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Population growth is the problem at the root of many social problems (hunger, environmental damage, etc.). Educated women have fewer children, who survive longer, and live better lives. Therefore, empowering women is an effective way to solve population growth.

That’s the worthy message in Mother: Caring Our Way out of the Population Dilemma. I confidently agree and am happy to see the message repeated.

As a messenger, however, this documentary is flawed.

From Boulder to Ethiopia

Beth from Boulder visits Africa
Beth from Boulder visits Africa

Mother follows Boulder resident Beth Osnes — herself from a very large family — to Africa where she teaches a voice workshop as a means to empower women. Along the way she learns about a radio drama in Ethiopia that inspires women there to broach the subject of reproduction with their husbands.

That thread is intercut with expert talking heads — men and women — who contribute facts and figures, the odd man-on-the-street interview at Earth Day celebrations, and archival footage.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Many “issue” documentaries — not just this one, but including this one — suffer from white liberal guilt syndrome. Well-meaning, well-off westerners travel to a poor country to “raise awareness.” Such movies, well intentioned as they are, seem paternalistic (no pun intended) and risk looking condescending.

The film’s title doesn’t do the movie any favors. The first two words, “mother” and “caring” target a female audience, even though men are part of (most of?) the problem and need to hear the message too. And the idea that “caring” is a solution we have somehow overlooked until now — is silly. It implies that people don’t currently “care” — a view I don’t share — and that after you see this movie, you will care — a notion that every filmmaker imagines to be true and which rarely is.

Not to beat a dead horse, but after raising my skepticism, the title grates on another of my nerves: a dilemma, literally, is a problem with two sides, a Sophie’s choice, an either/or. Nobody — not even the filmmakers — suggest that population is a problem with only two equally bad choices.

Hearts and Minds

Luckily, the film is better than its title. For one thing, it makes an important point I’ve been seeing a lot lately: that changing a person’s behavior can’t be done through debate and reasoning; the case has to be made emotionally. In last summer’s blockbuster Inception, the mind-walkers could not plant an idea that goes against their target’s nature; they had to find a way to make their case emotionally. Mother makes the point that reaching women in Ethiopia doesn’t work through educational programs; it’s best done through radio dramas, where women can find role models and emotional stories that first connect, and then enlighten.

That’s such an important point that it makes me wonder why the documentary doesn’t take its own advice. The title and poster seem designed to attract a female audience. And I’m guessing that the sort of women who attend film festivals are already mostly in control of their own reproductive futures. As a call to action, there’s not much that the white liberal audience can do — the movie’s only suggestion to an audience like BIFF’s is to participate in microloans to women. (By the way, as a participant in Kiva loans, I agree and endorse that idea as well.)

As for actually solving the world’s population problem... I think we’ll need some different documentaries, ones more carefully aimed at male audiences and in the countries where it’s a problem. Wouldn’t a documentary targeted at religiously conservative men — the very men who want to control women’s reproduction — do more to solve the problem than a documentary targeted at already liberal and educated women?

Mother won the Best Colorado Film award at the 2011 Boulder International Film Festival.

  • Robert LaRue: Yep, you've identified a key problem with 'rich' westerners traveling to exotic places to tell people how to run their lives. "Mother" does have value for people other than the choir that it preaches to at film festivals. Currently, in high schools, a commonly used video doc similar to this is "World in the Balance," a NOVA production from 2004. This expert doc also explains the advantages of empowering women, but it is dated. Additionally, one of the talking heads is a Bush43 appointee who says some really stupid things about Social Security. "Mother" is a useful update of essentially similar material (several of the talking heads are also in "World", and it adds the ever frightening and entertaining local Professor Al Bartlett.

    High school students will not be as informed as festival goers. The doc is very useful for introducing freshmen geography students to the critical dynamic of empowering women to control their own fertility. I would hope that teachers also take on the issues you mention of sanctimonious westerners and enlightenment roadtrippers.

    A key problem is the cost of the dvd for schools. Docs with a message to promote must balance the need to spread their message and the need to profit (or at least break even on the costs). Selling to schools means that their doc will be shown to hundreds of students over a very long time... thus, the price of the educational dvd will be hundreds of dollars. Ouch. When my entire department budget is barely hundreds of dollars, looks like I won't be showing this in class. At the district level things aren't much better. Guess I can only talk about this updated doc. April 29, 2011 reply
    • Marty Mapes: Good point. I didn't consider how a school audience might react. I'm sure it seems less redundant to a teenager than to this jaded old critic. April 29, 2011 reply