The Motherhood Manifesto. Directed by Laura Pacheco. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2006. 58 minutes.
La Americana. Directed by Nicholas Bruckman. New York: People’s Television, 2008. 65 minutes.
The Motherhood Manifesto and La Americana are informative, infuriating, and eye-opening films about the policies that govern motherhood in the United States. Both films would be exceptionally well-suited to classroom viewing in tandem with discussions of policy or work-family issues in this country.
Manifesto covers the widest range of policy concerns including the lack of U.S. paid parental leave, workplace (in)flexibility, the lack of regulation of media directed toward children and the advertisements therein, (un)availability of medical insurance to all families, inadequate and prohibitively expensive childcare, and labor market inequalities for mothers including the lack of both fair wages and the presence of legislation that makes it legal in many states to discriminate against mothers in the hiring process. Each of these issues is addressed in a separately titled film section heralded by a (somewhat distracting) cartoon segue. (Likewise, the acted section in the film’s opening scene seems stilted and unnecessary, yet it is absolutely worth it to persevere to the film’s breathtaking documentary content.) For each policy issue, the filmmaker interviews leading researchers on the topic in question, giving the film great utility for the classroom. For example, leading work-family scholar, Joan Williams, is featured repeatedly, and one could create a rich, multidimensional lesson by reading one of her many books or her online research report, The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict, in tandem with the film.1 Each film section is also chock full of research findings, harrowing statistics, and global comparisons. For example, the absence of federally mandated paid parental leave in the United States ties us for last place in the world regarding such policies along with only Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea. The film also shows the human face of suffering such policies inflict through multiple case studies of families personally affected by the policies in question. This is what gives Manifesto its emotional charge. Moreover, the film comes with a study guide that includes well-organized discussion questions, facts from the film, and other resources for educators using the film in the classroom.
In contrast with Manifesto’s broad range of issues, the film La Americana centers around one issue—immigration—and one family: a Bolivian mother, Carmen, and her 9-year-old daughter, Carla, who had an accident that left her paralyzed and in need of intensive medical care. In order to pay for these expenses, Carmen enters the United States illegally to find work. Restrictive immigration policies make it impossible for Carmen to visit her daughter in Bolivia, so the two are separated as Carla grows up. The film’s intensity is due to its deep ethnographic look into real lives torn apart. The viewer comes to care deeply for Carmen’s family and to better understand the complex forces that shape migrants’ decisions to leave their home countries. Rather than view her as an “illegal alien,” one is able to view her as a courageous, deeply moral, and heroic mother doing everything she can to help provide a decent life for her ailing child. The drama of her separation from her daughter builds, as does hope when new amnesty legislation is introduced that would allow them to be reunited. I won’t give any spoilers here, but having a human face on the immigration issue often speaks deeply to students, and this film brings home how painfully real policy decisions are, and how much real suffering they can inflict. Whenever I show this film in the classroom, I bring Kleenex because the students emotionally connect to the immigration issue in a way they never did before.
La Americana’s intimate journey into the lives of undocumented workers would be well paired with Joanna Dreby’s Divided by Borders, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas’s Children of Global Migration, or Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo’s Domestica, all of which paint emotionally rich portraits of transnational working mothers and the children they have left behind.2 In my experience, both the film and these texts open up a space in which students are able to discuss the domestic workers and other immigrant women they have personally known or met, who often, too, have left children behind. The human toll of that separation, which students may not have thought about or even registered prior to viewing the film, is finally recognized and understood.
Whereas Manifesto could be used either in its entirety or in segments when discussing the particular policy issue in question, La Americana is best viewed in as close to its entirety as possible since it presents a narrative that might lose its impact and complexity if only a small portion is shown. Both films are well-suited to both introductory and advanced students, are thought provoking, and are likely to be excellent stimulators of discussion.
1 Joan C. Williams and Heather Boushey, The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, 2010). Available at: http://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2010/01/pdf/threefaces.pdf
2 Joanna Dreby, Divided by Borders: Mexican Migrants and their Children (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Children of Global Migration: Transnational Families and Gendered Woes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005); Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).