A woman inhales sharply through her teeth and heaves forth a guttural cry. A child screams, filling its lungs with its first breaths as a child of Earth. The woman sobs, in pain, but relieved. She is a mother now.
“Hand me my baby,” the mother says, but the faces of the women around her are are drawn and serious.
“Give me the lamp,” the mother demands, and she sees the face of her child, and the deep cleft in his lip, for the first time. The split of his lip cleaves her heart, and divides this small and fragile family from those who used to call them kin. She asks herself how this could have happened, and as other members of their village see the child, they give her the answer.
“It was you. You have a dirty womb. You brought this curse, this deformed creature into being. It was you.”
With subtle filmmaking and striking sincerity, in her film ChildreN of the MountaiN, Ghanaian director Priscilla Anany examines the delicate threads that bind any society together: the relationships women share with their children, and with each other.
I had the privilege of interviewing New York based Palestinian-American producer Nasser Jaber about his role on ChildreN of the MountaiN and its incredible win at the TriBeCa Film Festival.
The film earned Anany the award for “Best New Narrative Director,” and though the film was virtually unknown before it hit TriBeCa, it is now well-positioned to continue its festival run internationally.
“TriBeCa created a ripple effect,” Jaber says when talking about plans to deliver the film to more festivals around the world.
Jaber and Anany, while excited for the attention their contributions to the film are receiving, are more starry-eyed over what the film could accomplish for women and children with cleft palate, Down Syndrome, and other disabilities, who happen to live in developing countries or rural areas and villages.
“The people of Ghana are very proud, very educated, but there’s a gap.”
In Ghana, as well as other countries (including the U.S.), social and economic disparity, as well as cultural stigma surrounding birth defects and disabilities, contribute to a lack of education about women’s health, prenatal care, and treatment of birth defects and developmental disabilities. Jaber and Anany have hope that after being picked up for distribution, the film could be used as a teaching tool in hospitals, villages, and developing cities worldwide, finally breaking the taboo surrounding those affected by disability.
As someone who has worked with relief organizations in refugee camps in Lebanon and Palestine, Jaber says the stories he hears about children with disabilities in impoverished areas are shocking.
“Some people just hide the children away. Forever.”
Jaber says this insecurity and stigma surrounding disabilities and defects, from cleft palate to cerebral palsy and mental illness, stems from the lack of access to information and resources that comes with poverty, war, and refugee status.
The shame and despair surrounding a child born with a disability also comes from a certain “macho culture,” ruled and defined by male agendas, in which women are secondary players whose value is rooted in their ability to produce healthy children. In societies where marriage and childbirth are a woman’s only guarantee of food, shelter, and basic quality of life, the presence of a disability in her offspring or her family can threaten her very survival. Life hangs by a spider’s thread. Tenuously strung between starvation and success, mother and child must often navigate cultural ostracism, expensive or inaccessible medical care, and abandonment by family and former friends.
What can save someone like Essuman, the central character of ChildreN of the MountaiN, do, when all blame, all consequences of a child born wrong fall upon the woman and her suffering baby?
Says Nasser, “Solidarity between women can change everything.”
This is the true heart of ChildreN of the MountaiN. In telling the story of Essuman and Nuku, inspired by true events, Anany gives us a raw and utterly human examination of how the bond between mother and child, and the bonds of sisterhood between women, can save a child and transform a culture.
As Essuman and her child are sabotaged or saved by her ties to the women around her, and as she struggles against the brutality of men who think only of themselves, she tries to persevere in her love and care for her child. However, to the film’s benefit, the beleaguered protagonist is authentically fallible, and therefore more human. Essuman vacillates between devotion to her child, and a sometimes selfish fear for her own survival and happiness.
Helped by her friend Asantewaa, who is similarly scolded for her inability to conceive, Essuman attempts to heal her son and herself in any way she can. She sees charlatans and Christian priests, village spiritual doctors and modern clinics. She tries to cast off the guilt of bearing a misshapen child by begging forgiveness for the sins she has committed against fellow women. The role of men as allies or as abusers plays a critical role in Essuman’s story, as men hold so much power to be cruel or to be compassionate while facing few cultural consequences.
Ultimately, Essuman’s chances for salvation rely on several generations of women cooperating for the good of one of their own. In helping Essuman, these women braid together the meager strings they cling to in life to create a rope of sisterly strength, which they can use to lift each other out of shame and desperation. No longer reliant upon the cruelty of patriarchy, women and those men who would be their allies climb away from stigma and poverty, and towards education, empathy, and success.
“In the Arab world and the African world, there is still sometimes a tendency to marginalize people with special needs,” Jaber says.
This happens all over the world: from Africa to America, people with illnesses, defects, or disabilities are often disparaged as incapable and therefore worthless.
“But this can change,” Jaber emphasizes, telling the story of little Jessica, the child who plays Nuku in the film. Jessica was cast as Nuku with the help of the Graft Foundation, and after completing the film, went on to receive surgery to correct her cleft palate, with the love and support of her parents, and a contribution from Anany’s production company, i60 Productions.
“We’re doing all the PR work on our own, but it’s worth it,” Jaber says.
Jaber is hopeful that success stories like Jessica’s will become more common in the years to come, but stresses that organizations like the Graft Foundation are made successful by the strength of parents and communities.
In empowering women, an entire culture can learn to value and love those who are marginalized and have the least resources and abilities–those like Jessica, Nuku, and Essuman–not for what they can produce, but for the inherent value of their humanity.
“I mean it’s already happening; look at what you ladies are doing with Muslim Girl. You are a band of women coming together and changing society’s perception of Islam. It’s a different context, a different delivery, but the same outcome,” Jaber says excitedly.
“Solidarity between women can change everything,” he reiterates.
To follow this film, check out their Indiegogo page, Facebook page, and recent press.
ChildreN of the MountaiN is currently crowdfunding to cover final post-production costs, assistance with press sales and initiatives, and film festival expenses.