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SARAJEVO 2020 Documentary Competition

Review: Her Mothers

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- A raw portrait of a lesbian couple adopting a child in Orbán's homophobic Hungary, this documentary by Asia Dér and Sári Haragonics had its European premiere at Sarajevo

Her Mothers [+see also:
trailer
interview: Asia Dér, Sári Haragonics
film profile
]
, the second feature documentary for Asia Dér and first for Sári Haragonics, which had its world premiere at Hot Docs and is now competing at Sarajevo, follows a lesbian couple as they struggle to adopt a child in Orbán's Hungary. Focusing more on the women's relationship and the way they are dealing with the new arrival in the family, rather than on complications caused by the country’s increasingly authoritarian and homophobic society, the film nevertheless shows quite directly how private life cannot be insular and cut off from the environment.

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When we meet Virág, a former green politician and once a member of parliament, and Nóra, a bass player in a drum&bass outfit in the vein of Kosheen, their little daughter is already coming and they are preparing a photo album to tell the kid their story. Through segments set earlier in the past, we learn that it has taken them two years to adopt the two year-old Roma girl Melissa. In Hungary, gay couples are not allowed to adopt but single parents are, and they use this loophole which Orbán swore he would fix.

The homophobic and xenophobic statements of government officials punctuate the narrative in the film’s sound design, via radio or online news, and the filmmakers use them to build our understanding of the oppressive atmosphere that Virág and Nóra are living in. With their village-style house seemingly located outside urban centres, they are increasingly scared that "some crazy Nazi" could find out where they live and maybe kill their three dogs. With that in mind, they are planning to move out of the country.

However, the real meat of the film lies in the way the couple is adapting to their new family situation. When the little girl arrives, it is at first very difficult for everyone and it takes time for her to acclimate to the new home. Some of these scenes are downright crushing, with the two women at a loss about what to do with the screaming, kicking child. But as Melissa settles in, we realise that Virág has clicked right into the mother role, while Nóra is struggling to keep up. "It's one of the specificities of lesbian parenting," she says. Neither a mother nor a father, she is frustrated but pushes on. The women's bond appears to be strong enough to resist such challenges.

Her Mothers is not a smooth ride for the viewer either. The intimate approach also means the film is very raw, with often cluttered shots reflecting the chaotic situation in the couple's home, and editing that follows the bumpiness of both the narrative and the emotions. But inside this disharmony, there are flashes of light and real happiness: a trip to the lake in the summer, playing with the little girl in the snow, and Nóra's concerts and rehearsals (her music is actually pretty great) where she gets to do what she loves and is able to blow off some steam.

While the film is at times very direct, like when Nóra is terribly upset with the fact that Melissa won't let her tuck her in and asks for Virág instead, its strongest aspect is the way Dér and Haragonics use close-ups of the women's faces in key moments, no doubt with the help of editor Flóra Erdélyi. When these are particularly successful, any viewer can relate to one mother or the other regardless of their own experience.

Her Mothers is a co-production between Hungary's Campfilm and HBO Europe. Toronto-based Syndicado has the international rights. 

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