Sarah Ping Ni Jones started making the self-reflective documentary, Umbilical Cords years before she realized how the unfolding of real-life events would have a major effect on the tension of the film and on the course of her and co-film-maker and boyfriends Jean’s life.
It starts as an intimate look at the relationships between 3 girls and their mothers.
Zanele, Mayra and Sarah herself, who live together above Cape Town’s cheapo breakfast joint, Arnold’s. None of them are drug addicts, criminals or conniving yet each has a disconnection with their mother. Sarah who is behind and in front of the camera carries out intimate interviews with Zanele, with Mayra, with herself and in turn with their mothers.
Mayra and her mother yearn to connect, when asked how her mother sees her, Mayra tries searchingly to answer, but she just doesn’t know. She and her family moved to South Africa from Argentina when she was a child. Her mother, through broken English, is clearly in pain when talking about how she wants to connect and be close to the girl who she knew.
There’s a look of fierce yet innocent megalomania in Zanele’s mothers eyes as she describes her grueling strictness on both herself and on Zanele as a child growing up. Sleepovers with friends would have been extravagant. Watching videos entailed her as a sideline censor. Through nifty editing we experience the disjuncture between Zanele’s mother’s notion of her and the reality. Zanele muses, “In my mother’s version of me I’m sure she sees me as either working at home, working in the library or asleep.” Cut to Zanele dancing to deep grooving bass at Mzoli’s and then to her mother – “I’m sure, I know that Zanele is either working, reading in the library, or asleep.”
You hear Sarah giggling girlishly in a snippet where she and Jean are making food as she focuses the camera on his bare chest , “Hey on camera you look like you have a deep-deep dark orange tan”, Jean looks up and says “I do.” Something about this snippet is very intimate allowing us a fly on the wall moment in their relationship. Sarah’s story is by far the most severe – one wonders if she knew what was coming in the early stages of making this film?
It becomes apparent that Sarah’s mother, who is Indonesian-Chinese has deeply ingrained prejudices – she has worked hard to bring her daughter up the social order by giving her a “white” father. She reveals a fierce guilt in confessing that she has made it hard for Sarah by giving her Asian-ish features and making her different. When Sarah says that Jean too is “different” and (like everybody) is of mixed origin, Sarah’s mother goes for the onscreen racist jugular: Jean is brown and brown skin must stick to its own kind. This comes as a blow to Sarah’s existence and, as we find out in the Q&A after the film, was an unknown sentiment even to Sarah’s father, putting her parents marriage at risk.
There are many gasps emitted from the audience during these interviews – and we discover in the Q&A that the conversations onscreen are some of the more elaborate ones had, as the camera intervenes like an unobtrusive therapist.
Mayra and Zanele’s lives are restricted by their mother’s limited views of them. Sarah’s mother tries not only to restrict her daughter’s current existence but also her future. She subjects Sarah to what we, in post-apartheid South Africa, experience when filling in official forms; who we are is limited to the boxes: “White” (this is if your tan is bad); “African” (living in Africa does not mean you are African); “Indian” (this applies even if you and your mum, and your mum’s mum were born here);“Coloured” (despite having meant mixed ancestry, this has come to be defined as a race). The final category is “Other”.
Anybody who lives without race would tick “Other”.
But, read the small print – this category is only for non-South Africans. If you tick this box, you are no longer South African, nor were you ever African. This limiting of identity comes through for Sarah and Mayra when they speak to their mothers. Sarah’s mum refuses to speak English and Mayra’s mother’s staggered English makes Spanish the better option. This constricts conversation to a language the girls learned from their mothers. Their mothers choose the language of communication and thereby the discourse of identity. In the case of Sarah’s mother, the discourse is racism.
During the film, Sarah takes the leap of cutting her mother off for years, in order to gain some personal space. The telephone, that was once the contemporary umbilical cord between them, is cut.
*Encounters screens Umbilical Cords once more before it goes onto the Zanzibar International Film Festival and thereafter the Durban International Film Festival at NU-METRO this Sunday 24 June, 8pm.