The nuclear family, often comprised of mom, dad and children is not only an archaic perception of family, it restricts and harms. BANTÚ MAMA, directed by Ivan Herrera, is about Emma (Clarisse Albrecht) who is arrested in the Dominican Republic on drug trafficking charges. She escapes and is hidden by three young siblings in Santo Domingo. Slowly, a bond starts to form between them. The exploration of how the family is found in the most unlikely of places will lift your spirits whilst simultaneously leaving you a bit sad for the three siblings left in these dangerous circumstances.
The amount of self-reliance and strength these three kids, T.I.N.A, Cuki, and $hulo, have inspires both sadness and respect. They are living in conditions no children should have to live in, but despite this dangerous and inauspicious introduction to their family, they are not merely surviving. They, especially with Emma now in the mix, smile, laugh and dance. Emma easily takes on a nurturing role for these siblings.
The film is a snapshot of the reality that many children face, in varying degrees, worldwide and how we are often forced to be adults before our time. It also shows how immigration is in the Dominican Republic, something that many of us are not familiar with. Seeing cops chasing people down and asking them for their documents isn’t dissimilar from what we are witnessing in countries like the US. You see children who fully succumb to their dangerous surroundings and want others to as well, while children like T.I.N.A don’t want that life for their sibling. This life and story are all too real but so is the beauty of choosing our family and allowing that love and connection to help us to thrive as a person and as a people.
Ivan Herrera‘s direction is strong with shots that feel almost found footage at times, which adds to the realism of the film. The soundtrack is splendid and will have you dancing alongside the characters or researching songs for your playlist. The lighting doesn’t have the sleek Hollywood style either and emphasizes the genuine qualities of the film. Sometimes being there for someone else allows us to find out who we are because we are living for something more than ourselves and personal gain. We are living to create a life that’s better for others. Scarlet Reyes as T.I.N.A is amazing and brings strength and care to her character. She exudes a veneer of toughness but still allows for softness to seep in. $hulo, played by Arturo Perez, also has affection for his siblings; however, he has lost hope, which is not a critique on him but an indictment on people, society, and government that fails.
Seeing a film center a story from a perspective outside of the white gaze needs to become mainstream. If art is a reflection of life and society, and the most popular films and the ones with the largest budgets are films that tell white stories, not only is the art sentiment false but it actually aids in shaping society. It makes all others invisible so we don’t learn about other people or cultures and what they experience. BANTÚ MAMA is beautifully rich from the way in which it was shot to the acting and the type of music used. Hopefully, we will approach a time where films that are outside of the white narrative are more commonly seen and discussed rather than championing a few gems. And make no mistake, this film is a gem.
With a pained yet wistfully hopeful and poignant quality, BANTÚ MAMA is an enriching delight that will make you embrace your loved ones tighter. Picking our family is a joy that many of us don’t realize we should cash in on. But perhaps, with the help of films such as this that show how familial nature does not require blood relations, there will be a pulling away from the regimented and harmful rhetoric of the nuclear family.
BANTÚ MAMA enjoyed its World Premiere on March 16th at SXSW Online 2021.