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Umama: A deeply personal story with a universal reach

Maverick Life


Umama: A deeply personal story with a universal reach

Image: Umama

Talia Smith’s short film packs a powerful punch, hitting on the deep-rooted and convoluted nature of domestic work in South Africa.

“The lives of practically all South Africans have been touched by the institution of paid domestic work; either because of the presence of an often motherly carer or cleaner, or because of the absence of a mother who does housework for others,” writes professor of South African Literature at University of Amsterdam and author Ena Jansen in her book Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature. 

Defined as work done for or in a household, domestic work is innately intimate. It requires entering and working within someone else’s private space, their home. It often involves cleaning up an employer’s mess, looking through their pantry, or literally (and perhaps figuratively) airing their dirty laundry. 

It’s no wonder then, that domestic workers often become closely involved with family life, or as Jansen puts it, are “like part of the family”. The ubiquity of stories like this is perhaps best demonstrated by “South Africa’s most popular cartoon”, Madam & Eve, whose depiction of the relationship between a white employer (Madam) and her “domestic maintenance assistant” (Eve), is read by more than four million people every day (according to their website.) 

The story of the domestic worker is a reality that crosses all racial and economic lines – one with which we have varying (and often deeply personal) relationships. It is also undeniably rooted in the dark history of apartheid’s racialised power imbalances. According to this 2007 study, 89% of domestic workers in South Africa are black, and of that percentage 88% are women.

Jansen writes, “The social and economic division between black and white lingers on in post-apartheid South Africa and remains largely unresolved. Most white neighbourhoods have retained the demographic character of the twentieth century, and to this day, black people generally enter them in their capacity as servants, gardeners, and cleaners.” The continued racialised nature of domestic work is one of the more blatant signs of apartheid’s nefarious legacy, lingering in some of our most important childhood memories, literally haunting the innermost workings of our homes.  

Umama, written and directed by South African filmmaker Talia Smith, is a short film that prods at the painful heart of this issue: the epic burden that many domestic workers take on, that of being a “second mother”, of having to care for two separate families. 

The protagonist of the story, Sibongile (portrayed in an immaculate and dynamic performance by Connie Chiume) works as a nanny for a well-off Jewish family, taking care of their two small children. Her strong bond with Cassy (Lea Rofail), the little girl that she looks after, is established in the first shot, and maintained throughout the film. Cassy helps Sibongile lay the table for the family’s Shabbat. Sibongile coaxes a sleepy Cassy from her bed every morning. The two share laughs, secrets, and promises. 

But Sibongile also has a son, Thabiso (Malibongwe Mdwaba), who lives with her in a small house in an unnamed township. The audience is first introduced to Thabiso as he walks across a stage to collect an award for receiving the best grades in his class at a fancy private school. An award ceremony that Sibongile misses because she is at work. 

Much of the film is an artful depiction of the difficult balance that Sibongile attempts to find; that of caring for her own child and being a “second mother” to the children she is paid to care for. 

The film, inspired by real events, is intimate to Smith herself, who dedicates it to her own “second mother”, Sebaetsend S Sentsho (Susan). Umama, the product of her thesis at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, was first conceptualised in Smith’s second year in New York. 

“I had pictures of people from home up in my dorm and one of them was of me and Susan at my matric dance,” Smith explained. “People would come to my room and ask, ‘Who is that?’ It wouldn’t feel right to say, ‘That was our domestic worker.’ It didn’t describe all that she was to me, because she was like a second mother. I started thinking more and more about this relationship.” 

Mdwaba, whose portrayal of Thabiso was heart-wrenchingly sincere, felt connected to the story from a different angle. Aside from his obvious dedication to his craft, he told Maverick Life that, “What helped me get into the world of Umama was that the story wasn’t too foreign for me. I grew up in a township in Cape Town, I know all of the things that are happening, I can relate to the absence of a parent figure.” 

This was the case for most of the cast, who are predominantly South African. “So many of them could relate to the characters,” said Smith, “so they were bringing their personal experiences to the forefront of the film. It was a really beautiful process, all of us analysing the people around us and within our society. The actors really brought a lot, including cultural references that I just wouldn’t have known about.” 

Perhaps this is what lends the 20-minute film its incredible power; the truth that pulses through it despite its fictional nature. The authenticity of experience is especially palpable in smaller details, delicately woven into the screen.   

Image: Umama

For example, the difficult relationship between Sibongile and her son is explored in a single, poignant scene. Sibongile arrives home from work to find Thabiso getting ready to go out to the tavern. He tells her that he won an award at school and shows her the certificate. Sibongile looks down at the piece of paper blankly – and in this moment, a chasm opens between mother and son: Thabiso is receiving a top education alongside his white age-mates, and his mother is of the generation that lived under the harsh laws of the apartheid regime; education for black people was extremely limited, with the Bantu Education system aimed specifically at training black children for manual labour and menial jobs. 

Another blatant remnant of apartheid, Smith explains her desire to reference this education gap: “Speaking to Susan growing up, she would tell me stories about the Bantu Education system. She told me that she had to learn how to clean an oven. That was one of her lessons. That got me thinking about how apartheid is over, but you still have a generation of people who went through that system. That is the legacy of apartheid. It’s reflected in everyday life here in South Africa, so it’s reflected in the film.” 

This distance between Thabiso and his mother is painful for him. He feels the sense of unbelonging, of being in between and misunderstood from all angles. “Ma, can I ask you one thing?” He snaps at Sibongile, when she tells him not to go to the tavern, “What exactly are you raising? At school I’m the ‘Black Boy’, and here I’m a ‘sell-out’, and now to you I’m a tsotsi?” He storms out of the house. 

Image: Umama

When Sibongile wakes up in the morning, Thabiso is nowhere to be found. As an audience, we know something is deeply wrong. The last we have seen of Thabiso was a close-up of his face in the pulsing red light of the tavern, then the screen cuts to a shot of a decrepit playground. A broken chain swaying softly in the breeze, dangling from a wooden A-frame – the empty skeleton of a swing set.  

To spoil it for you, the film’s tragic climax comes in the form of an unimaginable tragedy for Sibongile: Thabiso is murdered by two thugs from the township who have it out for him. Sibongile hears the news when she is at work, alone, taking care of another little boy. The heartbreaking substance of this moment is illustrated in a devastating cut between two parallel shots: one of Sibongile laying down the head of the little white boy she takes care of for his afternoon sleep, which cuts to the second. She lays down the head of her own son’s corpse, blood leaking from the side of his mouth. The final sleep. 

Smith explains that this was inspired by a memory she has of Sentsho, whose son died when Smith was just six years old. “Now, being older, I was able to start to think about what it must have been like for her, to be away from her family, to be with another family and act as a second mother.” 

Outliving a child must be the worst nightmare for any parent. This is the reality of the double-family life that many domestic workers experience, taken to its logical extremes. But this is also a story shared by many black women all over South Africa. 

What does it mean that Smith, whose own life aligns more closely with Cassy’s character, is telling this story? There have been a few cases in which white women have attempted to write about the experience of domestic workers, only to patronise or sideline the very woman they are trying to shed light on. The most notable example of this is perhaps The Help, a novel (later turned into a movie) by US author Kathryn Stockett. The inspiration for Stockett’s novel, Ablene Cooper, who worked for the author’s brother, filed a lawsuit against Stockett, claiming that The Help used Cooper’s story without seeking her permission, and painted an unfair and patronising picture of Cooper. 

In contrast, Smith collaborated closely with her cast and crew (as well as her inspiration, Sentsho) throughout the making of Umama. She viewed her role as the director of the short “not as the person who is in control, but who is there to guide and facilitate the telling of a story. I’m here helping to tell this story, I’m not the one telling it.”

Smith continued: “There was a lot of anxiety because you want to tell the story accurately and truthfully. But I think it’s a good anxiety to have because you don’t see yourself as someone who knows everything. You have to humble yourself. When you put yourself in a place where it’s okay for people to say to you, ‘That’s wrong, that’s not my experience’ and then adjust it to something that fits better, then it’s okay to tell these stories.” 

Image: Umama

Smith explains that she worked closely with Sentsho throughout the filmmaking process, updating her every time there was a change to the script. 

“Once I had a draft that we felt we were happy with, Susan showed the screenplay to her family to get their permission.” 

Smith related that, “The biggest thing was to honour Susan, and as long as she was happy with the film, and felt validated in her experience, then I was happy. I wanted her to feel that the sacrifices she made were honoured.” 

Smith felt that this South African story was an important one to tell. “I felt strongly that I had an opportunity to go to New York, and to have exposure on an international level.” She was determined to recount South African stories and to put South African creators onto the global map. 

Mdwaba agreed, recounting how Umama’s narrative was important for him to be a part of on a personal level as well as for the wider representation of domestic workers in South Africa. The closeness of the story to his own experience “was something that I didn’t linger on for too long before, because I felt like I needed to move on. I think this film really helped me dig deep into that moment in my life so that I can know how to heal from it and move swiftly on.” 

The question of representation, on a wider level, is also a concern for Mdwaba. He spoke of Stuart Hall, cultural theorist and political activist, and his theories on representation. Hall argues that representation in media/art/film/literature is key to how people think about the world and their position in it. Messages sent via representation work in complex ways, and they are always connected with the patterns in which power operates in society. It’s imperative to take notice of how disempowered people (like domestic workers) are represented. Mdwaba clarified, “I’m very careful about the narratives that I do. How is a black man represented in this narrative? Is this something that I want to tell? These questions are very important to me.” 

Both Smith and Mdwaba concurred that for this reason, it was important to stay as close to an authentic South African experience as possible. “If it is a truthful story, then it’s going to work,” said Mdwaba. 

The fact that the film has no clear antagonist is one proof that Smith and team were able to stay true to this mission. This is not a film about an evil white employer or a neglectful mother, or a badly behaved son. All of the characters are trying to do their best in the reality of their situations. The fact that, despite their personal efforts, the worst-case scenario occurs, is the hardest pill to swallow. It offers us a glimpse of the awful truth: the whole system is rotten, right to the core. DM/ML


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