbie Reynolds) makes it all the juicier.”
One Child Nation: “In Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang’s probing documentary, Wang’s own experience as a new mom drives the directors to look at China’s One Child policy (which they grew up under) and its often painful impact on mothers in China. (Features an adorable cameo by Wang’s baby!)”